In an article in today’s New York Times about a deadly raid he led while in Vietnam, former Sen. Bob Kerrey says that during a visit to West Point last week he “read the rules of war” for the first time. What are the rules of war?
U.S. military personnel are governed by two sets of guidelines on how to behave during war or lesser conflicts. One is codified in the Army field manual The Law Of Land Warfare, first published in 1956, which draws on international law, such as the Geneva convention. The manual’s basic principle is that military personnel should “refrain from employing any kind or degree of violence which is not actually necessary for military purposes and that they conduct hostilities with regard for the principles of humanity and chivalry.” More specifically, it describes such things as how civilians and the sick and wounded should be protected from combat; the proper treatment of prisoners of war; and restrictions on certain types of weapons. The second set of guidelines, subsidiary to the first, is known as rules of engagement. Rules of engagement are specific to each military situation and can be modified as circumstances change. For example, rules of engagement might state that soldiers cannot fire on suspected enemy positions without positive identification of the enemy (being fired upon is always considered positive identification). Or that a U.S. airplane cannot fire on aircraft simplyfor buzzing it but must wait for more overtly hostile action. Of course,none of the laws and rules undermines the ultimate right of self-defense.
As a result of such things as the My Lai massacre of villagers by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, soldiers receive much more instruction about the laws of warfare. During Vietnam military personnel were given at best cursory lessons; today everyone in the armed forces is required to attend a yearly class on the subject. And the whole notion of rules of engagement was far more lax during Vietnam than it is now. Today, for example, soldiers do not just get verbal instructions, but might also be issued cards with written instructions on the current rules of engagement of their particular mission.
Explainer thanks Col. John Nelsen and Christopher Bassford of the National War College.