The Real Rules of War

April 5, 2010

Five years ago, a particularly gruesome image made its way to our television screens from the war in Iraq. Four U.S. civilian contractors working in Fallujah were ambushed and killed by al Qaeda. Their bodies were burned, then dragged through the streets. Two of the charred bodies were hung from the Euphrates Bridge and left dangling.

This barbaric act left an impression that our military did not forget: In a special operation earlier this year, Navy SEALs captured the mastermind of that attack, Ahmed Hashim Abed. But after he was taken into custody in September, Abed claimed he was punched by his captors. He showed a fat lip to prove it. Three of the SEALS are now awaiting a courts-martial on charges ranging from assault to dereliction of duty and making false statements.

Rules of war are important. They are something to strive for as they separate us from our distant ancestors. But when only one side follows these rules, they no longer elevate us. They create a very unlevel field and more than a little frustration. It is equally bizarre for any of us to judge someone’s behavior in war by the rules we follow in our very peaceful universe. We sit in homes that are air-conditioned in the summer and warmed in the winter. We have more than enough food in our bellies and we get enough sleep. The stress in our lives won’t ever match the stress of battle. Can we honestly begin to decide if a soldier acted in compliance with rules that work perfectly well on Main Street but not, say, in Malmedy or Fallujah?

In his book, Mr. Fussell probably sums up the feelings of many soldiers when he quotes a British captain, John Tonkin, who experienced a great deal of the war. “I have always felt,” Capt. Tonkin said, “that the Geneva Convention is a dangerous piece of stupidity, because it leads people to believe that war can be civilized. It can’t.”

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