Civilised Rules in a war zone?

Discussion in 'Current Affairs, News and Analysis' started by SkiCarver, Jun 4, 2007.

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  1. I am not going to comment on recent cases where soldiers have been prosecuted, but I feel that it would be interesting to discuss ‘conduct in a war zone’.

    Being a civvie I’m not really qualified to comment on this...but I will anyway.

    There is a dichotomy between the mindset/actions of those who are doing a nine-to-five in peacetime and those fighting a war. In a healthy, peaceful society, we do not want the population to be willing to kill each other. For soldiers at war the mindset of the individual MUST be such that they are willing to kill others. That mindset must surely carry a price. My expectation would be that part of that price is the occasional ‘misdeed’ or excessive force being used, good discipline notwithstanding. The question I have is, "What standards of conduct should apply to soldiers in a war zone?" (Excluding the occasions where, for operational reasons, normal rules cannot apply.)

    As stated I will not comment on recent events, however, during WWII there were many actions by those in the UK armed forces which today, would be classed as criminal acts, or war crimes, for which at the time there were no punishments.

    If the army honestly believe that strict adherence to ‘civilised’ rules when war-fighting is tactically the way to go, then I have no concern. If however, political correctness is seeping into the gears of the fighting machine, then we ALL have something to fear. If, to achieve the goals sets out, we need to accept a certain level of ‘harshness’ in the actions of our soldiers, we need to understand and accept that.

    Some scenarios for consideration / discussion.

    1. During ongoing war-fighting, some locals are committing violent crime. There is no formal justice system. Is giving them ‘a shoeing’ acceptable as a quick fix?

    2. WWII The summary execution of a German guard in one of the ‘camps’ when British forces liberated it and found out what was going on.

    3. Ongoing genocide, you find one/some of the perpetrators. The national / international legal process is either non-existent or will be ineffective and many more will suffer / die. What do you do?

  2. We already have a system of rules governing conduct in war, they're called the Laws of Armed Conflict and they're taught to every soldier in training and as a regular refresher.

    We're a disciplined armed force, not a mob. These rules exist to distinguish us from the likes of the LRA and they should be strictly enforced under all circumstances. The moment we let something slide because sticking to the rules is a bit difficult under the circumstances, that's the moment we lose that spark of honour that separates us from any other gang.

    It's a simple binary thing, you're either an Amry or you're not. Grey areas should be left to the sandal-wearers.
  3. Agree with smartascarrot's comments re LOAC and "disciplined armed force, not a mob" - so, is this more a "Why do good soldiers turn bad?" type thing?

    Interesting that two of your questions and for that matter, a number of the Courts Martial trials that have been conducted in the last three years relate to the actions of soldiers in the immediate post-warfighting phase.

    I would suggest that this happens because we concentrate all of our efforts towards the G3 world, whilst warfighting (absolutely right - no issue with that), to then move into an increasingly G5 environment, expecting our soldiers to change tack on a sixpence. Yes, the British Army has scored some sucesses over the years, but these sucesses only happen with the absolute support / focus of the government and British public.

    Iraq and Afghanistan have both demonstrated near contempt for the armed forces by those in power, and an apathy outside of the armed forces which is sickening.

    Do I believe that the total lack of cohesive planning for post warfighting TELIC, combined with a complete lack of resources from FCO / DfID and other central government units, leads directly to soldiers turning bad in this phase? You bet.
  4. I disagree

    If the Army couldn't hack the change in RoE then we would have been getting wholesale acts like these throughout the British area. Since the deaths in custody were in single figures then I suggest it was the result of a minority of bad apples
  5. I didn't state a single word about the changes in RoE, Sven. Nor, would I. Don't confuse the RoE, with what leads to the show trials that we have witnessed recently.

    Yes, a minority of acts - every soldier has a very different war. There again, I was all for shooting looters.

    My point being that once the bullets stop flying, the government's inactions and lack of planning and resources, led directly to a few actions, by a few people, in impossible situations, that although wrong in a number of cases, were perfectly understandable to many. That distinction becomes a lot easier to make the more miles you are from Iraq or Afghanistan.
  6. Thanks for the interesting replies. I am having difficulty in phrasing my questions and replies in a manner which doesn’t advocate a ‘shit happens’ mentality as that is really not what I believe and which does put across the questions I have about where the limits of behaviour should be.

    A couple of points.

    1. There was no ‘sub text’ in the original post. I get the feeling that the post may have been interpreted as being critical of the army. If so, this was not intended.

    2. I also agree that a breach of RoE or the LOAC should be taken very seriously.

    My purpose in asking the questions was to try to understand the mindset of those in combat, and thereby understand the difficulties faced. smartascarrots, I find the “It’s a simple binary thing” comment very interesting. Can I ask what you think of the three scenarios mentioned and how they are affected by the rules? Also, do you think there should be any changes to the rules in certain circumstances to allow for operational necessities?

  7. untallguy

    untallguy Old-Salt Reviewer Book Reviewer

    Wholeheartedly agree.

    Ski, given what smartas wrote, which certain circumstances and/or operational necessities would you think would require/could justify changes to the rules (ie LOAC)?
  8. untallguy,

    The following are my personal opinons and they do not relate to recent events. I would also say that the following comments DO NOT APPLY in a civil society with a functioning justice system. Part of the reason I ask the question is that i do not know the answers and I believe the subject of when force is acceptable/justified is not discussed enough.

    in answer to your question;

    There are two sides as I see it. One side is the absolute requirement for soldiers to follow orders, adhere to RoE and LOAC. That I understand.

    On the other side, there are situations which fall outside of the normal rules. I tried to give examples of those and I will go through them.

    Scenario 1. If some individual(s) have been murdering locals, or raping people, giving beatings..... and the only 'justice' or deterence they will see is them getting a 'shoeing', I would really not have an issue with this. I expect that the UK public would not understand and the 'news' papers would kick up a stick, but if there is no alternative, then 'swift justice'/expediency wins.

    Scenario 2. It is my understanding that this actually happened at least once. Considering, the number of years that war had been going on, the known treatment of certain allied soldiers captured by the germans and the sights which met the soldiers liberating the camps, I personally find it very difficult to criticise that action. In reality, it was murder, but i would consider a prosecution under those circumstances to be inappropriate.

    Scenario 3. If there are known mass murderers and the only way to prevent them from continuing to kill is to kill them, then I would think the choice is clear. It comes down to it being the only justice they will see, and the only way to prevent them from harming others. It is not pleasant, but simply a necessity.

    I don't know how those situations relate to current rules and laws, however, I expect our "healty" society would take a very dim view of those actions in all three cases. If someone else could let me know the legal situation reference the three scanarios i would appreciate it. I would argue that there must be a moral element to our actions. Unfortunately, the law is completely amoral. There must then be a certain 'flexibility' inherent in 'the system' which allows for extreme measures in certain circumstances. (Obviously, what those circumstances are is a whole area of discussion in itself.) I am generally a believer in giving a lot of scope to well trained individuals, with only 'after the fact' sanction.

    to put it another way,
    We are moving to a more 'letter of the law' society. If that is the case, and we are going to continue along that route, we must explicitly include in the laws, all the exceptions where normal rules shoud not apply. This would enable the 'moral necessity' actions.

    I am not sure I have explained myself well there!

  9. Ski - It's a good few years since I served, and I don't want to stick my neck out too far, not being current anymore. I have absolutely no first hand experience of any of the present conflicts, or of any in the last two decades. But I do know enough to be able to read between the lines of what people who have served are saying. I don't think that many of the present crop of politicians (not just ours) can do the same.

    The majority of the 'war crimes' of British troops in WW2 which you allude to were probably 'heat of the moment' incidents. Not pretty, I've no doubt, but not 'war crimes' in the accepted sense. I wasn't there (I'm not quite that old), and I'm not going to criticise. Louvain, Nanking, Wormhoudt, Oradour, Belsen etc were war crimes. Putting one through the napper of someone in a hedgerow with a smoking MG42 beside him, who's just done for a number of your mates, is not quite the same thing, whether he's got his hands up or not. It's anger, adrenalin, exhaustion, revenge, or any number of things, but it's not gratuitous murder. No doubt some in the modern legal profession would take issue though. The degree of premeditation is one factor. Machine gunning a crowd of PoWs takes a bit more forethought and organisation.
    I would imagine that the main reason no action was taken at the time was that many of those in positions of authority, including many of the lawyers and politicians, had personal experience (gained in WW1) of how complicated, confused, and messy things are in real life, and made some allowance for human beings acting in conditions of extreme stress. The fact that the country was involved in a fight for survival must also have played a part.

    There are not many politicians or lawyers today, with the same breadth of experience. They set the legal framework, but they do it in a vacuum. Imposing your will in some hot dusty backstreet half way round the world, where the opposition have access to a great amount of weaponry and are more than willing to use it, is not the same thing as trying to keep the Queen's peace back in the UK. It is disingenuous of the politicians to pretend otherwise. The same standards should not apply. It's just not a tidy business, and if the policians don't have the stomach for it, they should not take the country to war in the first place.

    The nature of war, and the perceptions of what constitutes war crimes, have also changed. The legislators in the West, and seemingly particularly those in the UK, seem to be painting us into a corner where the scope for legally acceptable methods of defeating an enemy is becoming more and more restricted These restrictions don't apply to the opposition, ofcourse. They seem to be quite willing to get involved in the world's hotspots on high falutin' moral grounds, while making it more and more difficult to get a result. Witness the banning of mines, clusterbombs, etc. Maybe I'm being simple, but my view is that if you send somebody off to war on your behalf, the least you can do is make sure that they have the means to win it, and the freedom to act.

    Maybe I've got this all wrong, but there seems to be a breakdown somewhere, between those who make the rules, and the realities of life. Control freakery by proxy doesn't work in situations where nobody is able to predict or control anything. Particularly with regard to irregular opposition. There's a moral argument to be made for plugging someone caught in the act of setting an IED, for instance, whether or not he's wearing a uniform, and whether or not he crosses his fingers and shouts "vainites". But I'm sure the legislators would not agree.

    I've gone on too long here, but the last thing I would say is that I've got faith in the basic sense of justice, common sense, and decency of the average British soldier. I don't think the world would descend too much lower than it already has, if the politicians learned to have a bit of faith aswell.
  10. some RMP or lawyer would no doubt set us straight. And obviously my answer will not be official Army policy but:

    In general the Rules of engagement vary from operation to operation but aim to help the guys on the ground make a fast legal decision on when they can use force. Hopefully this will prevent him from freezing for fear of doing the wrong thing, or at the other extreme stop him from simply shooting first and asking questions later. So long as he adheres to the rules then he should stay out of trouble. But there is usually the provision that he can always use force in self defense if he feels his life is genuinely under threat.

    The laws of armed conflict are more appropriate for answering your scenarios though. However the lack of detail in your scenarios makes it hard to give too definitive an answer. That said then my opinion would be:

    1) If there is time to hand out summary beatings then there is probably time to detain the suspects and pass them down the chain to whatever civilian authorities there are. This will depend on the nature of the violent crime and whether you are currently getting shot at obviously. Cruelty to a cat will probably warrent a steely disaproving glare. Rape would be dealt with appropriately. This would not be a kicking and move on scenario unless seriously engaged in the warfighting.

    2) In the heat of the moment this has obviously happend but summary beatings or executions of PW are never legal no matter how much the blood is boiling. Thats pretty B/W. If you do it and are caught then you likely are up for murder.

    3) This very much depends on why you are there in the first place. Highly likely in such a scenario that you are there either on the behalf of a UN or NATO mission. In which case some form of civil legal framework will be in place. (touch wood) the British army is yet to be deployed in any judge dredd like roving lawmaker missions. There is always some form of legal framework. If the scenario you paint is in play then likely the armageddon is upon us and we will have decked our LR's out like Mad Max.
    However, the best way i can think to answer this is that the rules of engagement (usually) authorise use of lethal force if your life or others (inc. civilians) are in danger. You could then make the judgement that by shooting the gunman you are preventing loss of life. But the way you write the scenario seems to suggest you have aprehended the perpetrators already and want to execute them to prevent them doing it again? In which case the answers to 2 and 3 apply, that no, the army cannot legally go around as judge and executioner. Not in our remit.
  11. Certainly. The scenarios are not affected by the rules, they are governed by them. Going back to the 'binary thing' comment, it's pretty simple. It is only the fact we are governed by rules and a code of, for want of a better word, Honour, that makes us an Army. Without this, we're just a collection of armed men visiting violence on others.

    It goes back to Clausewitz and his view of war. We have to act in a constrained manner because the aim of war is not simply the obliteration of anything that stands in our way. Indeed, in the kind of conflict we're currently fighting, it can be argued that we need to enforce our standards even more rigorously than before. We need at least the tacit consent of the local peoples and to get this we need to convince them we are the best of a bad lot.

    In regard to the specifics of the scenario, it matters not one jot whether the actions of the few are understandable. If they break the rules they should be punished, even if we think we might do the same in their position. The problem in the Mendonca case was that the wrong people were being punished and IMO this was to distract from the woeful lack of planning at the political level. But that's another debate.

    As to whether any changes to the rules in certain circumstances are necessary, that would be a question for our political masters. They, after all, are the ones who let slip the dogs of war, our job is just to do the biting. However, I would be concerned on two issues: that the changes do not compromise the central core of standards and that; we are not swapped too rapidly between rules of engagement without time to retrain.
  12. Some excellent answers there, thankyou. It is difficult to discuss the subject with the thought that there is a journo looking over your shoulder! (especially for a dyslexic mong like me) I appreciate your efforts!
    I have looked for books related to "when is violence justified". I have not found ANY! I have studied related subjects (crime and punishment, military tactics, history, sociology...) and come to my own conclusions, but if anyone is aware of any sensible publications on the subject, i would appreciate some suggestions.

    Ta very much,

  13. Totally agree with smart as carrots.

    On this paragraph you wrote:

    The army has always believed in strict adherence to following the civilised rules of armed conflict. They are there to protect both sides and limit unnecessary suffering. However if you are worried that the army is losing its ability to warfight then i suggest you look no further than the after action reports and medal citations coming out afghanistan. Controlled aggression and the ability to switch it on and off has always been the British infantrymans strength. Thats still taught at the depots. Act as world policeman in one instance, but the art of aggressive attacks with bayonets fixed when appropriate has not been lost and is as effective as ever.