War Laws?

14 05 2008

Whilst rather aimlessly meandering my way through another book relating to the war, I was struck by the notion of “the laws of war”. To me, this seems something of a oddity. Is it possible to suggest that you can only kill or injure your opponent via a certain method? In 1915 the German army used Chlorine gas for the first time in combat. The British were outraged as this form of attack was seen as most barbaric and indicative of the lowest form of human which the Germans were perceived to be. The outcrys harped on about the unspoken, unwritten, but very much existing, laws of war.

Now perhaps this scepticism for such a concept comes from the Second World War. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki irreparably changed the nature of war forever. Whilst the wartime revolution had begun in 1914, I think 1945 was the time when this nature changed into something more sinister. Wars were no longer about soldiers, engaging in a tactical battle of intelligence and brute force. Wars were now about civilians. In the poker table of war, normal people became the chips. Ultimately, in 1945, the USA called Japan’s bluff to devastating consequences. The following Cold War saw this game played out between the Americans and the Russians. No-one called the other, despite, or perhaps because of, the stakes.

This returns me then to the original point, how can a concept as brutally savage as war have laws? The simple answer is that it can’t. When your objective is as simple as to cause as much damage to your enemy as possible in order to do one of two things (wipe them out entirely or force a surrender) there is scant regard for the methods used. This, it seems, is another one of those ‘means/ends’ questions. If using a ‘dirty’ (which, in effect, means ungentlemanly) tactic helps ensure a victory, is it reasonable to push ahead with such a method. In war the answer is always ‘yes’. In war there are no morals to be offended. After all, how can one have morals about killing, right? It isn’t as black and white as that suggests though. What of the conscipts to the army, forced to join up because they were of suitable age? Do they abandon morals once they hit that front line? Again, the answer is in the affirmative. However, one must sympathise with them, there is no choice, the primative problem is one of ‘kill or be killed’. As the human is born to survive, there is only ever one choice for those in the line, especially those who engaged with the enemy in the First World War.

The fact that a war is occurring means that the laws governing on an international stage have failed. These rules, kept in force (to a greater or lesser extent) by the United Nations in today’s society; did not though exist in World War One. Whilst there were numerous treaties allying various countries (hence why the war started in the first place), there was no overall body. The League of Nations was set up in the aftermath of the Great War, and even it was unable to prevent the Second from erupting.

Wars have little regard for rules. The fact that they are occurring in the first place is indicative of the point that somewhere, the rules have been broken. Once the first law is broken, the rest simply follow like a row of neatly arranged dominos until you arrive at the precipice of war where there is but one option. A criminal, having already robbed, will have little compunction in robbing again. Once this CV of rule breaking has been built upon and expanded, it becomes irrelevant how many more laws get broken.

My point then is that there can be no such concept as “war laws” simply because the time and the place for such modes of discipline have long since passed by the time war erupts. War laws are a nice concept created by the side which feels they have been the victim of a new type of attack. In 1915 it was the British. They were so offended, they made large scale plans for the use of gas attacks later in the conflict. Apparently, it is alright to break the rules if the other side has broken them in the first place. Either that, or, as is more realistic, we accept that there are no more rules which can be broken when you are in the midst of war.

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