The Bargain Theory of War
John’s most recent post raises the question of the nature of the “bargain” theory, as he puts it, of the Geneva Conventions:
In separating lawful and unlawful combatants, the Third Convention creates a basic bargain for those engaged in an international armed conflict. Engage lawfully in combat and, if captured, you will receive the comprehensive treatment protections of the Convention. Ignore the laws of war, and you cannot seek the status given to lawful combatants. POW status is perhaps best seen then as an incentive to follow the rules in armed conflict.
I like this theory, but it is worth pointing out that many people do not like it, as it is in tension with the universalistic aspirations of human rights law, and perhaps of the laws of war themselves. It is worth considering whether the bargain theory is really sustainable.
The implicit premise of the bargain theory is that belligerents (including non-state actors) on both sides of a conflict are worse off if they use the most aggressive tactics and weapons at their disposal, than if they engage in mutual restraint. Consider the tactic of dressing like civilians. A military force, especially a guerilla group, can gain much from engaging in this tactic. The soldiers, by disguising themselves as civilians, might avoid being detected until they have obtained a tactical advantage. They also might induce the other side to kill civilians, which may reduce its support among the local population. Also, of course, an impoverished guerilla group saves the costs of purchasing and maintaining uniforms. I believe that the German army, during the Battle of the Bulge, adopted this tactic in order to penetrate allied lines. But regular armies tend to prefer to wear uniforms for a variety of practical reasons, and so dressing like civilians is mainly a tactic of insurgencies and guerillas.
If soldiers on one side only can use the tactic of disguising soldiers as civilians, then that side gains a militarily advantage. So predictably soldiers on the other side would adopt this or similar tactics in return. The result is that neither side will gain an advantage, while the war will be generally more destructive, with more civilians killed as a result of the confusion about who is a combatant and who is not. The laws of war thus prohibit soldiers from disguising themselves as civilians, an effort to give both sides an incentive to choose less destructive rather than more destructive military tactics. This logic can be extended to many of the other rules in the Geneva and Hague Conventions, as well as the general principles of the laws of war.
But if this is true, it necessarily follows that when one side breaks the rules, the other side must respond in kind. In the current conflict, the United States retaliates against al Qaida, and on John’s theory, the Taliban, for their violations of the laws of war, by depriving captured combatants of POW status—which seems more reasonable and effective than responding in kind by dressing American soldiers in civilian clothes, which in any event is prohibited (as well as pointless). The lack of command structure, if that is the case, is also a key point: if there is no command structure, then American forces cannot expect the enemy to reciprocate America’s own self-restraint, as required by the laws of war. So, again, under the bargain theory, there is no reason for the U.S. to extend POW protections to enemy combatants.
The logic extends farther than the position of the American government, however. The bargain theory, as described by John, gives the victim of law-of-war violations (the United States, here) only one, rather weak tool, for retaliation—elimination of POW status, plus the right to punish war criminals if they are captured. Yet the logic of the bargain theory implies that if this tool is too weak, the United States ought to be allowed to do much more. Put differently, if al Qaida and the Taliban have violated their side of the “bargain,” why should the United States comply with its side of the bargain? Why should the United States feel bound by any of the laws of war in the conflict in Afghanistan, including common Article 3 and, for that matter, the traditional law-of-war principles of proportionality and necessity? If the United States—and other countries, too—made clear that they would retaliate against law-breaking states and non-state entities, by refusing to extend any of the protections of the Geneva Conventions to the law-breakers, wouldn’t this threat in the long run reduce, rather than increase, the costs of war, by more effectively deterring belligerents from breaking the laws of war? This is what the bargain theory implies.
Of course, the Geneva Conventions do not permit such reprisals. They give the bargain theory only limited play by restricting the ways that a belligerent can retaliate for law-breaking on the other side. History, on the other hand, shows that tit-for-tat retaliation for violations of the laws of war has been common. If the bargain theory is accepted, the Geneva Conventions are open to criticism, for excessively restricting reprisals, and the effort to interpret them aggressively as reflecting the bargain theory to a greater extent than they explicitly do, can be defended as bringing them into line with historical practice and the moral logic of the bargain theory.
This is, I think, the source of the uneasiness that many people feel about the bargain theory in general, as well as the type of argument that John has made. It also explains why so many people reject the bargain theory and argue that a belligerent must comply with certain constraints regardless of how the other side acts. This kind of thinking makes no sense from the perspective of the bargain theory because it simply gives the other side a license to do whatever it wants, so that civilians will be worse off in the long run. On the other hand, no government seems willing to explicitly endorse the bargain theory all the way down, suggesting that the bargain theory, at some level, is not politically sustainable.
The reason, then, that some advocate treating all captured belligerents as POWs, and the like, is that they implicitly reject the bargain theory and embrace instead a universalistic interpretation of the laws of war, according to which people have certain basic rights regardless of whether they take the bargain. Ironically, John does not reject this universalistic view: he simply argues that those basic rights are more limited than his critics say they are. But, if this is right, then the argument should be about the scope of the bargain theory, and the location of the floor—those rights that one cannot give up no matter how bad one’s conduct—and John cannot expect his critics to accept the bargain theory without further defense.
Consider again the quotation with which I started. The quotation above sounds reasonable (and I believe it is reasonable) but the choice made by, say, a Taliban soldier is either to obey his commander or not obey his commander, which I suspect is not a choice at all. An ordinary soldier cannot be expected to decide to purchase a uniform and wear it in defiance of the orders of his superior, and while his comrades continue to wear civilian clothes. (And what uniform would he buy, anyway?) So it is the Taliban leadership that decides whether to accept the bargain, while the low-level soldiers bear the consequences of the leadership’s choice. Such is always the case in war, but this is another reason why many readers will reject the bargain theory in the hope that, somehow, the universalistic view can be made to stick.