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What “New Rules of War”?

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I’ve been meaning to comment for awhile on the March/April print issue of Foreign Policy , and I finally got around to posting my observations at Current Intelligence. In brief, for a special issue devoted to transformations in the way we fight, what struck me is how completely the authors and editors overlooked the ways in which the trends described relate to the law of war.

Even John Arquilla’s lead article, misleadingly titled “The New Rules of War,” gives no thought whatsoever to the actual moral and legal rule-sets governing war: humanitarian law, the law of armed conflict, and the UN charter regime… His three new “rules of war” are really just “rules of thumb for war-fighting in the 21st century.” Good ones at that (though not all agree): “small is better,” “finding trumps flanking,” and “swarming trumps surging.”

But what Arquilla doesn’t mention is that his emphasis on decentralizing the military to respond to net-centric warfare both has implications for and would depend on changes in the way the US military disseminates war law to troops. Currently, it is primarily officers who receive training in the Geneva Conventions: enlisted recruits get perhaps a few hours of it during basic and carry around a cryptic booklet based on WW2-era scenarios. A decentralized, “swarming” military disaggregated into small, autonomous groups and trained to operate effectively in urban environments requires a higher level of war law training hammered into service-personnel at every rank, and on a regular basis. Domestic law enforcement agencies may in fact have much to teach the military about how to train troops to function in mixed environments.

A war law lens leads to other questions as well:

What does Arquilla’s shift toward “finding” mean if the line between war-fighting and intelligence-gathering / crime-fighting has historically been one between the military and civilian government agencies? How does one use existing law to criminalize those who use civilians as shields – a key tactic of what some call “lawfare”? Are explosives a valid tool of war in urban areas any more than we would accept their use by the police to hunt gang members in North American cities? What is the nature of “direct participation in hostilities” in the case of asymmetric warfare?

The longer essay includes a variety of other examples engaging the articles by Edward Luttawak and Peter Singer printed in that issue as well. Click here to read the whole thing.

Main point is, for every single point made about military doctrine, force structure, civil-military relations or grand strategy, there are important “rules of war” questions that need some serious consideration by thought leaders in the beltway. So I’d like to see Foreign Policy and similar outlets give more coverage to the moral and legal dimensions of these shifts.

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