War Stories

Breaking Protocols

Saddam’s suicide bombers aren’t terrorists.

When Iraqi soldiers dress in civilian clothes and set off bombs at U.S. military checkpoints, or when they pretend to surrender and then pull out rifles and fire at U.S. troops, are they committing acts of “terrorism”? Bush administration officials have invoked the word. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer recounted such incidents, then said, “We’re really dealing with elements of terrorism inside Iraq that are being employed now against our troops.” Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said “some liken” such attacks “to terrorism.” Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the attacks “look and feel like terrorism.”

It is no mere matter of semantics to point out that these attacks, whatever else one might call them, have nothing to do with terrorism. Many definitions of that word are floating around, but they all agree that terrorism involves an attack on civilians or private property, not on soldiers or military installations. The U.S. State Department officially defines it as “premeditated, politically motivated violence propagated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” (Italics added.) A similar Defense Department definition adds that terrorist attacks or threats are designed “to achieve political, religious or ideological objectives.” Paul Pillar, former deputy chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, cites the key ingredient of terrorism: “It is aimed at civilians—not at military targets or combat-ready troops.”

In other words, any attack on armed troops in wartime cannot, by definition, be terrorism.

However, these attacks are clear violations of international law. Specifically, Article 37 of Protocol 1 to the Geneva Conventions, signed in 1977, prohibits “perfidy”—defined as “acts inviting the confidence of an adversary to lead him to believe that he is entitled to, or is obliged to accord, protection under the rules of international law.” Specific examples of perfidy include “the feigning of an intent to negotiate under a flag of truce or of a surrender” and “the feigning of civilian, non-combatant status.”

The Iraqi acts of perfidy are particularly nefarious because they endanger all Iraqi civilians who happen to be near a battlefield. As a result of these deceptions, U.S. and British troops are now forced to view all civilians as possible combatants; blurring the distinction between civilians and combatants tends to nullify the basic point of the protocol. This was no doubt Saddam’s intent—to keep U.S. and British troops from getting too friendly with the Iraqi people and therefore to keep the Iraqi people from getting too friendly with those troops.

There are plenty of legitimate reasons, formal and otherwise, for denouncing these Iraqi tactics. Why did the Bush administration invoke an illegitimate reason by calling the tactics “terrorism”? I can think of three explanations.

First, the United States did not ratify the 1977 Protocol, so might find it awkward to cite the document now.

Second, as some high-ranking officers have since admitted, U.S. military planners did not foresee these kinds of attacks. (“The enemy we’re fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against,”one general put it.) So, Bush officials might now have an interest in depicting such attacks as unforeseeable—acts of terrorism and, therefore, outside the normal realm of warfare (even though such attacks have in fact been common enough throughout military history—most recently in Vietnam and Bosnia —that the protocol’s scribes felt compelled to outlaw them).

Third, it is by now well-known that policies will gain maximum support if they are somehow linked to the war on terrorism. Over the past 18 months, President Bush has uttered “Sept. 11” and “Iraq” in the same sentence so many times that a large percentage of the American public believes Iraq had something to do with the attack on the World Trade Center. Describing Iraqi battlefield tactics as “terrorist attacks” subtly, even subliminally, reinforces this message.