The laws that govern normal behavior on earth (e.g., “Thou shalt not kill”) do not apply in heaven, because there they are unnecessary. The laws that govern normal behavior on earth also do not apply in hell, because there no one can hope to keep them. I am not the first to notice that “war is hell”.

Following both World War I and World War II, the coalition of winning nations attempted to reorganize the world under new laws. Borders of empires were redrawn, with new nations called into being for the convenience of the moment, not always paying much attention to the historical identities of the people living there, or to the economic viability of their futures. My own family’s links to military service (to the best of my knowledge) began at that time with a paternal grandfather who marched around Russia as part of an allied expeditionary force trying to keep the White Russians from being overwhelmed by the Red Russians after the fall of the Czar.

In many ways, this was what always happens after a decisive war; the winners always make the new rules and claim some “divine right” to do so. However, this was the first century in which the battlefields really ranged over the whole planet. Alexander the Great didn’t really conquer the whole world — the Chinese and Mesoamerican civilizations would have disagreed, for example. And, while the Napoleonic Wars did include  naval combat in every significant military theatre, the populations of the major combatants never permitted the massive land engagements seen in Europe to occur in many other parts of the globe.

So the 20th Century was the first time that a world-wide “monopoly of force” was possible. And in earthly civilization, it is monopoly of force that backs, defines, and makes possible the rule of law. (This is not heaven, after all.)

Consider civilian law. Would laws be obeyed by all if police forces were abolished? Are laws obeyed by all if people believe that police FORCE will not be brought to bear effectively to stop disobedience?

How that monopoly of force is subdivided and controlled differs from community to community, of course. Wheat and Tares threads, such as this one on war crimes, contain their share of political debates about how that control should be exercised, but that there is a connection of monopoly of force to civilian law seems pretty self-evident.

Therefore, when the control of any monopoly of force is itself violently contested, either within a “community” — as in the case of a civil war or rebellion — or between communities having their own separate identities, histories, and power structures, we enter a situation that fits uncomfortably with notions of civilian law.

Things do not automatically descend into total chaos; there is still the possibility of a power structure, even in hell. And so, “laws of war” can exist even during conflict. They can even be codified by the winners of past conflicts, even if everyone knows that those laws will be retroactively redefined by the winners of the current conflict.

Such codification can actually serve to deter violations, if only because the leadership of each competing power structure understands that they could end up on the losing side of the contest. And such deterrence can serve an important moral value in opposing the descent into chaos. However, such deterrence has its limitations, precisely because the winners can (and do) often grant themselves absolution. You might lose, but you might win, too.

So the strategic and tactical particularities of a given conflict tend to produce unpredictable changes in the laws of war that get ratified or rejected afterward by the winning community according to its own values, needs, and interests. The ending of the World Wars thus led many to hope that the existence of a single winning community would be powerful enough to extend the sphere of “civilian” law into universally agreed “laws of war”. First the League of Nations, and then the United Nations, was embodied to substitute a supranational authority that could act to impose an effective, global monopoly of force. The United Nations, in particular, made its most powerful institution the Security Council, enshrining the idea of “collective security” as an ideal superior to national self-defense (though it could only be so enshrined by allowing porous self- and allied-defense exceptions to continue to exist in international law).

But these global monopolies of force collapsed rather quickly. The League of Nations was certainly a joke after Italy (one of the key members of the winning coalition in WWI) invaded and conquered Ethiopia without the League intervening to stop it. National interests of France and England in (futilely) trying to keep Italy from siding with Germany in the future made the supposed police department impotent to respond.

As a vehicle for collective security, the United Nations was able to respond to aggression only where the national interests of the Western and Communist blocks coincided, and that was largely over by the time of the Korean War (a war that taught all permanent members of the Security Council to not boycott sessions of the Council, thereby missing the opportunity to cast a veto). Nations have largely realized that they can ignore or reinterpret entire strings of Security Council resolutions as they wish; enforcement power ultimately rests with the national military and economic powers just as if we were fighting plain old national wars.

What has certainly changed, however, is the amount of lip service nations pay to the codification of the laws of war, even if the spirit of that code is completely ignored. Indeed, it is at least arguable that the world has been in near-continuous states of war since shortly after the end of WWII, with only the location and “temperature” (e.g., the “Cold War”) shifting. The Cold War was certainly “hot” on multiple continents at multiple times, but large portions of humanity have gotten very good at convincing ourselves that we are personally living at peace, even as we avert our gaze from the horrors that are happening “somewhere else”. Perhaps that is a manifestation of the psychological defense mechanisms necessary in hell.

In addition, national governments (and wanna-be governments, too, but that’s a whole topic in itself) have increased reliance on strategies to enhance their ability to fight while maintaining public satisfaction among their supporters that their countries are still behaving with long-suffering restraint. This often requires not only that the governments exploit loopholes in international law, but that they seek loopholes within their own national laws (presuming that the governments are not dictatorial in the first place) in order to act.

Because January 23 is the 10 year anniversary of the kidnapping and subsequent slaughter of reporter Daniel Pearl, it is perhaps useful to focus this post on one such tendency: to tie an enemy’s contribution to war-making  as tightly as necessary to justify striking it directly (as opposed to merely as collateral damage), and to simultaneously authorize methods of attack that horrify other targets to the maximum possible extent.

As Asra Nomani, a Muslim woman who was also a personal friend of the Pearl family wrote in the Daily Beast:

“Danny…slipped into a car outside the Village Restaurant in Karachi, setting off for an interview where he thought he was going to meet the facilitator for “shoe bomber” Richard Reid. In the days that followed, Danny was bound, pistol-whipped, and, ultimately, slaughtered with a butcher’s knife. He tried to escape once, climbing a boundary wall, his cries of “help” alerting sleeping guards, who then beat him up. Danny was not only beheaded, but the alleged murderer, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, triumphantly held Danny’s head by his hair for the propaganda video. An autopsy report from Pakistani doctors later said that Danny’s murderers had cut his body into 10 pieces; the pieces were buried in one spot in the compound where Danny was held — stuffed into three blue shopping bags and tossed into a hole.

“…The dismembered body found in 10 (Ten) pieces is buried in a sandy land but damp soil, in an area 4x2x5 feet (length x width x depth). The cut/amputated parts found overlapping each other.” In one bag: ‘A portion of track suit that includes left sleeve & front portion with a zip, made up of green, black & dark pink cloth pieces with white internal lining is present on the left upper limb.’ His right foot was attached to his leg with a light brown sock still on it. ‘Nothing could be opined about the oozing of blood from the nose mouth and ears,’ the report said. It turns my stomach to write these words, but this is “desecration.”

“…To suggest we violated cultural norms in a way that the people of the region don’t do is to give the people of the region a pass. The legacy of the degradation of bodies in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region is historical. When the Taliban took seige of Kabul in 1996, they dragged a former Afghan leader, Dr. Mohammad Najibullah, from a United Nations compound, cut off his penis while he was still alive, stuffed it into his mouth, and hung him from a lamp post to send a message to the community about the new sheriffs in town.

“…A Human Rights Watch report on a massacre in Afghanistan, Blood-Stained Hands: Past Atrocities in Kabul and Afghanistan’s Legacy of Impunity, chronicles the horror of how the dead have been treated in war in Afghanistan, starting with a man, identified as Faizal Ahmed, who had one of his arms and one of his legs cut off, in addition to his penis, which was put in his mouth.

“Says the report, ‘The first person we found was Faizal Ahmed, an old man. He was decapitated. One of his arms was cut off and one of his legs. And his penis was cut off, and his penis was put in his mouth. Then we collected three other corpses, near Balki’s shrine, and four others from the street between the Academy of Social Science and the police academy … We found one seven-year-old boy, he was decapitated. His head was nearby, it had been cut off, from behind …’ “

So reporters, children, humanitarian aid workers, and diplomatic personnel from neutral nations can be targeted and terrorized because their presence contributes to stability of the enemy regime, whether or not those targets directly enhance combatant capabilities? Do we now embrace military assault, economic assault, and psychological assault as all valid forms of warfare, subject only to the deterrence imposed by the calculus of winning and losing? If so, what are the steps we need to take as individuals with moral, as well as physical concerns?

In her piece, Nomani includes a moral judgement, and a recognition:

“…As a society, we shouldn’t seek moral equivalency, because we are then doomed to live according to the lowest standards of humanity. But we also don’t live in a moral vacuum. We don’t live in a utopia. We’re in a war.”

So, what, in practice are today’s laws of hell? What characteristics describe how they are evolving, and are they merely returning toward ancient barbarism while covered by a fig leaf?