Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Real Rules Of War

Another great perspective on the Rules of Engagement, Civilization, the cruelty of war and an argument for reason.

By Warren Kozak

Five years ago, a particularly gruesome image made its way to our television

screens from the war in Iraq. Four U.S. civilian contractors working in

Fallujah were ambushed and killed by al Qaeda. Their bodies were burned,

then dragged through the streets. Two of the charred bodies were hung from

the Euphrates Bridge and left dangling.

This barbaric act left an impression that our military did not forget: In a

special operation earlier this year, Navy SEALs captured the mastermind of

that attack, Ahmed Hashim Abed. But after he was taken into custody in

September, Abed claimed he was punched by his captors. He showed a fat lip

to prove it. Three of the SEALS are now awaiting a courts-martial on charges

ranging from assault to dereliction of duty and making false statements.

This incident and its twisted irony takes me back to an oddly serene setting

many years ago. When I was in college, I joined my parents on a trip to

retrace my father's wartime experience in Europe. We drove from France,

through Holland and Belgium and on to Germany-the same route he had taken

with the U.S. Army in 1944-45. At a field outside the Belgian town of

Malmedy, we got out of our rented car where my father described something I

had never heard before.

During the Battle of the Bulge, in the bleak December of 1944, the Germans

had quickly overrun the American lines. They took thousands of prisoners as

they pushed through in a last chance gamble to turn the war around. One

unit, part of the First SS Panzer Division, had captured over a hundred GIs.

They were moving fast, and they didn't care to be burdened by prisoners. So

the SS troops put the American soldiers in that field and mowed them down

with machine guns.

Around 90 Americans were killed in that barrage. The Germans then walked

through the tangle of bodies, shooting those who were still alive in the

back of the head. The few that survived were brought to where my father was

located in the nearby town of Liege where word of the massacre quickly


My father was never a talker. And in spite of the fact that we were on a

trip to look at his past, he didn't open up much, or couldn't. When I asked

him what the reaction was among the U.S. troops, he answered without

emotion: "We didn't take prisoners for two weeks." I immediately understood

what he meant, and had the sense not to press the issue any further. I just

looked out at the field, now green and peaceful on a beautiful summer day,

and realized he was looking at the same field and seeing something quite


In the weeks following the Malmedy massacre, U.S. troops clearly broke the

rules of the Geneva Conventions. Justified or not, they were technically

guilty of war crimes.

My guess is that the American correspondents imbedded with those troops knew

all about this and chose not to report it. So did their officers. They

understood the gravity of the war, as well as the absolute importance of its

outcome. And they understood that disclosing this information might

ultimately help the enemy. In other words, they used common sense. Was the

U.S. a lesser country because these GIs weren't arrested? Was the

Constitution jeopardized? Somehow it survived.

You don't have to dig too deep to understand that war brings out behavior in

people that they would never demonstrate in normal life. In Paul Fussell's

moving memoir, "The Boys' Crusade," the former infantryman relates a story

about the liberation of Dachau. There were about 120 SS guards who had been

captured by the Americans. Even though the Germans were being held at

gunpoint, they still had the arrogance-or epic stupidity-to continue to heap

verbal abuse and threats on the inmates. Their American guards, thoroughly

disgusted by what they had already witnessed in the camp, had seen enough

and opened fire on the SS. Some of the remaining SS guards were handed over

to the inmates who tore them limb from limb. Another war crime? No doubt.

Justified? It depends on your point of view. But before you weigh in,

realize that you didn't walk through the camp. You didn't smell it. You

didn't witness the obscene horror of the Nazis.

Rules of war are important. They are something to strive for as they

separate us from our distant ancestors. But when only one side follows these

rules, they no longer elevate us. They create a very unlevel field and more

than a little frustration. It is equally bizarre for any of us to judge

someone's behavior in war by the rules we follow in our very peaceful

universe. We sit in homes that are air-conditioned in the summer and warmed

in the winter. We have more than enough food in our bellies and we get

enough sleep. The stress in our lives won't ever match the stress of battle.

Can we honestly begin to decide if a soldier acted in compliance with rules

that work perfectly well on Main Street but not, say, in Malmedy or


In his book, Mr. Fussell probably sums up the feelings of many soldiers when

he quotes a British captain, John Tonkin, who experienced a great deal of

the war. "I have always felt," Capt. Tonkin said, "that the Geneva

Convention is a dangerous piece of stupidity, because it leads people to

believe that war can be civilized. It can't."

Mr. Kozak is the author of "LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis

LeMay" (Regnery, 2009).


  1. People need to understand what is going on here. That is our nation is at WAR. People are going to get hurt that is the nature of the beast. Friend or foe it is inevitable. This isn't some police brutality case it is war people wake up! The fact that anyone is questioning how or what force was used is asinine.

    WAR -noun- a conflict carried on by force of arms, as between nations or between parties within a nation; warfare, as by land, sea, or air.

    "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf". George Orwell

    So if you are not the one doing the violence do not question how it is done. I know im glad it is being done. Im proud to say i live in the youngest greatest most powerful free nation in the world. Im sure someone will write back saying it is my freedom to question it. Well maybe so but if you haven't fought for it someone else gave it to you. As long as you are an american don't just think about today's wars. We as americans need to look back at yesterday's. Some of them were fought by americans who didn't want to be there they were drafted ie Vietnam. America has an all volunteer military service to protect any and all american freedoms. As americans we need to thank them each and everyday and be thankful for what they are doing. In a real simple way of putting it they are secureing a way of life for our children and grandchildren.


  2. I couldn't agree more with every feeling you have regarding war and the necessity to allow our armed forces to protect themselves and their fellow soldiers against any enemy (even those disguised as "friendly")that threatens their lives. My nephew, Gunnery Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, was recently killed in an ambush in Afghanistan. He and his troop of fellow Marines were handcuffed by the ROE and not allowed to fire into the village that was shooting fiercely at them. There were women and children in the village running ammunition to the insurgents but they were considered, by our commanding generals, to be innocent civilians. The gunfire was also coming from the surrounding areas of the village where there were no women and children and my nephew,after explaining that there were no civilians in the surrounding area, was still ordered not to shoot at them. He battled along with his fellow troops for over two hours with no air support and orders not to shoot directly at the enemies. My family and I have to wonder if my nephew and the other four brave men who were killed would still be with us if the ROE protected our own first and foremost. My family and I have now felt the war firsthand. Our troops are dealing with situations that the average American citizen couldn't imagine in their worst nightmares. Allow our troops to defend themselves and each other by any means necessary!!! Loss of lives is inevitable during war but unnecessary losses of lives is unacceptable!!!!

  3. Laurie P;

    First I want to tell you how sorry I am about your son. Unfortunately; I can emphasize. What needs to be understood is the context within which the ROE, in its current state, exists. The rules are dictated by strategy and strategy by whoever is in charge. General McChrystal is in charge and he and the Obama administration have bought into COIN doctrine. If you have been following this Blog as well as others, you know that there really hasn't been a successful attempt at COIN in the history of warfare. The closest anyone can come is the 'Malayan Emergency' 1948 - 1960. There are several problems with this analysis however not the least is that the British were not a foreign power come in to displace an unwanted third party. The British had control of Malaya, had British subjects there running rubber plantations that they owned and who hired Malayans to work the plantation. The Constabulary were largely Brits and for the most part, everyone got along. There was a history. The insurgency was comprised of both Chinese residents who were communists and elements from outside, all of whom were trying to turn Malaya into a communist 'satelite'.

    We have no history in Afghanistan and our historical national ideological identity is clearly anathema to historical Afghan ideology (Islam). There is no history to build on and the gulf between our ideologies will not be spanned - history tells us this from 621 AD to the present.

    Our leadership either refuses to recognize this, or it doesn't possess the intelligence to understand this or does understand it and has a different agenda than it should. In any case, it is producing a situation on the ground that is murderous for our Warriors. Our best hope is to be educated on all matters that concern this current war situation and insure we are educating those in our circle. Then we have to be diligent to let our elected officials know we are not going to stand for the wholesale slaughter of our Warriors by our own elected officials failure to give them what they need to win. Then vote accordingly!

    Let me know if I can help.

    Semper Fidelis;

    John Bernard