Should the rules of war apply to the aggressor only?

If a nation is the subject of a pre-emptive / unprovoked invasion, are their troops and civilians absolved from a moral responsibility to follow “rules of war”?

I would suggest that there is a greater moral imperative to do whatever it takes to maintain the sovereignty of their nation - if that means torture of captured troops, or use of otherwise-prohibited weaponry, then that is morally justified.

However, the agressor is bound by rules of war, and is not in a position to complain about the treatment they receive from those defending their country.

I’m thinking here of the Iraqi insurgency but if that’s too contentious* then how about in generic terms?

Should a nation be able to initiate a war, yet still demand it’s fought on their terms?

*I guess it depends on your view of the “45 min attack readiness” claims made by intelligence services as to whether the invasion was unprovoked or not

The reasons that countries obey “rules of war” is because they expect the other side to do the same. If one army knew the other side wasn’t going to respect civilians, accept prisoners, etc., why should they?

That’s the obvious objection, along with the fact that in wars, both sides usually claim the other is the aggressor.

But I think I know what the OP was saying. Let me construct a scenario: Suppose your country is invaded and occupied by an overwhelming foreign power. Suppose also that you volunteer to help defend your country, and the government in absentia continues to fight a war of resistance as best it can. Let us further suppose that you’re a decent shot and so they give you a rifle and say “Go pick some bad guys off.”

Now, it is, according to treaty and general tradition, a law of war that soldiers wear uniforms. But your country is occupied by a very large army that is oppressing your countrymen, and let us assume their presence is sufficiently think that while you could get around with a rifle hidden in the trunk of your Honda, actually wearing a uniform is suicide.

Is it right to diguise yourself as a civilian while acting as a soldier in the resistance?

It was routine to do so in World War II, and I’ve never heard anyone say it was wrong, but it was a violation of the rules of war. Is violating some of the rules of war okay to save the freedom of your country? I think it sometimes is.

A problem with the “rules of war” as I see them is that they were designed and created by the more powerful nations, for whom conventional warfare is a speciality. The U.S., for example, would give most nations a sound thrashing in a conventional war. So it just makes sense for countries such as the U.S. to try and force any opponents to conduct a war on their terms. Thus, the rules of war are skewed towards accepting conventional military conduct and eschewing asymmetrical warfare.

For one thing, it’s the moral thing to do. It’s the same principle as the cops and jailors not being allowed to act as bad as the criminals.

For another, what about the reaction of other enemies and potential enemies, or even allies ? Look at the problems we’re having right now, with our reputation. For that matter, perhaps the reason this hypothetical enemy is ignoring the “rules of war” in the first place is because in the last war, you did exactly what you recommend. Atrocities tend to produce a cycle of retaliation.

Another problem is that your attitude assumes that every single soldier and civilian on the other side is just as bad as any other. Raping a grandmother because some soldier on the other side of the country did something you don’t like is hardly justified.

< on preview > If you’re talking about rules like how the resistance should dress in uniforms and so forth, those rules are just silly, designed by the aggressors to make conquest easier. If you conquer someone, and they fight back, you have no one but yourself to blame.

To win hearts and minds?
Flippant answers and international law aside, it depends on what your goals are. If all you want is to grab territory and resources for your own people while crushing all who stand in the way and cowing everyone else into unconditional submission, then no, there’s not much reason to worry about rules or humanity.

If, on the other hand, you need to turn a populace against its leaders and get them to support you instead, then your behavior matters a great deal. If you’re trying to establish a friendly government and stable society that will look to you as a role model, then it is very much in your best interests to respect civilians, treat prisoners humanely, etc.

This coming Friday will be my last day at my job, since I’m moving for grad school a week from this Wednesday. This was my first real-world job since I graduated from college two years ago, and I’ve grown a lot thanks in large part to the understanding of my principal investigators and supervisor.

It’s a genetics research lab, and my PI’s are a husband-wife team interested in anthropological research and the inheritance of neurological disorders. They also, I’m told, enjoy breeding plants as a hobby. My supervisor suggested something along these lines, such as a nice volume with pictures of human evolution specimens. I like that angle, considering I had a book exactly like that for one of my classes, so I’ve been thinking I could get them a copy:

From Lucy to Language

My concern there is that they might already have it. So, the question is, what would you get for well-known, savvy geneticists as a goodbye gift?

Also, my supervisor has been my mentor over the last two years. He’s an organist at his church, and his SO just completed pastry chef training. I’d like to get him a token of appreciation too. Any suggestions there?

I want to get something nice, but not extravagant. Anyone have any ideas?

aw damnit, I hit post reply instead of new topics. And apart from that, I thought I was in IMHO, which is in another button on my taskbar.

How embarassing.

Mods, could you move this please?

Just a quick GQ - is there anything specifying what a “military uniform” has to be? Because if I was a clever guerrilla, I’d declare blue jeans, sneakers and white or black t-shirts to be our uniform. Leaders get to wear a KISS tour t-shirt or “I’m with stupid” t-shirt, or something. Maybe different colours of baseball cap for different ranks. There, now we have a uniform. Does it matter if it’s also what half the civilians wear every day?

Depends on who is doing the attacking in my mind.

If a power like the US is doing the invading , then its in their best interests to follow the rules and accept the occupying power, if they should lose.

Ghengis khan or the draka coming to invade, then the gloves are off and take as many of them to hell as possible and throw the rule book out the window.


Thats basically the world we live in in regards to the use of nuclear weapons isnt it? It seems to generally be accepted that nuclear weapons will be used rather than risk losing ones sovereignty.

As above Id say it depends a bit on who the invader is rather than being an absolute thing.



(sorry, somebody had to)


I guess pragmatism is the key… you might rape grandmothers today, but their great-grandchildren won’t forget and will one day be raping you.

It was brought to my mind by the Israli complaints that Hizbollah are using civilians areas to operate from… and that this is somehow “unfair”, as it puts Israel in a no-win situation (kill civilians or do nothing, basically).

Fair enough, in this case it’s arguable who the aggressor is, but I can see why nations with large conventional armies would try to make asymetrical warfare appear unacceptable.

Whilst I appreciate that there are rules of war the one thing I find slightly puzzling is why?.

Surely the object of a war is to defeat the enemy in as short a space of time with the least casualties to your own forces. This being the case then any commander in or out of the field should be at liberty to ensure that his side is victorious no matter what methods are used to subdue the enemy.

It is only after the war is won that the process of winning “hearts and minds” can begin.

Or am I being naive about this?

Nonsense. The purpose of such rules is to enforce a perfectly justified prohibition against using civilians as human shields. When you do that, you become the enemy general of mankind, to be dealt with as wolves are.

Surely that relies on the distinction we have in our culture between “soldiers” and “civilians”?

Guerilla fighters / insurgents are not necessarily exclusively soldiers. Many IRA members had day jobs, and would go on operations at night. Were they soldiers or civilians?

It might have been an appropriate distinction in the past, when armies would line up in front of each other like a chess match. But if a society is fighting for its life, every member may take up arms to a greater or lesser extent, and then go back to their normal life.

Even women and children have been known to support resistence against invaders - what then is their status?

It does. The point of a “uniform” in the rules of war is that it’s distinctive…it’s something that easily distinguishes soldiers (ok to shoot) from civilians (not ok to shoot)

It’s not designed to make conquest easier…it’s designed to protect non-combatants. If the enemy army doesn’t wear some sort of distinctive uniform…if they look like civilians, then you have no way of knowing who’s an actual civilian and who’s not, and so you’re going to treat everybody like he’s an enemy.

No, that’s what happens if you obey the rules. If resistance fighters wore uniforms and so on, they’d be annihilated. Then the civilians will be punished or killed, to teach them a lesson or because you can never be sure that all of the resistance was following the rules and lining up neatly for extermination.

But they are all the enemy, and are treated as such. When you conquer a country, for any reason, the vast majority of the people will hate you and want you dead.

If you’re a guerrilla who doesn’t wear a uniform and hides among the civilian population you’re going to get a lot of your fellow countrymen killed. If you don’t mind getting innocent people killed, or in fact want those innocent people killed, then I suppose you should go ahead.

But the question becomes, what exactly are you fighting FOR? If you are willing to rape, torture, murder, etc to throw the enemy out of your country, what will be left of your country once the enemy leaves? Because when the enemy leaves the chief rapist, torturer and murderer will now be the most powerful person in your country, and therefore your newly independent country will be a brutal repressive murdering torturing raping dictatorship.

The answer is that “countries” exist only in our minds. We are human beings first. Every action you take has to be morally justified on a human to human level. Fighting and even killing for your country can be moral, but is not neccesarily moral. Defending your country can be immoral if you are fighting to defend dictatorship. If the end you are fighting for is immoral then the immoral actions you take during that fight are surely immoral as well. If you are fighting to install a religious dictatorship you are immoral, whether you are invading another country to install a dictatorship there, or fighting an invader to establish a dictatorship in your own country.