[OBSERVER]Laws of war call for state control of troopsPresident Roh Moo-hyun’s visit with President George W. Bush took place in the context of the South Korean government’s strong desire to regain operational control of its military from the United States in the event of war. Seoul already has secured such control in peacetime.
From the American perspective, an important military story is largely beneath the headlines, emphasizing developments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The U.S. Army has revised Field Manual 2-22.3 “Human Intelligence Collector Operations” to include the explicit prohibition of torture and other abuse.
In the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration has publicly defended the use of torture. A proposed version of the manual would have included a classified how-to section. The administration has argued that because al Qaeda is a terrorist group, the laws of war do not apply.
Historically, the United States has played a major role in developing the laws of warfare. This is no surprise, given the ethical grounding of our Constitution.
During the Civil War, Francis Lieber of Columbia Law School, a military adviser to President Lincoln, wrote a treatise promulgated in 1863 as General Orders 100 that was used for a half-century. The orders described the rights of noncombatants, partisans, prisoners and spies, along with prohibited weapons such as poisons. The Lincoln Administration, which unleashed a military force against the economic infrastructure of the South, also sought to limit unnecessary cruelty and destruction.
Professor Lieber knew combat first-hand. A German veteran of the Napoleonic wars, one of his sons fought for the Confederacy while two served in the Union Army. The Confederate was killed; another son lost an arm.
The American example encouraged the 1899 Hague Convention on “Laws and Customs of War on Land,” followed by the Geneva Conventions. During the Second World War, Allied leaders Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt emphasized applying the laws to war, which in turn led to substantial expansion of the Geneva Conventions in 1949.
In the summer of 1972, I graduated from the Army’s Infantry Officers Basic Course at Fort Benning, Georgia. This was during the intense controversy concerning the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Lt. William Calley, in command of the platoon involved, was under house arrest on the post, convicted of murder. Later, President Nixon would pardon him.
The Army gave great emphasis to legal conduct in the field. One training film, a low-budget effort from earlier in the war, showed an American officer forcing a peasant to precede him in checking out a tunnel concealed under a shrine. After the lights came on, our instructor noted that the behavior in that scene was no longer condoned. A more contemporary color film featured a heroic black sergeant. When his commander tried to send a peasant into a mine field, this Pentagon Sidney Poitier volunteered to go instead. The audience laughed, an appropriate reaction to such obvious Hollywood-style oversimplification.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military was suffering terrible morale, drug, race and discipline problems, directly related to Vietnam. Recovery took a long time. Unconventional warfare presented special problems, requiring in turn a special emphasis on ethics.
The new field manual has no classified section. The U.S. military deserves credit for ensuring this guide remains in the right format. The military remains the embodiment of the values and strength of the nation-state. South Korea deserves credit for seeking full operational control of its own forces.
* The writer is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin, U.S.A. He can be reached at
by Arthur I. Cyr