When I watched The Battle For Algiers, I was amazed how succinctly the film summarized the western perspective of counter-insurgency warfare. A reporter asks Ben M’hidi, a captured terrorist leader, “Isn’t it cowardly to use your women’s baskets to carry bombs, which have taken so many innocent lives?”
Ben M’hidi responds, “Isn’t it even more cowardly to attack defenseless villages with napalm bombs that kill many thousands of times more? Obviously, planes would make things easier for us. Give us your bombers, sir, and you can have our baskets.”
The scene is short but poignant, illustrating the truth that war isn't fair--for either side.
It’s one of those phrases that is so universal it almost becomes meaningless: All’s fair in love and war. (First said by John Lyly by the way.) Used more often to describe love than war, the sentiment is more true for war. War's brutality, destruction and unflinching moral calculus are unarguable facts of life. (This is why Eric C argues that war is the opposite of civilization.) The higher the costs, the more laws, traditions and customs lose their value.
It is something I feel I’ve understood since was a kid. There can be no “rules” for war. If life and death are on the line, both sides will do whatever they can to survive. Winston understood this in the novel 1984, when he promised to throw acid in the face of a child. The American revolutionaries understood this when they used guerrilla tactics to overthrow the British. The Taliban understand it now in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, many Soldiers don't understand this. In the New Yorker, (in the article "Kill Company" that we discussed in our post, "Operation Judgment Day.") one Soldier describes the "frustration with what an insurgency is--that we are fighting a bunch of cowards who won't fight us man to man, who hide amongst women and children, who don't wear uniforms." Calling your enemy a coward ignores the reality of war. An insurgent doesn't wear a uniform for the same reason the US Army wears body armor, it helps each survive. Or win the war.
My men in 4th Platoon frequently said the same thing. They called IEDs unfair after personally experiencing the tragedy they can cause. My men weren't unique: soldiers despise the IED. An unseen enemy just does not sit well with American Soldiers who want a stand up fight. In Westerns, the good guy and the bad guy faced off in a duel, what could be more American? In Afghanistan and Iraq the bad guys are on the second story with a rifle, shooting before the gunslinger can even see them.
Yet how unfair must guided bombs, helicopters, and a limitless supply of training and ammunition seem to the insurgents? We must appear ridiculous in context. Huge armored warriors who can fire nonstop, and who introduce a new vehicle every other year with more gadgets, more weapons, and more intelligence. In fact, Pakistani's consider drone attacks cowardly. (I also doubt that saying "we worked hard to earn our gigantic military budget" would mollify our critics.]
All is fair in war, because when you fight, nothing is fair (especially for the civilians). Because nothing is fair, all is fair.