Ruses-of-War and Terrorism

The things which spring to mind in the middle of the dark of the night, between midnight and the earliest glimmerings of dawn, often seem to be the most illuminating – likely the product of a brain having finished a fresh defragmentation during deep sleep.

I’m a computer tech, so please forgive such comparisons.

Before I napped off several hours ago, I’d been reading Dauntless, the first book in Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series. Published in 2006, it was contemporaneous to the early years of the second phase of the Iraq War (something which becomes important later). Around the latter half of Dauntless‘ seventh chapter, the fleet commander and his aide-de-camp discuss the ethics of prisoner treatment.

Although this is all happening so far in the future that the only shipboard religion in evidence is the verbal invoking of dead ancestors (i.e., enough time has passed that no one apparently uses any other religious epithets or observances), the fleet still observes a close match to our contemporary Geneva Conventions. At least, in terms of lip service; the preceding six chapters have included a lot of talk and suggestion about how freewheeling war crimes “on the side” have become. It is a matter of unspoken knowledge, for example, that any prisoners taken by Marines are handed off to the Fleet, which promptly murders them as payback for past atrocities committed by the enemy.

This particular scene starts off with the aide-de-camp commenting on the enemy’s recent attempt to use merchant vessels – under color of civilian flagging, with shock troops onboard posing as the crew – in suicide runs on their fleet. She notes that by posturing as civilians to conduct an attack in a war zone, they have violated the laws of war and are due no special treatment as saboteurs. Her fleet commander – John “Black Jack” Geary – goes on for a spell about the practicality of sparing the prisoners, in order to show their opponents (and hopefully, by word-of-mouth, their society as a whole) that “we chose not to do certain acts that we could’ve done”.

“Ancestors help me, Tanya, the Syndic population is human, too. They’ve also got to be feeling the strain of this war. They’ve got to be sick to death of sending their sons and daughters and husbands and wives off to die in apparently endless conflict.”

This is a great sentiment.

Until you’ve studied enough of humanity’s history. The prohibitions listed in the Geneva Conventions against military actions all have the same aim: to draw the line that civilians are not legitimate targets. In the same vein, they also make clear that civilians are not legitimate combatants – not unless they are, at minimum, wearing something which clearly identifies them as separate from the noncombatant population.

During the first phase of the Iraq War (1990-1991), this was not a significant problem because nearly all combatants were professional uniformed soldiers. Even when Iraq conscripted civilians and sent them to the front lines still wearing the clothes they’d been picked off the street in, they were occupying clear military positions, mostly distant from population centers. From 1992-2003, during the cease-fire period, a number of major military operations were carried out, all against military and government complexes, including suspected WMD development and production sites.

But what happens when the enemy force is entirely composed of civilians?

This was the case for most of the war’s second phase. During the 2003 re-invasion following Iraq’s failure/refusal to abide by more than a handful of the cease-fire terms (both WMD-related and not), there were no insurgents. Not until some time after the Iraqi military and government had capitulated. After that point, however, nearly all combatants against the Coalition have been civilians, and next to none of them wore anything to identify themselves as such.

In short, they were war criminals. And that’s talking about the honorable ones.


Going back to Dauntless, let’s bear in mind that the shock troops crewing those merchant vessels, had their mission been successful, would have been viewed thereafter as selfless heroes. Their action would not have been categorized as war crimes even if they met the technical definition, because they themselves were military forces attacking a military target. The euphemism for such things is “ruse of war”, and naval annals across the centuries are speckled with admiration for cunning captains who pulled off similar feats to tweak, slap, or outright break the enemy’s figurative nose.

The reason such things are nonetheless illegal is because dressing up as civilians – even to mount an attack on a military target – gives the enemy’s military a reason to start treating actual civilians as possible military forces. This can lead to atrocities down the line, due to issues of mistaken identity (or just bloody-minded payback). The reason it’s not immoral is because it still meets the spirit of the Conventions, by not actually involving civilians.

So what’s the difference between a ruse-of-war and terrorism?

It’s when a combatant deliberately acts to increase civilian casualties. A Sunni suicide-bomber, detonating his payload in the middle of a crowded market square, for example, isn’t quite the same as commandeering a merchant vessel in order to toss its overtaxed tea overboard. Especially given that in the latter instance, there were no civilian casualties.

Terrorists aren’t merely “saboteurs”, and they aren’t engaged in “ruses of war”.

They’re simply and expressly murdering civilians.


Dauntless was contemporary not only to the Iraq War, but the then-recent polling of Iraqis conducted by Professors Gilbert Burnham, Riyadh Lafta, Shannon Doocy and Les Roberts, which asserted approximately 600,000 dead Iraqi civilians as the result of just three years of conflict in that nation. This was, and still is, a focal point for people who opposed the war – that Coalition (meaning, mostly American) military forces were slaughtering civilians wholesale.

Problem: very few such people seem to have actually bothered reading the report.

Firstly, as mentioned, it’s simply polling data. Iraqi households were visited and asked how many household members had been killed, by whom and how, since the start of the invasion. The study team did also ask now and again for death certificates, which they reported were produced about 95% of the time and which all checked out with Iraqi officials, for a rough total of about 500 certificates between 1,000 Iraqi households. Therefore, they said, all the claims were effectively verified, and thus they extrapolated a death toll of 600,000 for the entire country.

Except that, for the period between invasion and polling, only about 50,000 death certificates had been issued by Iraqi authorities. For a 95%+ correlation between alleged deaths and death certificates to actually match up, another half-million certificates needed to exist. Somehow, a mere 1,000 households chosen at random happened to come up with about 1% of the total certifications… meaning that if we use the same basic method of extrapolation, Iraq didn’t have more than 100,000 households. With a current population of over 38,000,000 people, that’s nearly 400 people crammed into every house.

Ooooooor, we could look at the “secondly” part you may have been waiting for. You don’t usually get a “firstly” without one, right? Well, secondly, when asked who was responsible for the alleged deaths of their family members, about 66% blamed the insurgents.

That’s, um… not something you often hear about when “the Lancet Report” is brought up.

If the big news had been “Iraqi insurgents have killed 400,000 civilians since the 2003 invasion” (two-thirds of 600,000) that would have sounded alarm bells for anyone who remembered the Rwandan massacres – and in 2006, virtually every voting-age American did. Even if you wanted to point to the notion that 200,000 civilians had been killed by Coalition forces, it comes across as “better we’re there to give the insurgents something other than civilians to attack”. That’s ultimately a pro-war argument.


The actual verifiable civilian death toll since the 2003 re-invasion, according to the anti-war datamining organization Iraq Body Count, is currently less than 200,000. This, despite a 2008 ORB Group survey (yes, yet another poll) claiming ONE MILLION Iraqi civilians dead. Which anti-war activists immediately glommed onto, as it made calling George W. Bush a war criminal much easier. IBC, meanwhile, was largely ignored because they went to the bother of confirming real incidents and subsequently came up with much lower numbers (and probably also because they don’t have kind words for Professor Burnham or the ORB folks).

Not to say polls are useless. It’s just that they check opinions, not facts.

All of this is by way of pointing out, in the clearest possible terms, that the laws of war are there to prevent the massacre of civilians… not to enable it.

When your enemy dresses as civilians, hides among civilians, and primarily targets civilians rather than military forces, the Geneva Conventions contain no answer – probably because the Conventions are a Western invention, created by nations and cultures which had left such behavior centuries behind them.

Hitler, who murdered millions for their “impurities”, was human. Stalin, who did the same to five times as many “political dissidents”, was human. There is no evil, and there is no good, which takes place without a human being doing it, because the universe and nature don’t entertain any such concepts to begin with. We firebombed Dresden, Tokyo and Kobe, well before we ever had an atomic bomb, and then two superpowers spent half a century willing to irradiate half the planet (at a conservative estimate) if either one took a big enough poke at the other.

“Black Jack” Geary’s notion in Dauntless, that “they’ve got to be sick to death of sending their sons and daughters and husbands and wives off to die in apparently endless conflict”, is based on the assumption that his enemies believe in the same social and moral standards that he does. Maybe they ultimately do (I’ve yet to finish the first novel in the series, and by the way I’m enjoying it thoroughly), but here’s the harsh reality:

Once we, as human beings, adopt the idea of a “higher power” – be it Nation, God or Personal Morality – we are capable of doing anything in its service. Understanding our own capability for good or evil is a matter of understanding that which we believe we serve.


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