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War Rules


“All’s fair in love and war.”
-popular saying

“All’s fair in love and war” is usually taken to mean that nothing’s fair in love or war, that anything goes, and regular rules don’t apply. Concepts like ‘crime of passion’ and ‘fog of war’ indicate reduced responsibility. You may do things in the extreme states-like have and revenge sex, and kill-which you cannot do otherwise. Honor killing to avenge sexual misconduct or shame is sanctioned in some societies and war is sanctioned in most.

What are the rules of war? For us, the Geneva Conventions-distinguish combatants and civilians, and care for the wounded, prisoners of war, victims of armed conflicts. Also don’t use asphyxiating or poison gases, expanding bullets, or bacteriological weapons. (Forbidding land mines continues to be debated in international forums.) The great Chinese warrior Sun Tzu suggested in the sixth century BCE that there should be some limit to the waging of war. The idea of ‘rules’ suggests limit and control and reason. In practice the rules are often ignored or waived as stopping war is more difficult than starting it. The Marine appetite to ‘get some’ is not easily converted to ‘humane care.’ The soldier you shoot who dies is enemy dead; the sniper you wound who languishes is your humane responsibility. In the US Civil War, Confederate Officer Henry Wirz was executed for murdering Federal prisoners of war. Robert MacNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, mused in the film “The Fog of War” that the civilian bombing of Tokyo he planned in World War II, would have been a war crime if we had lost the war.

In pursuing the invasion of Iraq, the US administration flouted the UN international forum, contemned and then announced compliance with the Geneva Conventions, and sought legal opinions arguing that when in a state of war the President has absolute and overriding powers-specifically with regard to torture and detention. The Executive Director of Human Rights Watch said “the horrors of Abu Ghraib were not simply the acts of individual soldiers. Abu Ghraib resulted from decisions made by the Bush administration to cast the rules aside.”

War rules for Caesar were absolute and overriding-he razed, decimated, destroyed every resisting inhabitant, sowed salt in the earth. He led his legions personally, as did Napoleon and Sun Tzu. Our war president has not. Like his major war counselors, he pursues war from a safe distance, as do proponents of torture like Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz, whose legal reasoning is basically that all’s fair in war.

Whereas nothing’s fair in war.

DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at:


DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at:

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