Friday, November 26, 2004

LOAC: The "Laws" of Armed Conflict

I just finished looking through the latest, official DoD propaganda PowerPoint (what? DoD using PowerPoint!?) on insurgent LOAC violations in al-Falluja.

"Law" of Armed Conflict (LOAC) seems like a rather funny animal. In my world view, there are no "true" laws or rights, only the POWER of certain groups to enforce patterns of behavior that they call "laws" or "rights". War, of course, is how opposing groups resolve disagreements when neither side recognizes that the other has enough power to enforce their idea of "law" and "right". So war, then, is predicated on the breakdown or absence of "law". Which makes it rather funny that some nations insist on applying "law" to warfare. Let's take a closer look at this:

The US Military has formed their own "law" of war (which, coincidentally is taught to all military members as "the" law of war, not "our" or "a" law of war). It is based on precedent from international agreements (that is, those that we choose to honor, unlike the Geneva Convention, UN Charter, etc.) formed in a world system in which they dominated the agenda. Now they are using it as a propaganda tool (primarily to enforce the dominant domestic opinion that the US action in Iraq is somehow noble). Imagine: the world's dominant power, using a set of "laws" that they made up, claiming moral superiority because they adhere to there own law (in their view, of course), while the insurgents do not, and are therefore "bad".

This "law" is, of course, carefully structured to "outlaw" those forms of asymetric warfare that are effective against the US military.

There is no "right" or "law", only power. Social contract is possible: if a group of soverign individuals submits to a collective power governed by laws, in order to gain benefit of membership in that group, then they must submit to rule by those laws, or to leave the group (along with its benefits) if they refuse. Any "law" made one group and applied to individuals who did not voluntarily submit to that "law" is just what the quotation marks imply: a cover for the coercive use of power, for the imposition of one set of values involuntarily upon another. That's what LOAC is. If the US military uses LOAC as a guideline for its own action--based on what it thinks is "right" or "ethical", then more power to them. In fact, I would recommend it. However, when they try to impose their set of morality on an outside group, let us recognize this for what it is: a military and public-relations tactic.


David said...

Hello, there.

I popped in to say hello, as a new member of the PBA, I thought it only polite that I should do so.

However, I can see that a short visit to this site isn't going to do justice to the work you're doing. I've been very impressed with many of the PBA sites, but this is something altogether more challenging.

I don't want to fire of any glib remarks in response to your LOAC article, but having served for fifteen years in the British Army, I can say that our commanders have always taken the matter very seriously. It was a particular "hobby horse" of mine. I would often urge the younger soldiers to become more politically aware, so as to understand what their actions were for. I would also warn repeatedly about the dangers of following illegal orders, arguing that no military commander who ended up in the Hague ever expected to be there.

That said, there is much going on in Iraq that can justify the response of American forces. Units that do not wear uniform have no right to protection under LOAC, neither do foreign fighters, militia, or units who use surrender as a ruse. The laws of armed conflict must protect those who stand up in uniform and bear arms openly in the service of their country.

I would be happy to discuss this at length with you at any time in the future. If there's anything I can do to assist your work, please contact me through my web site.

Jeff Vail said...


I agree entirely with your reading of the "Law" of armed conflict. It's a valuable tool for soldiers to help with decision making, and it is largely used to do what I personally consider to be the "right" thing. However, I have personally witnessed a number of LOAC violations by US forces operating in the Middle East.

My main point, however, is that LOAC doesn't really meet the legitimate definition of a law: something that a group of people mutually agree to be bound by in order to obtain a shared benefit, and where violation of the law can be punished by exclusion from the benifit-providing group. I see LOAC as something that the US military applies to itself and to others--except that the "others" it gets applied to have not consented to it.

I can make the color red illegal, and refrain from wearing it myself, but it does not meet the test of legitimacy when I say that my law binds you to also not wear red. Sure, killing people and fashion rules are two different animals, but enforcing my don't-wear-red or LOAC on a non consenting party is the same fundamental thing: imposing my view of morality on someone else.

Anyway, that's just my way of thinking about this topic, but then I don't tend to think that there are absolute rights and wrongs--there's just things that I do and do not like. The pentagon trying to convince the American people that insurgents actios are "wrong" because they don't conform to the pentagon's conception of "right" falls under the label of things I don't like.