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All's Fair in War: Guerrillas, Justice and Counter-Insurgency

When I watched The Battle For Algiers, I was amazed how succinctly the film summarized the western perspective of counter-insurgency warfare. A reporter asks Ben M’hidi, a captured terrorist leader, “Isn’t it cowardly to use your women’s baskets to carry bombs, which have taken so many innocent lives?”

Ben M’hidi responds, “Isn’t it even more cowardly to attack defenseless villages with napalm bombs that kill many thousands of times more? Obviously, planes would make things easier for us. Give us your bombers, sir, and you can have our baskets.”

The scene is short but poignant, illustrating the truth that war isn't fair--for either side.

It’s one of those phrases that is so universal it almost becomes meaningless: All’s fair in love and war. (First said by John Lyly by the way.) Used more often to describe love than war, the sentiment is more true for war. War's brutality, destruction and unflinching moral calculus are unarguable facts of life. (This is why Eric C argues that war is the opposite of civilization.) The higher the costs, the more laws, traditions and customs lose their value.

It is something I feel I’ve understood since was a kid. There can be no “rules” for war. If life and death are on the line, both sides will do whatever they can to survive. Winston understood this in the novel 1984, when he promised to throw acid in the face of a child. The American revolutionaries understood this when they used guerrilla tactics to overthrow the British. The Taliban understand it now in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, many Soldiers don't understand this. In the New Yorker, (in the article "Kill Company" that we discussed in our post, "Operation Judgment Day.") one Soldier describes the "frustration with what an insurgency is--that we are fighting a bunch of cowards who won't fight us man to man, who hide amongst women and children, who don't wear uniforms." Calling your enemy a coward ignores the reality of war. An insurgent doesn't wear a uniform for the same reason the US Army wears body armor, it helps each survive. Or win the war.

My men in 4th Platoon frequently said the same thing. They called IEDs unfair after personally experiencing the tragedy they can cause. My men weren't unique: soldiers despise the IED. An unseen enemy just does not sit well with American Soldiers who want a stand up fight. In Westerns, the good guy and the bad guy faced off in a duel, what could be more American? In Afghanistan and Iraq the bad guys are on the second story with a rifle, shooting before the gunslinger can even see them.

Yet how unfair must guided bombs, helicopters, and a limitless supply of training and ammunition seem to the insurgents? We must appear ridiculous in context. Huge armored warriors who can fire nonstop, and who introduce a new vehicle every other year with more gadgets, more weapons, and more intelligence. In fact, Pakistani's consider drone attacks cowardly. (I also doubt that saying "we worked hard to earn our gigantic military budget" would mollify our critics.]

All is fair in war, because when you fight, nothing is fair (especially for the civilians). Because nothing is fair, all is fair.

twelve comments

The lack of this sort of thinking, on how others percieve us, putting us in our enemies shows, is probably the ggreatest single flaw we have today. It isn’t specific to America, or today’s war, but if we tried to understand—not condone—terrorists, we could fight them better.

Of course it isn’t fair – it’s usually about overwhelming the opposition in an unfair way.
Yeah right ROEs, Conventions of Geneva and that sort of thing… and the world expects the “good guys” to stick to those while the rest butchers on, rapes and sinks down so low that you wonder why they are doing this to themselves, that they allow themselves to become guilty of such crimes…

Understanding… that is right, we COULD solve all problems with understand and communication, but unfortunately there are also those who aren’t willing to do so.

Erik and Michael, since you are mentioning it here again, war the opposite to civilization, I really would like you both to take a look of this poem below the picture and tell me how you relate to that:

@ Sarah – I like the last stanza: History will write my final ending,—Will add up right and wrong of all the men—who met in anger and hate,—without ever getting to know one another.— A history, which should have told about
the greatness of civilization!

On your point about the “good guys” I think we need to relaize war has changed, and that obeying ROE’s and the geneva convention will help us win the wars faster…

@Sarah- Interesting you point out that “there are also those who aren’t willing to do so.” I think diplomacy starts when each side first acknowledges it has those irreconcilable elements. Good piece and I echo Eric’s comments about the ending having a similar theme.

As to Eric’s point, I want to emphasize that failure to understand our enemies morale, and how that affects his tactics and thinking is one of our greatest flaws. Saying a tactic is unfair limits our ability to combat that; calling an enemy a coward simplifies him too much.

The “Battle for Algiers” is a fantastic film that really changed things for me. I am glad you are putting information like this up because too many Americans are not thinking about any but themselves.

Just thinking about Sarah’s comment. The good guys have to be better than the bad guys because that’s what makes us good guys. It is do unto others as you wish to be treated. There is no clause at the end about “unless they are your enemies.”

I was in Basic Training when Abu Ghraib hit the press. Do you know what our Drill Sergeant told us? That these idiots are going to get soldiers killed, and he was right. Abu Ghraib and the release of the video of Saddam Hussein´s execution helped fuel the insurgency because it supported the predictable image Iraqis had of the US military being belligerent occupiers (and from an Iraqi perspective I don´t think that was an entirely inaccurate view).

Abiding by the international rules of war is necessary in the “PR War”, which is probably one of the most critical areas to a counter insurgency. Insurgents also have to fight the “PR War” and compete for sympathy among the local population against the US Military, but they have the advantage of being “locals” and knowing their environment and how best to operate in it, who to threaten and who to win the support of etc. If they fail to win sympathy or fear from the local population they would be quickly informed on the the US military if they tried to hide among the population.

War will never be fair, there is no comparison between the insurgency and the US military. In the end somebody somewhere has the power to make a phone call and turn their country into a smoldering radioactive glass crater. Insurgents may have the advantage of knowing the land, the people, the language, and being able to wait, but in the end they would have no hope in a conventional warfare.

PR war now goes part and parcel with regular war. To bemoan the liberal press, as some conservative soldiers do, is to bemoan the future. it isn’t going away.

Hi guys,

yeah, thought the poem might speak to you, since you seem to have so many similar thoughts on this blog…

right, war has changed… a lot! Somethings worse – others for the better…

I understand Michael and Eric, what you are saying in terms of understanding your counterpart, diplomacy etc. It clearly indicates that you are decent and sane people and are looking for a logical answer and are willing to do your best. So don’t ever change, because you’re the hope for the future.

However, there’s another side to it. You see not everybody is as sane as you are. There is a small percentage among us who don’t want what’s sensible and who will never question themselves or their actions. Those … do just wanna finish their opponents off because they see a threat in everyone who survives well. And there you can’t use reason. Those people just have to be stopped before they make a really big mess.

Re PR and press:
You’re right about PR, Eric!
But I’m also not much of a fan of the press… freedom of speech and the right to inform – yes, of course! But how much information does the press give us? And how reliable is it? It’s just a one sided push in order to sell a message and to create a certain desired effect. The things we find in the media are usually manipulated and give the wrong impression. They hardly ever tell the whole story, never objectively and in context and usually it’s either to sell or to create a dangerous world. As well known German journalist said. “Freedom of the press is merely the freedom of 200 rich families to get printed what they want others to believe!”

And while I’m at it: do you guys know Damien Lewis? He’s a British journalist who also experienced that his editors won’t let him write what he wants to write and so he found himself a niche: he writes books, sometimes action stories, where he can wrap up the truth in such a way that people are interested in reading it in spite of all… I really admire him for that!
he has written several different books but you would probably enjoy reading “Bloody Heroes” since it’s about Afghanistan…

Hey Sofia, I’ll have to add that book to my ever growing reading list…

Nice to hear about Damien Lewis. I had a similar experience, except I went to Washington, DC and worked at a Defense Department think tank to try to bring a little sanity to our foreign policy after living in Israel/Palestine for two years. But I was censored or ignored at every turn.

So now I’m writing a book called Fast Times in Palestine that, like Mr. Lewis’s books, tries to tell the truth about the Middle East in a way people can relate to and enjoy reading. Synopsis and outline here:


Here’s hoping all these little efforts can build up and make a real difference.

Hey Pamela, I look forward to checking out your blog and your book. Thanks for stopping by.