According to Senator Rand Paul, the U.S. is at war with no fewer than 8 groups in 20 different countries, but these aren’t traditional wars like those the U.S. fought before 9/11. Then, international laws of armed conflict governed wars between states, and all sides generally abided by them. In the War on Terror, circumstances have changed.
Humanity has long wrestled with the reality that war and conflict are part of our lives. The roots of international armed conflict law trace to the Hague Conventions at the beginning of the 20th Century. They not only sketched Rules of Engagement, but generally sought to ground conflicts in some degree of morality and keep an unfortunate reality honorable. The Law of the Hague has four principles: necessity, proportionality, distinction, and humanity. Each one serves a key purpose in the role of modern, armed conflict law.
The necessity principle means a state can only use the force necessary to repel the enemy or achieve the objective. Each military action must also be proportional to the purpose of the mission (i.e. don’t bring nuclear weapons to a gunfight). The concept of distinction distinguishes between enemy combatants and civilian non-combatants. Finally, the humanity principle requires that states treat even their enemies humanely.
These basic principles are blurred in the context of the War on Terror, making it all the more important to revisit them. A recent Pentagon report revealed that U.S. operations killed 500 civilians. Yet this figure reflects a complicating factor: terror organizations aren’t affiliated with states. While ISIS operates in Syria and Iraq, they are not part of those states’ militaries. This begs the question: how much of international armed conflict law applies?
States are bound by the laws of armed conflict; terror organizations are not. In the War on Terror, states play by the rules as terror organizations break them for their strategic advantage. One example is how terror organizations blend into the civilian population to even the odds with government forces (that enjoy an advantage of superior firepower and technology) by undermining the states’ ability to abide by the distinction principle.
In fact, terrorist organizations break every rule of conflict. Perhaps most troubling, terror organizations most often target civilians— deliberately. Terrorists use torture, indiscriminate violence, and almost never exclusively target military forces. Their primary target is society and their operations also almost always transcend national borders.
As attacks mount and society demands government protection, we must always return to the four basic principles of armed conflict in order to keep these wars as moral and humane as possible. As society defends itself from terrorists whose ultimate goal is to tear it down, society as a whole must retain its humanity. We must remember that if we abandon our values to adopt the enemy’s tactics, success on the battlefield will only belie the outcome: the terrorists will win.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.