Sunday, March 23, 2003

David Brooks of the Weekly Standard makes an important point about the current war in Iraq: that it is being conducted according to an evolving set of rather bizarre politically-motivated rules. The "embedded" journalists supplying live video feeds back home are the most obvious example, but these are almost certainly not going to be around long. (It's only a matter of time--perhaps during the next war, if not this one--before they end up accidentally revealing something of great value to the enemy, at which point they'll be severely restricted, if not banned altogether.)

But Brooks notes another, subtler development: "Has there ever been a conflict in the history of man in which the one army strove so mightily to not kill the soldiers of the other army?" Indeed, there are those who are trying to extend the admirable historical trend towards greater protection of civilians, so that it applies at least partly to combatants as well.

Now, rules governing the treatment of enemy soldiers are at least as old as those governing the treatment of civilians, and at times, some troops (ransomable Medieval noblemen, engagement-shy Afghan militiamen) have fared quite well by convention. But the new trend towards characterizing soldiers as innocents, and therefore just as morally deserving of protection as defenseless women and children, is a disturbing development.

A particularly egregious example is a recent New York Times op-ed by Uwe Reinhardt in which he writes that a young Nazi conscript at the Battle of the Bulge was "as innocent as those of us who weren't in uniform." (In that particular case, he just might be correct--though probably not in the sense that he means.) "For all we know", Reinhardt continues, "he would have happily quit fighting and joined the allies." (In other words, he was only following orders.) But it's simply not the case that soldiers are innocent in the same sense as non-combatants, for the simple reason that once they are equipped and sent to kill people, they have the power to decide whom to try to kill. And some Iraqi soldiers, as we now know, have conspicuously exercised that power.

Even in the case of a given soldier--say, a present-day North Korean--who is simply too badly misinformed to make an ethical (or pragmatic) decision of this nature, the moral argument for treating enemy soldiers gently has the fatal defect that it richly rewards its own rejection. Unreciprocated kid-gloves treatment of enemy civilians can certainly put an army at a disadvantage; witness the Israeli army's troubles suppressing a terrorist infrastructure that murders Israeli civilians while hiding behind Palestinian civilians. (For that reason, the mere risk of harming the enemy's "human shields" does not normally suffice to deter military operations.) But behaving gently towards soldiers who show no similar compassion in return would almost always be an utterly insuperable handicap, as today's reports of faked surrenders in Iraq amply demonstrate. Rules of war that are conditional on mutual observance cannot be considered as moral universals, but only, at best, as conventions subject to abrogation when violated by the enemy.

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