Lines get blurred on the battlefield. The only thing that clearly gives one side the moral high ground is their ability to follow the rules of law. Sure, it may make troops fight with one hand tied behind their back, but it is a line that should never be crossed.
The laws of war are clearly defined by the International Committee of the Red Cross, United Nations, and the International Criminal Court. Many laws are self-explanatory. In general, they state that wars are only to be fought among the fighters and all collateral damage should be limited — that wars be fought to end the enemy, not cause suffering.
While the overarching themes may be self-evident, there are many laws in place to prevent a sort of domino effect from happening — one that would eventually cause unnecessary harm or death. We've discussed a few of the more obscure laws in a previous article, but there are still plenty to discuss.
1. Saying the phrase, "no quarter given" (Fourth Hague Convention. Article 23 (d))
Because anything said by a commander or a leader is to be taken as a direct order, even just uttering the phrase, "no quarter given" is against the laws of war — regardless of the circumstance.
Quarter, or the act of taking prisoners of war, should always be a top priority if any combatant has surrendered or has lost the ability to fight. This is such a big deal that it is clearly given its own rule.
Even if the phrase is spoken in jest by someone with authority over another, it's a war crime.
(Photo by Sgt. Ken Scar)
2. Using CS gas on combatants (Chemical Weapons Convention Art I (5))
The use of riot control gas is a gray area. It is deployed in moments of civil unrest, but it cannot be used in addition to deadly force.
Meaning, against a large crowd of aggressive (but not violent) protesters, non-lethal CS gas may be used to accomplish dispersion. The reason such gas is banned from war, however, is because it removes combatants from a fight and causes unnecessary suffering. If the goal is to detain the combatant, it's fine. The moment someone opens fire on an incapacitated individual, however, it's a war crime.
It's one or the other. Not both.
(Photo by Staff Sgt. Zachary Holden)
3. Using light blue headgear in combat (Geneva Convention Prot. I Art. 85)
There aren't too many wrong answers in designing a combat uniform. As long as it follows the general color palette of a given area, it's usually fair game and used by nearly everyone. The only color that is strictly off-limits is the shade of blue used by UN peacekeepers.
The use of light blue on headgear may misrepresent a combatant's intentions. The light blue headgear is officially recognized because it can be seen from a distance. UN Peacekeepers have their own guidelines, which include never initiating combat unless absolutely necessary. And attacking a UN peacekeeper opens up an entirely different can of worms.
Those who are not with the UN are forbidden from using this color.
Besides, light blue isn't really a choice camouflage pattern in most environments.
(Photo by Lance Cpl. Maximiliano Rosas)
4. Even slightly interfering with Red Cross workers (First Geneva Convention Art. 9)
Medical professionals with the International Red Cross are heavily protected by the laws of war. It's fairly well known that harming them is a war crime and forcibly stopping them from giving aid is also a war crime. What you might not know is that "interfering with an aid worker" is loosely defined — and for good reason.
In the past, combatants would stop aid workers from leaving their area so that they only give aid to their troops. But Red Cross workers aren't supposed to take sides. They need to be able to give equal and unbiased treatment to all wounded on the battlefield.
Anything more than a routine security check is off-limits.
Their focus is healing the injured and wounded. Anything that prevents them from saving any life should be avoided.
(Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Steve Smith)
5. Anything involving fresh waterways or farms (Geneva Convention Prot. I Art. 51-54)
Intentionally damaging a drinking well is punishable by The Hague. Unintentionally doing so is treated just as harshly.
There is the caveat of "military necessity," which would protect a combatant that is forced to fight on a farm or a river that is used as drinking water. Ideally, all fighting would take place where, without a shadow of a doubt, no food or water will be poisoned or damaged by conflict. Sometimes, however, you're not given a choice.
Military necessity may require troops to engage the enemy on a farm and accidents, unfortunately, happen. But willfully attacking a civilian's livestock is not necessary.
(Photo by Pfc. David Devich)