Guerrilla Warfare: When Taking Care of Your Troops Leads to War Crimes

Article excerpt


Paul Ramsey (1971: p. 93) wrote that, "The possibility any war may escalate into all-out nuclear war makes insurgency wars, in many areas of the world, an increasingly feasible choice." The end of the Cold War has seen the relaxation of whatever constraints, however illusory, had been exerted on conventional warfare by the threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction. But that only seems to have made the world safer for insurgency warfare (1). Along with the growing incidence of so-called "people's war," whether in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, Africa, or Central America, has come the attendant proliferation of war crimes against civilians; even peacekeeping troops have had a hand in some of the most infamous incidents (2), and warring guerrilla factions increasingly target Red Cross facilities and personnel (Ignatieff, 1997: p. 61). In this paper, I examine the nature of the apparent link between guerrilla warfare and atrocity. I shall first develop the thesis that a particular, increasingly common, subset of war crimes arises as the specific, natural, and foreseeable consequences of guerrilla tactics. These tactics themselves proceed organically from the overarching strategy of insurgency warfare of using noncombatants to achieve war aims in ways that are expressly prohibited by the Law of War precisely because they conduce to war crimes against civilians. Therefore, I shall argue that, no matter what its ends, guerrilla warfare cannot be morally justified. Rather, it ought to be prohibited under international law for the same reasons as chemical and biological warfare. Recognizing that such legal action is unlikely to be taken or honored, I shall then move on to the moral obligations towards civilians retained by American troops in the face of an enemy whose strategy is to deliberately blur the distinction between its own civilian population and legitimate combatants. I shall then examine the reciprocal moral obligations American society incurs towards its military leaders when its demands for strict adherence to the Laws of Land and Aerial Warfare, even under conditions of guerrilla warfare, place them in direct conflict with their duty to their own troops. Absent societal demands that they at least adhere to some minimal code of conduct in combat, most leaders would instinctively choose to resolve this conflict in favor of their troops by whatever means. I shall, however, end by arguing the politico strategic, as well as the moral necessity of forestalling our own troops' participation in that class of war crimes so often precipitated by the enemy's resort to guerrilla tactics.

"Nowadays there's no such animal as a noncombatant"

--Peter Strasser, German airman, W.W.I

Causes of War Crimes

Atrocity, like cancer, is an umbrella term for a wide variety of aberrations with manifold causes. This paper examines only the apparent proximate causal connection between that particular subset of war crimes arising from deliberately induced uncertainty as to who may be counted among the enemy and the strategy and tactics of insurgency warfare. Because I am interested here in a practical approach to the problem of war crimes presented by insurgency warfare, I will leave consideration of ultimate causes like inherent, societal, or transcendental evil. As with collisions at sea, there is usually a long chain of causation between the ultimate and proximate factors leading to war crimes. Of these causal factors, the only ones which are under the direct control of the individual soldier are the proximate ones. Even the lowest private can, for instance, hesitate to execute his leader's command to "take no prisoners," as Henry V's shocked and disbelieving knights did on what is commonly represented to English school children as the glorious field of Agincourt. "In the end," Lawrence Weschler (1996: p. 57) tells us, even the threat of death could not get them to respond to Henry's cry of "Coupe le gorge! …