16 Jan Don’t Forget About Hors De Combat — Shovel Version
On January 9, Command Sergeant Major John Wayne Troxell, the senior enlisted adviser to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, posted a rather incendiary statement on Facebook about the future of ISIS:
ISIS needs to understand that the Joint Force is on orders to annihilate them. So, they have two options should they decide to come up against the United States, our allies and partners: surrender or die!
If they surrender, we will safeguard them to their detainee facility cell, provide them chow, a cot and due process.
HOWEVER, if they choose not to surrender, then we will kill them with extreme prejudice, whether that be through security force assistance, by dropping bombs on them, shooting them in the face, or beating them to death with our entrenching tools.
The statement has provoked horror in many quarters — particularly concerning Troxell’s colourful endorsement of beating ISIS members to death with shovels. That horror, in turn, has elicited a long post at Lawfare from Laurie Blank explaining that, in fact, beating ISIS members to death with a shovel is completely lawful. As Blank explains, IHL permits lethal force to be used against combatants, a shovel is neither an indiscriminate weapon nor one that necessarily causes superfluous injury and/or unnecessary suffering, and there is no obligation not to attack a combatant who has not affirmatively surrendered. Blank thus concludes that “[i]n fact, though gruesome, the use of a shovel to kill an enemy in combat is entirely within the bounds of the law.”
As far as it goes, Blank’s analysis of IHL is absolutely correct. Her conclusion, however, overlooks one of the most basic principles of IHL: namely, that it is categorically unlawful to intentionally attack — or continue to attack — a combatant who is hors de combat because he is unconscious or incapacitated by wounds. As Jonathan Horowitz pointed out a few days ago at Just Security, essentially anticipating Blank’s post, once an ISIS fighter was rendered unconscious or incapacitated with a shovel, it would violate IHL and be a war crime to continue to hit him:
Someone who surrenders is only one of three types of fighters that the laws of war protect from attack, known as hors de combat. The other types are 1) anyone who is in the power of an adverse party (such as an unwillingly captured ISIS fighter) and 2) anyone who is defenceless because of unconsciousness, shipwreck, wounds or sickness. What this means is that, similar to ISIS fighters who surrender, these others types of people hors de combat also can’t be legally bombed or “beaten to death with entrenching tools.” If an ISIS enemy fighter is wounded and unconscious, he surely can’t surrender. But U.S. soldiers equally can’t then legally shoot that unconscious fighter in the face. Doing so would be a war crime.
Blank knows all three prongs of the hors de combat rule (Art. 41(1) of the First Additional Protocol) as well as anyone, which is what makes her failure to discuss that critical limitation on the lawfulness of using a shovel as a weapon all the more odd. Words don’t just matter in war, as Jonathan powerfully notes. They also matter in popular discourse. It would be very unfortunate if a reader not particularly familiar with IHL came away from Blank’s post thinking it is “entirely within the bounds of the law” to beat an ISIS fighter — or any combatant — to death with a shovel. That isn’t the law, nor should it be. Just as you can’t beat an ISIS fighter to death with a shovel after he has surrendered or been captured, you can’t beat him to death with a shovel after he is unconscious or incapacitated.