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The Rules of War
They are being broken profoundly and openly right now. But they still offer a reminder that, despite being capable of horrific violence, human beings are not helpless in its path.
In June 1859, a Swiss businessman named Jean Henry Dunant passed through the Italian town of Castiglione della Stiviere, arriving on the same day as the Battle of Solferino, a major event in both French Emperor Napoleon III’s conquest of Europe and the Second Italian War of Independence.
Close to 300,000 troops under the direct command of Napoleon, his ally Sardinian King Victor Immanuel II, and their enemy, Austrian monarch Franz Joseph I, fought along a ridgeline and wide plain that stretched between Castiglione, Solferino, Guindizzolo, and Medole for well over nine hours, in a disjointed and chaotic engagement that left around 2,400 Austrian troops dead, as well as about 2,500 French and Sardinians, and over 23,000 wounded from both armies. A further 11,000 or so combatants were missing.
Dunant, a committed humanitarian involved in several charities in Geneva, visited the battlefield shortly after the fighting concluded, and watched as the thousands of wounded soldiers flooded into the surrounding towns.
“The crowding in Castiglione became something unspeakable,” Dunant wrote in A Memory of Solferino, his account of the battle and its aftermath that was published in 1863. He continued:
The town was completely transformed into a vast improvised hospital for French and Austrians. The hospital of Castiglione, the churches… were all filled with wounded men, piled on one another and with nothing but straw to lie on. Straw had also been spread in the streets, courtyards and squares, and here and there wooden shelters had been thrown up or pieces of cloth stretched, so that the wounded pouring in from all directions might have a little shelter from the sun.
Dunant left Castiglione deeply affected by the horrors that he had seen, particularly as civilians and soldiers alike struggled to care for the wounded and dead. A Memory of Solferino inspired him to propose the formation of a permanent society of trained volunteers who would help care for wounded combatants during war. This eventually led to the creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
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In 1863, the Red Cross organized a conference in Geneva, Switzerland, which was attended by delegates from all the major nations or kingdoms of Europe, as well as several international representatives. The First Geneva Convention, as it came to be known, set a precedent for international cooperation and debate as to, for lack of a better term, the rules of war.
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In 1949, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, another convention in Geneva established what is still today generally understood to be the international rules governing armed conflict—a series of treaties that were ratified (with some reservations) by 196 countries. Since then, there have been various protocols adopted by some, but not all, of those signatories, many of which dissect the finer points of what is and is not allowed during the very human process of murder for political gain.
It is a good thing, I think, to have rules like this written down. The Fourth Geneva Convention, for instance, broadly set in place the rule that militaries should not indiscriminately attack civilian populations of other nations. Further provisions to this convention lent greater specificity—defining, for instance, which people could be classified as civilians, and outlining what protections they had depending on factors like their citizenship status and the relationships between the governing bodies of the forces involved. There is a lot of fine print, in other words, largely coming from a good place, which is that if you are going to use violence to achieve your aims, it should largely be directed at other armed and hopefully uniformed combatants who represent the power you are attempting to destroy, and not on general everyday people who are just trying to get on with their lives.
As we all know, though, that fine print has created a morass of loopholes and half-ratifications and signatories with reservations that have rendered the actual legal power of the various conventions in Geneva basically moot. War, as a concept, defies the existence of any rules or control. It is about the power to kill, and we have devised so many more ways to do so than could ever be governed by some nice words on a piece of presumably very expensive paper in Switzerland.
Israel, a state created in 1948, eventually signed on to the first four Geneva Conventions in 1951, after which it generally decided it was done. Future provisions that established more nuance on who was and wasn’t a protected citizen were broadly ignored. The Gordian knot of “international law” has also given the state of Israel, like basically every other country that has wanted to kill some people within or outside of its borders, the ability to flout the Geneva Conventions whenever it wants to. Israel trusts that its lawyers and the complicated web of reciprocal power relationships will smooth things over—to the extent that they need smoothing over, because it turns out international law only really matters if you lose a war badly enough that someone else can chuck you in The Hague.
And yet, the truths in the Geneva Conventions are self-evident. They should ring true, and appear vital, to any human being with enough empathy and compassion to believe that all members of our species deserve the same rights and dignities. It is simple: You do not target civilians in war. You do not shoot them, you do not bomb them, you do not starve them or freeze them or burn them or otherwise cause their deaths. When I think of violence, an ever-present force in this world, I know that there are applications of it that can be justified and applications of it that cannot. The fact that these two types of war are often inseparable does not negate the fact that we must try to make that distinction, and continue making it if we ever want to lessen the amount of killing in this world.
There are few better examples of this than what happened last Saturday. Armed members of Hamas broke through Israel’s barriers surrounding the blockaded Gaza Strip and attacked Israeli military positions in a multi-pronged assault, penetrating into residential areas of Israeli towns and cities. There they killed hundreds of civilians: women, children, the elderly, people in their cars, people at a rave, people in their homes.
Hamas killed hundreds of soldiers too, handing the Israeli Defense Forces their worst battlefield loss in a generation. But as of now, the ferocity of their attacks on civilians has overshadowed any legally or morally justifiable acts of war they may have engaged in.
What Hamas did last weekend was a war crime, an atrocity, an act of deep evil that should horrify and disgust every moral person forced to witness it, up close or from afar. But these crimes did not spring from nowhere. Nor were they the genesis of the current war. Nor were they even close, by any rational metric, to the atrocities that larger nations and more powerful actors have inflicted upon their enemies in the decades since we tried to codify how and when it is acceptable to kill.
And in the days to come, it seems certain that the atrocities committed last Saturday will be dwarfed by an act of evil far greater than any we have seen in decades. On Thursday night, the IDF ordered all civilian residents of the Gaza Strip north of the Wadi Gaza wetlands to evacuate to the south, a ludicrous and completely impossible request for nearly all of the area’s 1,000,000-plus residents. In the days since Hamas’s attack, Israel says it has dropped over 6,000 bombs on the Gaza Strip. As of this writing, at least 2,200 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed. Images of the Strip show entire city blocks leveled; morgues are stacking bodies in parking lots; families are down to one meal a day. Israel has cut off Gaza’s access to electricity, water, fuel, and food. Internet access has been severely curtailed. Hospitals, many running without consistent power, and overflowing with patients, have been given just hours to evacuate. The IDF is promising safe corridors for travel that will be open only for minutes, journalists are being killed both in Gaza and across the border in Lebanon. Israel has already surpassed the death toll Hamas inflicted on its soldiers and citizens and will almost certainly exceed it by orders of magnitude in the coming days. In other words, the damage—the airstrikes, growing hunger, denial of electricity and water and internet—has already been horrendous, and there is much worse to come.
When the Israeli Air Force bombs a building, it often performs what it calls a “soft knock” strike first, hitting the building’s roof with a small explosive charge as a form of a warning shot that is purportedly intended to notify civilians to evacuate. A few seconds or minutes later, it will usually flatten the building.
What we are seeing now is a soft knock on over 2,000,000 people living in one of the most densely packed areas on the planet. The larger bomb is likely already on its way.
What form that genocide—for there is no other appropriate word for it in the English language—will take is yet to be seen. There is a reasonable assumption that Israel will soon launch a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, undoubtedly accompanied by an even more fierce bombing campaign. The established wisdom is that a street-to-street battle for Gaza City, the largest population center in the northern part of the Strip, would be a disaster for civilians and fighters who live there and for the invading IDF, but the bloodlust dominating Israel and its allies may spur it to happen nonetheless.
A more likely possibility is that Israel mounts a bombing campaign on a scale we have not seen in the modern era, something comparable in ferocity to the siege of Grozny but leveled at a far larger and denser-packed population. Bombs, it must be said, are not a particularly efficient method of killing, and my fear is that all of this will create a situation of extreme deprivation that will kill untold thousands through famine and thirst and disease and slow, preventable deaths that the IDF and its backers deliberately refuse to alleviate.
On Friday morning, the Palestine Red Crescent Society—the local branch of the organization Jean Dunant’s work inspired—published a sparse, desperate appeal to humanity.
“We do not have the means to evacuate the sick and the wounded in our hospitals, or the elderly and the disabled,” it read. “There are no safe areas in the whole of the Gaza Strip. Humanity is on the line. The world must intervene to stop this catastrophe [from unfolding] in the next few hours. War is not the answer. Killing civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure is not the answer. All parties must abide by the laws of war and protect the civilian population.”
I do not know what will happen beyond this. Nobody does; I doubt the generals of the IDF or Israel’s fractured political leadership have a clear idea of the method and extent of atrocities they are about to commit.
Which brings me back to the “rules” of war. All of this, as should be clear to any rational observer, is against those rules. The IDF’s actions since Hamas’s attack alone have broken the Geneva Conventions more times than I can even begin to count. In context, as well, Israel’s entire relationship with the Gaza Strip has been defined by collective punishment and wanton disregard for human life for some 70 years; its current actions are only relevant because they appear to indicate that the country is seeking a final and decisive escalation of a slow genocide carried out over generations.
Israel’s stated goal in its current offensive is to eradicate Hamas from the Gaza Strip, a mission which, though it is both completely open-ended and practically unfeasible, provides cover for Israel to break any rule and end any life they desire until external or internal pressures demand that they stop. And right now, that pressure does not exist. Israel is not alone, and its allies are standing by in support. On Friday, the U.S. State Department circulated internal warnings against their staff using the phrases “de-escalation/ceasefire,” “end to violence/bloodshed,” and “restoring calm;” and White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called statements by lawmakers urging Israel to use restraint “repugnant” and “disgraceful.” Republican war hawks in Congress have praised the Biden Administration’s response to the crisis, and the editorial boards of most of America’s largest newspapers have offered full-throated support for Israel.
“Democracies like Israel and the United States are stronger and more secure when we act according to the rule of law,” President Biden said in an address on Monday, referring to a conversation he had with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Terrorists purposefully target civilians, kill them. We uphold the laws of war — the law of war. It matters. There’s a difference.”
Biden knows, as does Netanyahu, as does Hamas, that the laws of war writ large in Geneva are an empty threat. They cannot constrain any person with the power to inflict violence from doing so. They have not stopped the U.S. and they have not stopped Israel and they will, despite their noble origins, do nothing to stop what will come to pass in Gaza. The only thing they can do, in my opinion, is provide some scant reassurance that human beings do know right from wrong.
The Geneva Conventions, like most good tenets of governance that are often ignored, are largely a reiteration of basic moral truths that almost all people know. We should not harm the innocent, we should kill only when we must, and we should always allow for the alleviation of the wounds we cause, through aid and medical care and treatment of fighters and civilians alike. It is clear now that all of those laws are being broken and will continue to be broken. There is nothing that can stop it now; any action the United States or even the people of Israel take will only affect the final toll at this disaster’s end.
My hope, then, in the face of one of the defining acts of evil of our time, is that the “rules of war” offer us something else. The Geneva Conventions were born out of a reaction to the aftermath of a horrific battle, and though they have usually failed to thwart further death, they have given some structure for people to dissent from inhuman acts and begin the process of healing from them. The Palestinian Red Crescent and many, many aid groups will have a monumental task ahead of them to save lives still at risk and repair others that were damaged in the coming months; that they exist at all is in some way a victory against the darker impulses of human nature.
What the rules give us—citizens of America or Israel or any party aligned with them— is the means to demand that the acts being committed in our names are recognized for what they are: evil. They give us a framework to look back upon when fear or anger cloud our judgment and provide fertile ground for the ugliness all humans are capable of. There is no religious book that can stop its readers from sinning, and the laws of war will never manage to civilize the process of killing. The refrain of “never again” is always hollow—this process will repeat, these crimes will be attempted once more. But my hope is that now, when the rules of war are being broken so profoundly and so openly, more of us will reckon with the reality that Jean Dunant saw in Castiglione: that despite being capable of horrific violence, human beings are not helpless in its path. If so, there might be a chance that the next time the rules are broken, we will demand that those in power act before it’s too late.