'Senate torture report': a window on rules of war

The Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA interrogations of terrorism suspects should serve as a springboard for a global effort to enforce the rules of war.

A fence surrounds a military area in northeast Poland. According to the Senate report, Poland threatened to halt the transfer of al Qaeda suspects to a secret CIA jail on its soil 11 years ago, but became more "flexible" after the Central Intelligence Agency gave it a large sum of money.

In coming years, a scholar will probably write a book with this title: “A Moral History of the War on Terror.” One chapter will surely look at the Dec. 9 report prepared by Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee about the Central Intelligence Agency’s program to interrogate terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11 attacks. 

Perhaps the book will reveal if the report led to a better understanding of the principles behind the rules of war, so as to curb atrocities such as torture, mass rape, and chemical attacks – or even prevent war. 

Given the report’s partisan approach, however, as well as the partisan reaction to its 6,000 pages, it is not clear if the conclusions will move the needle on how the world should better conduct moral combat. British Prime Minister David Cameron said it best about the need for the report to clear the air on any past use of torture: “We won’t succeed if we lose our moral credibility.”

In the history of warfare, international rules are relatively recent, arising out of Europe’s wars and cemented after World War II. They are not yet universally accepted, let alone practiced. With the rise of nonstate actors such as Al Qaeda and internal conflicts driven by ethnic or religious differences, much of today’s violence ignores moral constraints in favor of total destruction and cruelty. Even in current Iraq, some Sunni tribes armed by the United States in the fight against the Islamic State group are slaughtering entire families of other Sunni tribes aligned with IS. 

As long as advanced countries like the US adhere to rules of war – despite the difficulty of doing so in real threat situations – it should have a rub-off effect. The Taliban in Afghanistan, for example, issued a code last June that calls on their fighters to avoid civilian casualties and not to discriminate based on tribal roots or language. Al Qaeda has warned IS not to behead people. 

Such decrees, while not always followed, at least highlight that those conducting war know they operate within a moral community, such as Muslim society. Those moral instincts arise from a belief in human decency and dignity, which is rooted in a conviction of life as inherently good. 

Rules of war may imply legalism. But they represent a hope for a common understanding of how violence should be used to settle differences, if at all. Not every rule can anticipate every circumstance or the latest technology, such as drones or new interrogation techniques. Merely educating soldiers about the rules is not enough. 

In a 2010 book, “Moral Combat: a History of World War II,” British historian Michael Burleigh quotes Winston Churchill on the need to rely on moral instincts in war: “The letter of the law must not in supreme emergency obstruct those who are charged with its protection and enforcement.... Humanity, not legality, must be our guide.”

The historian also shows Churchill as objecting to attacks on civilians and the killing of downed German pilots. In fact, fundamental to the rules of war is a hope of winning over an enemy. Churchill did not believe in pariah nations, saying he “saw no alternative to the acceptance of Germany as part of the family of Europe.” 

Perhaps that war was shortened because the Allies largely embraced a moral stance. And perhaps the war on terror will be shortened as well, as more of its combatants do the same, especially if this report has the effect intended.

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