Laws of Armed Conflict...?

The Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC) govern what sort of actions constitute legal warfare. The purpose of LOAC is not to justify war or make it easier to wage, but rather to ensure peace is easier to restore upon cessation of hostilities. It expressly forbids the sort of behavior exhibited at the Abu Ghraib (sp?) prison.

Most of what I have read at the SDMB seems to indicate that the majority (or at least, the majority of those who are likely to post) do not have a clear understanding of what constitutes lawful military conduct and what does not. I am referring not to the sort of stuff covered by military laws that apply to military members, but to international agreements which define what sort of targets are considered legitimate military targets, who can do what to whom, what is a POW, etc.

To help alleviate this confusion, I provide a link to Bombs on Target, a fairly well-put-together site which is used by the USAF to train personnel in the conduct of war according to international law.

Feel free to comment. Although I am nowhere near being an expert on the topic, I have been briefed (not recently) on LOAC several times while I was still in the military. ISTR that the requirement was for every member be briefed at least once a year, but due to recent events, I expect the requirement will be upped to “and before any deployment”. I will answer any questions that I can, and hope that other military members (both US and others) will chime in whenever they have something useful to add. Military members are also welcome to provide links that provide additional (official) information on this topic.


(Persistence pays! I found a more-detailed LOAC site.)

Like our friend I have little useful to add, except that some place in the attic is my 35 plus year old copy of the Manual for Courts Martial (loose leaf binder version) and a copy of a training manual on the law of land warfare. It is about the same size as the first aid manual and can therefore be used as a template for folding a poncho. One of my jobs when I was on active duty was to go down to the basic training battalions each Wednesday and give a one hour lecture on the law of land warfare, stuff like safeguarding prisoners, not shooting up churches and cultural landmarks. Despite the best efforts of the training cadre I always thought that about half my audience slept through my performance, it was after all warm and dark and they were sitting down for the first time after several weeks of sleep deprivation. There was no test so I never really knew if it took. What ever it was, a one shot class in basic training is not enough to even impress the basics on young soldiers who spend the rest of the day on a bayonet assault course screaming Kill! Kill! Kill!

Training, at least the training I gave, was simply not sufficient to keep young soldiers on the straight and narrow when people they hate and fear are put under their power. Active, constant and intrusive supervision is absolutely necessary if things like the Iraqi prisons are to be prevented. If there is no supervision (General Taguba’s conclusion) or half- hearted supervision, then there will be violations and probably progressively more egregious violations of the rules. As a trainer I think that of the two elements, training and supervision, supervision is the more important.

I don’t really think there’s a debate here, but a very thoughtful post, Baloo.

Just for the record, my favorite law of war is the banning of plastic flechettes. Geneva Convention of 1980, IIRC.

The origins of this ban goes back to the 1899 Treaty of Moscow which banned poisonous or glass bullets. The general concept is that the use of x-ray invisible bullets is forbidden.

There is a debate in that Spavined Gelding’s post directly supports a point I made in another thread, which was that a few half-hearted readings of the LOAC can’t really match the training soldiers get in Basic and in the service about obeying orders quickly and at all times. (Hence, the grunts at Abu Ghraib may have been not inclined to disobey people further up the chain of command when they said, “Torture the fuckers!”

IIRC, SSgt Balloo said something to the effect that LOAC training is drummed into soldiers just as powerfully as the need to obey is, which directly contradicts Spavined Gelding’s post. Of course, Gelding and Balloo may be in different branches of the service which handle LOAC training differently.

I await clarification.

More importantly, SSGT Balloo and Spavined G were probably on active duty at different times. I can only hope that training on the Law of Land Warfare improved after 1969. None the less, the split between the constant emphasis for the soldier to promptly do what he is told to do and the frequently underemphasized duty to disregard orders to do unlawful stuff, when added to the real uncertainty about what orders are unlawful, is an invitation for trouble. For instance, it is difficult to conclude that an order to strip a prisoner and take his photograph is clearly unlawful. By the same token it is hard to argue that an order to stick a broom handle up a prisoner’s rectum is not unlawful. That sort of thing is precisely why there must be supervision of soldiers by authorities who have a fair chance of seeing all of what is going on and stopping it is critical to the whole process. If the supervision is not there (or if the supervisor is in on the program) then horrors are inevitable.

When I first entered the service (February of 1980), I probably slept through a 1-hour lecture given by someone very like Spavined Gelding. In fact, during the first 10 years of my AF career, just about everything we knew about LOAC was learned by word-of-mouth. Occasionally a responsible commander would have someone from the Legal Office come over to Commander’s Call and give us a briefing, or a shop chief would do likewise – it was a rare event in any case.

It was only in the late 80s or 90s when we began having frequent LOAC briefings. I was glad to get 'em and ISTR that the younger troops actually liked getting the info. Civilians might not believe this, but I suspect that most enlisted folks relish the prospect of telling off their superior with the full force of the law backing them up.

As far as how hard the law comes down on someone depending on rank, it’s my experience that the higher up you are, the harder they hit you. The guy who follows illegal orders isn’t very likely to get as severe a punishment as the guy who gave the orders. If a subordinate disobeys LOAC without the senior officer’s knowledge, the officer is still likely to get hammered – after all, it was his responsibility to keep things under control.