Saturday, May 11, 2013

A few basic reminders about wars, civil wars and human rights

Robert recently posted the following comment on this blog:
Manicheanism tends to take over with civil wars. Both sides tend to believe all that is good is with them and all that is evil with the other and this usually leads to fiendish atrocities on both sides. The media often then gives selective reporting of atrocities by the side they favour. In a war with a foreign enemy you can respect the other guy because he's fighting for his country but in a civil war you are fighting an enemy within and it becomes bitter and cruel because each side regards the other as traitors who are destroying the country.
 I think that he is absolutely right and I feel that I want to add a few observations of my own to this words.  But first, let me remind everybody of a little-know fact: according to the fundamental positions of the Nuremberg Tribunal the worst crime possible is not genocide or any other crime against humanity.  The worst possible crime is the crime of *aggression* because, according to the experts who set up the Nuremberg Tribunal, the crime of aggression "contains" all the other crimes (by the way, the International Criminal Court takes the same position).  In the words of the chief American prosecutor at Nuremberg, Robert H. Jackson,
To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.
 I think that this is an absolutely crucial insight and it is a bittersweet irony that it came from a scholar from the USA which is, beyond any possible doubt, the nation which waged the most wars of aggression of any nation in mankind's history.

I submit that this argument is also very much applicable to civil wars because civil wars are, by their very nature and inherently, far more vicious and prone to result in atrocities than conventional international conflicts.  I can only repeat Robert's words:
In a war with a foreign enemy you can respect the other guy because he's fighting for his country but in a civil war you are fighting an enemy within and it becomes bitter and cruel because each side regards the other as traitors who are destroying the country.
The Western propaganda machine has done its best to bolt out this idea for the public consciousness and discourse.  Why?  Because of all this "humanitarian intervention" nonsense.  The Western recipe for war is really extremely simple:

Find out whatever issue is upsetting a sizable minority of the public, then support that agenda and foster demonstrations.  When these demonstrations happen, make sure that a few cops and demonstrators get killed.  The more violence the better.  Then encourage an armed insurrection by the opposition and as soon as the government forces use force to crack down on the (now armed) opposition, scream to high heavens about "human rights violations", atrocities, etc.  Then, all you have left to do is intervene, either indirectly or even directly.

Simple, no?

And the best part of this tactic is that while a few atrocities might be false flags, or exaggerations, or even complete fabrications, the real atrocities will *INEVITABLY* begin to happen.  All you need to do is to grossly inflate the atrocities of the government forces and minimize or even better, totally ignore, the atrocities of the opposition.  Now, how hard is that when the entire corporate press is completely under your control?  Very easy, really!

This is what happened in Iraq, in Romania, in Bosnia, in Kosovo, in Chechnia, in Libya and now in Syria.  This is also what is possibly going to take place very soon in Iran.

Indeed, according to Russian sources, the MEK are preparing for a series of terrorist attacks in Tehran and other major cities during the upcoming elections.  While the "Gucci Revolution" of Mr. Mousavi and his patron and boss Rafsanjani lacked the needed level of violence (this is why the Basij and cops were plenty enough to contain it), the upcoming terrorist attacks will have as a goal to force the government to use the Pasdaran to impose law and order.  At that point, it will be easy to whine and yell about all sorts of atrocities and horrors (whether real or imaginary).

There is another idea which the western propaganda machine is trying to bolt out form the public consciousness and discourse.  Simply put, this is my thesis:  in a pre-civil war or civil war situation the government side has NO interest in committing atrocities whereas the opposition/insurgency has a HUGE interest in generating atrocities.

No, I am not saying that Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein, Milosevic, Gaddafi or Assad are tender-hearted doves who would weep over every innocent killed or that they are highly principled men of honor whose ethics and morals which would never allow them to commit an evil act.  Nope.  In fact, all these were ruthless individuals, with a sense of compassion and mercy as developed as the one of a blue-green algae.  The point is that they all perfectly understood that any atrocities committed their watch would be disastrous for them.

You want an example?

Take Ratko Mladic.  The so-called "butcher Srebrenica" and "genocidal war criminal".  What did he do the day his forces entered Srebrenica?  He drove to Srebrenica and addressed the surviving civilians and prisoners of war while on camera and surrounded by the press crops, and then he personally guaranteed their safety.  Now, ask yourself a basic question: no matter how evil you think Mladic was, do you really believe that he would show up in person and deliver such a message right in front of numerous cameras if he had any intention of massacring anybody?  Of course not!  He would have made darn sure to be as far away as possible to generate what the CIA calls "plausible deniability".  And then, let's look just one step further: at the time of the so-called "Srebrenica genocide" who was winning the war and who was losing it?  The fact is that by 1995 the Bosnian-Serbs had comprehensively won the civil war.  In this context, does anybody seriously believe that killed a large number of Bosnian-Muslims was in their interest?

Of course not.  So this is why the corporate press inevitably describes these people as "beasts" "monsters" "bloodthirsty Chetniks" or equally "bloodthirsty Shabiha".  The idea here is not only to demonize, but to explain away seemingly illogical acts by suggesting that these people are such bloodthirsty monsters that they are unable to rationally assess their situation and that they are compelled to torture and murder just because of their bestial and maniacal nature.  This, of course, is utter nonsense.  Why?

Because while it is true that in any country, ethnic group or religion you will find a percentage X of people who will gladly indulge in horrors, massacres and other unspeakable atrocities, these people are very rarely in command positions and, when they are, then they still do not lose sight of their own self-interests.  There is a reason why Lenin, Hitler, Churchill and all the American Presidents liked to kiss small children: it is to appear kind and decent.  Even when they are genocidal maniacs, they engage in this kind of behavior only when they feel that it will give them a tangible advantage, not just because they like to torture or kill.

Notice that in Syria, Assad has just re-subordinated the Shabiha to the regular armed forces precisely to try to stop them from committing atrocities.  This, by the way, exactly what Karadzic and Mladic were trying to do with Serbian irregulars in Bosnia, but now all this is down the memory hole...

Bottom line:, civil wars truly bring out the worst in people, and they provide an ideal environment for the small number of real  bloodthirsty maniacs to indulge in atrocities.  And this is why I submit that the crime of initiating a civil war is even a worse crime than the crime of international aggression.

This still leaves an important question: can there be norms of behavior in civil wars or do we simply have to accept that any civil war will inevitably result in a completely uninhibited orgy of unspeakable horrors for which nobody should be answerable?

Here I can only offer my subjective opinion, and I freely admit that I cannot prove my point.  I want to share it with you only as a basis for discussion:

I believe that the killing of civilians in modern wars, both civil and international is simply inevitable.  In an attempt to minimize so-called "collateral damage" specialists of international humanitarian law and the laws of war have come up with the concept of "proportionality".  The basic idea here is that you not bomb a hospital just because there is a sniper hiding on its roof (well, hospitals should be protected anyway, and no armed combatants should have access to them, but nevermind, you get the idea).  It is a good idea, but not a practical one.

Any good military commander feels a profound sense of responsibility for the men under his command.  In many cultures, the commanding officer is considered morally responsible before the parents of his soldiers for their well-being and survival.  And many officers, in particularly good ones, take this responsibility very very seriously.  It is often the case that generals sometimes address their soldiers (though not officers) by such words as "my son".  For such a commander the life of only one of his soldiers is far more important that the lives of even many enemies, in particular during a civil war where the hatred for the other side is particularly strong.

Ask yourself this simple question: if you are the commander of, say, and armored company, and while you pass a village your soldiers get shot from the rooftops, while you send your men in to do a house-to-house search (and inevitably suffer even more casualties) or will you call in an artillery strike?

Or this: you are the commander of a special operations unit deep inside the enemy territory and while you are moving at night you stumble upon young girl watching over a herd of goats.  She sees you and your men.  What do you do?  If you let her go, she will report you to her village.  If you take her with you, she won't be able to follow you and by her very presence she will compromise your security.  Or do you quietly slit her throat and hide her body?

These are all real situations, which were shared with me by officers who had to take these decisions and who still suffer internally from what they had to do, but they did that to protect that which was the most precious thing for them: the lives of their own men whom they felt responsible for first and foremost.

And then there is this: in the good old days, wars used to have fronts and even battlefields.  Armies had the good taste of fighting in the fields near little known villages like Austerlitz or Borodino.  Now, the very nature of war has completely changed.

To explain this, I will use an metaphor: traditionally wars looked very much like a American football game: a line of scrimmage, two lines of deployed adversaries, a clearly identifiable "front" and "rear".  Modern warfare is much more like European soccer: both teams are deployed all over the field, and each player "covers" one other player, while the game is constantly in motion.  What does that mean for civilians?  That there is no more FEBA (forward edge of battle area) and no "front".  As soon as hostilities begin the full strategic depth of each side becomes as much part of the area of operations, of the battlefield, as any other.  In other words, from now on combat operations will always and inevitably happen right next to and in the middle of civilian areas.  This is why the argument of "hiding behind civilians" is so stupid: civilians will be everywhere, you simply cannot fight at all unless you accept the fact that you will fight in civilians areas.

All this is inevitable for any modern war, civil or international.

Civil wars, however, do have their own unique horrors.

It is not politically correct to say so, but in most civil wars you do not take prisoners.  At all.  Zero.  Why?

Well, for one thing the parties to the civil war rarely have the infrastructure to process and hold large groups of prisoners.  Then, remember what Robert said, in civil wars your enemy is not a patriot of his country, he is a traitor to your country.  And what do traitors deserve?  Yup.  Death.  That is a universally accepted idea.  Finally, in a highly mobile combat environment there is simply not enough time to deal with the issues of prisoners.  So what normally happens is this: you try not to make prisoners in the first place.  If you still end up taking some prisoners, you quickly interrogate them (we are talking for 10-15 mins per prisoner unless the guy caught is really important), and then you shoot them and leave.

This is how it is done.  I am not saying that this is right or that I approve of it.  But this is how it is done by all sides in every conflict.  This, sadly, is the norm.  Again, if you don't like that, if these facts make you uncomfortable, don't start civil wars because this is how civil wars are fought.  All of them.

So, are there things which are truly beyond the pale even in civil wars?


Things like torture, rape, deliberate and useless execution of civilians.  Not only are these simply unjustifiable - there can be no military rationale for such acts - but they are also extremely corrupting for the units engaged in them.  Units who engage in these kind of practices always end up losing their cohesion and discipline and the necessary military hierarchy rapidly deteriorates and commanders and commanded all become accomplices.

By the way, the worst offenders in this kind of crimes are typically poorly trained and poorly commanded units.  While a special operations commander might not hesitate to slit a girls throat to protect his men, he will never allow his men to engage in such behavior or, even less so, engage in it himself.

What about torture to extract information?

Well, as I just said, poorly trained and poorly commanded units might think that torturing an enemy prisoner might yield some important information.  But the reality is that 99% of the prisoners have very little information worth sharing and that 99% of these prisoners will be so terrified and depressed anyway that they will talk hoping that this might save their life (it won't) and it makes no sense to spend more than 10-15 minutes to interrogate them.  Sure, those are unlikely to be a pleasant 10-15 mins, you can expect threats, screams, punches, slaps, kicks and rifle-butts in your face, but nothing too gory or medieval.  As for the high value prisoners, they will be sent away to be interrogated by specialists and, unlike what these morons in Guantanamo thought, the best way to "break them open" is not at all to torture them, but to outsmart and out-think them.

Again, none of the above applies to irregular units formed of self-proclaimed "patriots" who really are only poorly trained criminal thugs who love to torture and kill out of viciousness.  Yes, they will also be out there during a civil war, but they will not be acting under orders of the regular military command who typically will feel an intense dislike and distrust for them (and rightly so, I would add).

I thought that it was important to write to these basic reminders of what wars and civil wars are really like.  We are all too conditioned by a "CNN view" of wars which has no resemblance with reality at all.  And I hope that the next time you hear some pious outrage about some horrible dictator and "new Hitler" engaging in all kinds of atrocities you will keep these few considerations in your mind to try to make sense of what has really happened or not.

The Saker

PS: Having thought about it all, I have to add a small caveat here.  What I wrote above does not apply to Africa where, for a number of reasons I do not want to discuss here, the historical record seems to indicate that wanton atrocities are the norm and where the very concept of "regular armed forces" is rather removed from reality.