Saturday, October 4, 2014

War rules - or rules of war

I am deeply saddened when conflict between peoples, between nations, leads to war.

Shakyamuni Buddha tried to head off an impending war between Kosala and his own Shakya clan. He tried to stop the advancing Kosalan army by meditating under a dead tree in the face of the advancing King Virudhara. It was customary that an army had to retreat if they came across a holy religious man. Therefore, King Virudhara ordered his army to return home. King Virudhara mounted a second assault and a third assault, but each time met the Buddha. The fourth time (some texts say third time), however, the Buddha was not there, having decided it was fruitless to intervene, and King Virudhara's army destroyed the Shakyas, Buddha's family and clan. We do not hear what, if anything, Buddha told the Shakya's to do in the face of the advancing army, whether and how to fight them. We do hear of the Buddha's mourning of the deaths of his kin.

We know that the guidelines for monastics, home-leavers, forbid warfare and we know some of the counsel the Buddha gave to the rulers (and princes) who consulted him (many of whom did engage in warfare and other similar political activity).  We also know that throughout history there have been Buddhists, both monastics and lay, involved in wars in many ways, whether defensive or offensive. There have been others like Emperor Ashoka who gave up military activity (Ashoka did this after conducting particularly bloody wars and having extended his empire through that method). There have been all sorts of comments, critiques and theories regarding these matters - exploration of which is beyond the scope of this piece here and now.

It is clear, as with the case of the Buddha, that in many circumstances, ancient and recent,  unless one is willing to be brutalized, [some absolute pacifists would counsel allowing self and others to be brutalized and killed rather than fighting] by another nation or group determined to wage war as in the case of Hitler, Stalin, Putin, Bin Laden, ISIS or...  (you can fill in those you wish to include in this list) there is no way to avoid war.

For reasons I will write about at another time, I have often had difficulty with the underlying theories and ideas related to the various "laws of war" - all the more so with notions such as proportional responses and limitations on the use of force.

Below is an extended excerpt from an article by a controversial legal scholar - controversial because his positions do not easily fit into categories of left - right or other such attempts to pigeonhole thinkers.

"Last year the Obama administration issued, with considerable fanfare, a new military policy designed to reduce civilian casualties when U.S. forces are attacking enemy targets. This policy required "near certainty" that there will be no civilian casualties before an air attack is permitted...."

"...Now the Obama administration has exempted itself from its own "near certainty" standard in its attacks against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In a statement on Sept. 30 responding to questions by Michael Isikoff at Yahoo News, the administration said that in fighting Islamic State, also known as ISIS, the U.S. military can no longer comply with Mr. Obama's vow last year to observe "the highest standard we can meet..."

But it is not without good reason that the Obama administration is doing this.

"When Israel does attack military targets such as a rocket launcher or a tunnel entrance, and kills or injures civilians, Hamas operatives stand ready to exploit the dead for the international media, who are ever ready to show the victims without mentioning that they died because Hamas was using them as human shields.

Now ISIS and other jihadists in Iraq and Syria are beginning to emulate the Hamas strategy, embedding fighters in towns and villages, thus making military strikes difficult without risking civilian casualties. That is why the Obama administration has exempted itself from its theoretical "near certainty" policy, which has proved to be unworkable and unrealistic in actual battle conditions involving human shields and enemy fighters embedded in densely populated areas."

"...As the president is learning, war is hell. The possibility of waging it with "near certainty" of anything is a chimera.

There must be a single universal standard for judging nations that are fighting the kind of terrorism represented by ISIS and Hamas. The war against ISIS provides an appropriate occasion for the international community to agree on a set of standards that can be applied across the board. These standards must be both moral and realistic, capable of being applied equally to the U.S., to Israel and to all nations committed both to the rule of law and to the obligation to protect citizens from terrorist attacks.

The decision of the Obama administration to abandon its unrealistic "highest standard" pledge indicates the urgent need to revisit anachronistic rules with which no nation can actually comply, but against which only one nation—Israel—is repeatedly judged."

Mr. Dershowitz is a law professor emeritus at Harvard University.

The comments online following this article are especially interesting and at times thought provoking. For the full article by Alan Dershowitz see: