December 01, 2004

Something Wrong with Geneva 

A few days ago I linked to the Internet version of the Geneva Conventions. Now, it's time to discuss a bit this document.

I think that setting rules and guidelines for the conduction of war - especially for the treatment of prisoners and non-combatants - is good, even a sign of civilization.
But the Geneva conventions have some faults; not really in what they state, but at a deeper level, at level of the founding principles of these documents.

The first problem I can see is that the Geneva Conventions (GC, for brevity) are obsolete. The most recent one was signed in 1949, just after the horrible events of WWII. The GC were born in the epoch of industrial age warfare: that was the epoch of huge clashes between million-men armies, between hundreds of tanks on both sides, thousands of artillery guns and so many planes to obscure the sky and level entire cities in a few hours with their bombs. That was symmetrical warfare, one regular army against the other, soldiers uniformed and disciplined, and a central authority that gave orders and could eventually negotiate a surrender - or give the oerder of surrender. The main element of industrial age warfare is logistics: to put it simply, if your millions of soldiers are starving, and their guns lack munitions, they won't win any fight. Civilians were targeted, too, but not for gratuitious cruelty: for one thing, technological limitations made impossible to strike - especially with aerial bombing - only the objectives, leaving the surrounfings untouched. On the other hand, we have that the best way to disrupt the enemy logistic train is to destroy his factories, his oil refineries and his power stations, his railways and highways (and canals and dams, everything). Too bad if civilians are in the way, but that is the nature of the beast.

But the world moved on (this is from The Dark Tower, yes) and nowadays most of the conflicts are different. What we frequently have are guerrillas, terrorists, irregulars of any sort who lack organization and discipline, with a loose (if any) chain of command, fighting for often unclear and conflicting objectives. Or tribal wars, seeing small groups pitted against each other and sometimes together against a common external enemy, amid ever-shifting alliances and loyalties. All these subjects rarely wear uniforms, mix with non-combatants (actually, often they are part-time fighters), and often cannot be linked to any particular national state or even territory: for example, both marxists and islamists see their struggle as global and not localize; Marx and/or Allah must triumph all over the world.
While logistics is fundamental for any fighting group, these subjects have very poor logistical requirements, when compared to modern regular armies. Their weapons and ammo are bought - sometimes, just dug up from leftover stockpiles, even, not produced by themsleves or their supportive population. Their food and water are also bought, or extorted from the non-combatants, or gathered/hunted from natural sources. Yes, not infrequently guerrillas and similar movements can count on popular support, too. Even irregulars need money, but with the same sum needed for a modest Humvee, a terrorist can buy a Kalshnikov and a lifetime stock of ammo and Semtex (just a few kilos in the case of a suicide bomber - malevolent laughter). While nation states finance their armies mostly through taxes (and taxes are compulsory), irregulars finance themselves with donations from supporters, but also with extortion, robbery, drug and arms traffic.

This makes guerrillas and terrorists more elusive and more difficult to crush, but there is a downside, as well: with poor logistics, they cannot afford long operations at a sustained pace (high operational tempo, in military speak); they are succesfull in hitting and running, but if forced to keep up the tempo, often such formations just melt away, thinned by casualties and material losses.
Recruitment for regular armies proceeds either through advertisement (for professional forces) or through conscription. Irregulars, instead, tend to prefer propaganda and political indoctrination as means of recruitment. Coercion is not unknown, as in the monstruous case of African child-soldiers.

So, it should be clear that regular armies and irregular formations have very different modes of operation, and different vision of warfare. The GC treats the issue of irregular formations very briefly, like they were just a little more than a nuisance: an army may encounter partisans and civlians in arms, but the bulk of the fight will be against another regular army. And so it was during WWII: the European resistance played only a secondary role - despite lefty propaganda.

Another, probably the biggest fault of the GC, is that they are much like a gentlemen's agreement, between parties willing to fight hard but fair - as fair as a war can be (not much); withouth descending into barbarism and gratuoitious cruelty, at least.
But this is going to work only when all the adherents to the GC share similar basic moral and ethical values, a similar consideration for human life and so on.
The GC was first devised in the West, and it is thus based on Western values, which in turn descend mostly for Judeo-Christian values, plus a more pragmatic strain.
If your enemy does not have similar basic values (eg, he consider good and right to use the beheading of prisoners and hostages as propaganda tools), the rules expressed in the GC won't do much good. A telling example comes, again, from WWII: about half of the Americans taken prisoners by the Germans survived, but only 10% of those taken by the Japanese survived.
So you see, despite Nazism, the Germans had basically the same culture as the Americans, and they considered that the prisoners were to be treated fairly well.
On the other hand, the culture of Japan was alien, evolved in almost total isolation from Europe with a very different set of values. So the Japanese committed horrible atrocities like the March of Bataan and the Tahiland-Burma railway, and generally treated the prisoners much worse.
Another circumstance to notice is that the Japanese used plenty of kamikaze, while the Nazis had a few suicide squads only at the very end of the war.

Nowadays, the same sort of alien butality and barbarism is a distinctive tract of the Islamists. It has its roots in the Arab tribal culture, even more ancient than Islam - but it seems that this latest layer made things even worse. It's not that they are not rational, but they play by totally different rules. Rules which say that it's OK to slaughter infidels in front of a camera, or to brutalize and then massacre schoolchildren.
The Geneva Convention will not work with them, because they do not recognize the founding principles of it, it's that simple. And asking for the western forces to strictly comply with the GC while the enemy does not, means putting them in a position of inferiority.
It is about time to revamp the Geneva Conventions and adapt them to the current state of the world, if we want them to mean something anymore.

Update 03/12: Another trait of the islamist forces is that they routinely use mosques, schools and hospitals as command and control centres and weapons and ammo dumps; their snipers fire from the minarets; Red Crescent ambulances have been spotted many times while carrying weapons and fighters.
New rules of war, in my opinion, must take these differecnies into consideration, and state clearly that if you fight dirty, you will lose protection under the rules of war.


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