Murder and Warfare, Redux

Ok, in a bid to try to retackle the long-ago post on Murder and Warfare, let me, um... tackle it again.  Or something...

"There are no dangerous weapons; there are only dangerous men.  We're trying to teach you to be dangerous - to the enemy.  Dangerous even without a knife.  Deadly as long as you still have one hand or one foot and are still alive." -- Starship Troopers

There are three classes of people, as far as warfare is concerned: non-combatants, combatants, and prisoners.

Non-combatants have tacitly agreed to follow the dictates of whoever has the guns and is in control.  Essentially, non-combatants have agreed not to be "dangerous", at least as far as combatants are concerned.

Combatants are the folks with the guns.  They have two roles.  The first role is to impose their will (or more accurately, the political will of their leadership) on the non-combatants in a war zone.  Or, to put it another way, they are they guys with the guns to whom the non-combatants listen.  The second role of a combatant is to resist the guys on the other side with guns and prevent them from imposing their will on the non-combatants.  The primary distinguishing feature of combatants is that they are "dangerous" men.

Prisoners are people who have made the transition from combatant to non-combatant.  The important thing to note about being a prisoner is that it is nothing other than a state of mind.  Prisoners are disarmed, but not all who are disarmed are necessarily prisoners.  To return to the terminology of Starship Troopers, prisoners are those who were formerly "dangerous" into non-dangerous people.

But getting back to the business of combatants, combatants have at their disposal, a tool to compel people to obey them - force.  The thing that works rather well about such a scheme is that it provides a rather simple binary choice for those on the receiving end: surrender or die.  Either cease being dangerous, or you will be rendered incapable of being dangerous through the use of controlled, organized violence.

The interaction of these two parties is governed, at a most basic level, by two constraints: the limits of capability and the fear of reprisal.  The first, limits of capability, reflect the inability to apply perfect force anywhere, anytime, in any amount desired with absolute unerring aim and intelligence.  If there were no limits on capability, it is entirely possible that there would be no war whatsoever, since any warlike act would be subject to instant fatal response.

The other limiting factor, reprisal, is essentially the choice of one combatant to be deterred from some action.  From a certain point of view, it's kind of another version of the Golden Rule - "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  Sometime this fear of retaliation limits action, such as the non use of chemical weapons during World War II.  Other times, it doesn't, as can be shown with either the use of chemical weapons during World War I, or the use of nuclear weapons in World War II.  So, sometimes, the mechanics of deterrence is a tricky business.

Now, in the long-ago case of the Fallujah Marine who put paid to a jihadi in a headline-grabbing case of misfortune highlights these two basic features of warfare - the three classes of actors and the two limiting factors of warfare.

The jihadis are severely constrained in their ability to wage warfare by the first constraint - limitation of capability.  For reasons that hardly bear elaboration, they cannot successfully compete against the American military on a "conventional" warfighting basis.  So they seek to explore other ways of enhancing their capabilities.  In this case, the avenue they have chosen to pursue is taking advantage of certain traditions that have arisen and have been widely adopted by many warfighting parties.  In particular, they have sought to exploit some of the ways that armies have sought to identify the three classes of actors.

Historically, long before the Geneva Convention arose, leaders sought to prevent the active, intentional slaughter of non-combatants (genocidal wars are a special case).  Killing non-combatants kind of runs counter to the whole business of trying to exert one's will on those same non-combatants.  Or, to put it another way, it's far more profitable to co-opt a conquered people than kill them.

To that end, two conventions were adopted - uniforms and surrender.  Uniforms provided a very simple way for combatants to assess whether or not a person is a combatant or not, even if they are not actively resisting or exerting force.  Surrender traditions, such as the raised white flag, are used to indicate that a person is making the transition between combatant and prisoner.

In the case of uniforms, that is something that the jihadis can, and do, violate freely.  First of all, they have the capability to do so, and second there is no reasonable way to retaliate.  Short of killing all people in civilian dress, we cannot effectively retaliate against such actions.  Destroying a village to save it is one thing.  Nuking Iraq into barren wasteland would be taking it a bit too far.

The second arena in which the jihadis have sought to compete is through violation of the traditions of surrender.  A specific problem area in this respect is not that the jihadis violate such a tradition, but that they lack sufficient coherence, command, and consistency to be reliable in their violation of such conventions.  If all jihadis surrendered peacefully, then there would be no problem.  If all jihadis faked surrender, then there would be no problem either, since it would be widely acknowledged that any surrender-like activities did not represent a genuine decision to become non-dangerous prisoners.

Unfortunately, sometimes the jihadis really surrender and sometimes they don't.  This is the problem we found ourselves in with the Fallujah incident.  By exploiting a well recognized set of traditions to mark the willing transition from combatant to prisoner, a great deal of uncertainty has been introduced into the situation.  Hence, the young Marine in question was forced to assess a jihadi's state of mind - was the jihadi a dangerous man, or had this formerly dangerous man truly made the shift to becoming a non-dangerous man?  For my money, the guy made the correct choice, since any uncertainty cedes the local initiative to the would-be attacker - a mistake that is quite often fatal, especially if the would-be prisoner is still truly a dangerous man.

So where does that leave us now?  When it gets down to cases, I don't recall many Americans being taken prisoner in combat in Iraq.  I don't know if this is due to an inability to take prisoners or a jihadi unwillingness to take live prisoners.  In any case, it doesn't really matter, because it means that the Iraqis can't retaliate in kind by refusing to take prisoners.

Some have asked about whether or not this will effect treatment of prisoners or hostages taken by the jihadis.  As it turns out, this business of beheading prisoners renders the point moot.

As we continue to go through the other retaliatory options available to the jihadis, we discover that they really have no retaliatory options open to them.  Simply put, they have pretty much tapped out their entire repertoire of capabilities, so there's not a whole lot that they can do in Iraq to up the ante.

We, on the other hand, have a vast range of retaliatory capabilities.  The difficulty is proving to be the controlled application of violence in a fashion which provides coalition forces with the sufficient effect to deter or shape the actions of the jihadis, while being sufficiently surgical to avoid unwanted problems that would sap the political will necessary to see the conflict through.

The Marine in Fallujah hasn't been so indiscriminant to effectively alter political will, while on the other hand, it has shown that there is a limited utility in playing possum.  In other words, he has taken something that couldn't be effectively deterred through fear of retaliation, and simply reduced the means available to the jihadis to continue to wage war.

(Simultaneously launched by Bravo Romeo Delta from Demosophia, The Jawa Sun Sentinel, & Anticipatory Retaliation)

Posted by: Bravo Romeo Delta at 08:52 PM


1 BRD: Excellent post. I'm currently working with a student doing his thesis on the strategic equilibrium that terrorists face, between capabilities and desire.

I teach a freshman seminar in the "great books" and I include Starship Troopers in my unit on utopian novels. It's an underread and undervalued book.

Posted by: Leopold Stotch at January 01, 2005 09:17 PM

2 Read the book 45 years ago when it was #1. Because of its long time on the top sellers list Stranger jumped right to the to a few years later. Prisoners are very dangerous. It would have been my sworn duty if I had been taken prisoner to do every thing in my power to resist the enemy, starting with killing the guards and escaping. I always assumed any prisoners we took felt this same way and made it clear that any wrong moves would result in termination. BTW it has been a long time (45 years) since I read Troopers but I don't remember Bob saying prisoners were non dangerous. Be so kind as to tell me what chaps it is in.
Rod Stanton

Posted by: Rod Stanton at January 02, 2005 03:50 PM

3 Rod,

Bob doesn't state any such thing about prisoners being non-dangerous. I bring the quote up to point out that whether or not a person is dangerous is a state of mind, rather than some sort of mythical status that can be reliably gauged by an external observer.

A prisoner is simply a combatant who is either unable or unwilling to continue being a dangerous man.

Posted by: Bravo Romeo Delta at January 02, 2005 04:18 PM

4 BRD I disagree with you. Prisoners are dangerous. Recall May 03 some Iraqui prisoners killed a few American soldiers who were guarding them. Also ask any Marine what he is to do if taken prisoner. POWs are just enemies you have as much control over as you have the guts to use. Prisoners can be very dangerous and to assume anything else may result in not being able to be the pain in the ass 40 years later that I am.
Rod Stanton

Posted by: Rod Stanton at January 03, 2005 12:38 PM

5 Hey Rod: You guys took prisoners? I always figured, they didn't so I didn't.

Posted by: greyrooster at January 03, 2005 08:33 PM

6 Yea we took several. I got a meritorious mast for one; turned out to be a Red Chines Captn FO that was diagraming our Batn base campl for their rockets.

Posted by: Rod Stanton at January 04, 2005 06:56 AM

7 Rod,

I have to apologize for being a bit unclear, although the points you bring up have given me some ideas on another way to tackle the point I am trying to make. It's relatively simple, being a prisoner is a state of mind, not a status or condition. Just because you have some guy in a POW camp doesn't make him non-dangerous, or for the purposes of the terms I was attempting to use here, an actual genuine prisoner.

Conversely, the shell-shocked and battered Iraqis who crawled out of trenches in Gulf I to surrender to news crews, helicopters, and unmanned drones were, at least as far as this post goes, prisoners, even if they hadn't been taken into custody. They had the shift of mind which turned them from dangerous men into non-dangerous men.

I appreciate your insights and comments. It's constructive, critical feedback like yours that makes it all worth while.



Posted by: Bravo Romeo Delta at January 04, 2005 11:22 AM

8 Anytime. Besides what is the point of being an opinionated ex Jarehead if you can't mouth off? BTW I do not expect everyone to agree with me. That is what makes America great to me.

Posted by: Rod Stanton at January 04, 2005 12:41 PM

9 Yea, Yea he's got a point. But were the aforementioned really soldiers or just cannon fodder who didn't wish to be involved to begin with? I think the latter. The desert was covered with like new weapons. Never been fired and only dropped once.

Posted by: greyrooster at January 04, 2005 03:51 PM

10 My take on the Marine in Fallujah. The enemy was a combatant. The enemy wasn't in uniform. He didn't follow the rules of war. Therefore He is not protected by the rules of war. Tough shit. No quarter given, no quarter should be expected.
Combatants out of uniform should be executed same as in all previous wars. They should reap what they sow. They intended to kill coalition forces. That's why they were in Fallujah. To kill. The marine is a hero. Marines are trained to kill the enemy. That is their purpose. Thats what Marines do. From day one in boot camp you are taught that your job is to kill our countries enemies. He was doing as he was taught.
Now some sissies wish to cry about it. Don't like what he did. Take his place.

Posted by: greyrooster at January 04, 2005 04:11 PM

11 As I stated before, a terrorist is a terrorist and a wounded terrorist is a dangerous terrorists. Their orders were to shoot to kill. Leave the guy alone.


Posted by: firstbrokenangel at January 05, 2005 06:05 PM

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