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"Cruelty in war buyeth conquest at the dearest price."
- -Sir Philip Sidney

"War is cruelty and you cannot refine it."

- -W.T. Sherman


Recent combat operations indicate the need to educate and enforce the laws of war among members of the Armed Forces. During every armed conflict, needless lives are lost and property destroyed because combatants failed to abide by the laws of war. Some of these violations are caused by a blatant disregard for the international laws of war and some are a result of pure ignorance. The laws are not new. Some semblance of the present laws of war have been around a long time. Over 100 years ago most civilized nations recognized a need to prevent unnecessary destruction of lives and property on the battlefield. Most nations endorse these laws, but do not always abide by them. The law of war today, embodied by the Hague and Geneva Conventions, can be generally divided into four categories:

a. Conduct of hostilities, forbidden targets, illegal tactics, and unlawful warfare techniques.

b. Treatment of wounded and sick on land and sea.

c. Treatment of prisoner of war.

d. Treatment of civilians.

Lesson Learned

Soldiers must know and abide by the laws of land warfare even if the enemy does not.

KOREA: 1st Cavalry Div "Their Hands Tied Behind Their Backs"

During the early days of the Korean War, the 2nd Bn, 5th Cavalry was involved in desperate efforts to hold Hill 303 N. E. of Waegan against a massive North Korean attack. Two of the Battalion's companies were surrounded on the hill and overrun. While a few were able to escape to safety, many were captured. The 2nd Battalion immediately began to retake the hill, but it took two days to drive off the North Koreans. On the way up the hill, soldiers found the bodies of 36 of their comrades with their hands tied behind their backs, shot in the head. The massacre survivors confirmed that after two days as prisoners, the North Koreans had lined the Americans up and shot them in the back. Only by hurriedly smearing blood on themselves and playing dead did anyone survive at all. [28]

Lesson Learned

Dealing with our responsibilities under the law of war is hard when tough choices are faced in the midst of combat.

During the battle for Goose Green in the Falklands, British soldiers saw an Argentine soldier in a defensive position raise a white flag to surrender. LT Berry, a platoon leader in 2 Para, his RTO, and his runner, approached the position to accept the surrender. Another Argentine fighting position nearby opened fire on the three British soldiers, killing LT Berry and CPL Sullivan, and wounding the RTO. The white flag, when used by troops, has no significance other than that of expressing a desire to communicate with the enemy. It may also indicate the surrender of an individual soldier or a small party. The enemy is not required to cease firing when a white flag is raised by an individual or small group. It is up to friendly troops to determine under what authority the white flag has been raised. Friendly forces can only accept a surrender if the enemy commander has ordered the white flag raised; otherwise, extreme caution must be taken before acting on a white flag. If the Argentineans used the white flag as a trick to secure an advantage over the British, which does not seem to have been the case, then this action would be prohibited by the rules of war. Firing on soldiers attempting to accept a legitimate surrender falls under the category of forbidden targets. The British, however, did not believe this case fit that category and did not pursue the matter as a violation of the law. [29]

Lesson Learned

Commanders and legal officers must insure that all soldiers know their responsibilities under the laws of land warfare. Once in combat, it is too late.


Two British light helicopters were shot down over the sea by small arms fire. Soldiers from the shore continued to fire at the crews as they struggled in the water, killing three and seriously wounding the fourth crew member. Firing on downed helicopter pilots is prohibited and constitutes a serious breach of the 1949 Convention. The convention protects stipulated parties or those aboard aircraft which must make forced landings at sea. These individuals must be treated humanely. [30]

Lesson Learned

In an insurgency, it is too easy to forget that the laws of land warfare still apply. The U.S. and other nations have agreed to obey the laws of land warfare. Some nations seem to have forgotten they signed the treaties.


Most of the Soviet violations in Afghanistan fall into the category of illegal conduct of hostilities under Hague Convention Number IV concerning illegal targets and unlawful warfare techniques. The Soviet Union has also violated the Geneva Convention's protecting prisoners of war and civilians. Unable to "Vietnamize" the war, Moscow has intensified its effort to brutalize the Afghan population into submission. The central theme of Soviet occupation seems to be one of calculated brutality. Most atrocities on the population are planned in advance. For example, whole sections of the country are free fire zones. In areas where convoys have been attacked, ground and air forces have raided villages, destroyed crops, and bayoneted women and children. Small anti-personnel mines disguised as ball point pens, books, watches and even toys have been air dropped indiscriminately with the intent of maiming the rebels and their supporters. Many victims have been children and livestock.

In 1981, the Soviets executed 12 rebel sympathizers by running over them with tanks.

In September 1982, 105 civilian males who fled to the shelter of a tunnel were incinerated alive when Soviet troops pumped gasoline into the tunnel and ignited it with rifle fire.

In the Afghan village of Kerela, the Afghan Army, along with their Soviet advisors, assembled 1170 male inhabitants of the village, executed them, and then buried them in a mass grave nearby. [31]

Lesson Learned

Field SOPs should also provide clear instructions and guidance on the seizure, requisition, or purchase of private property and the laws on war trophies.


There were no reports of serious violations of Forbidden Targets, Tactics, and Technique and Enemy Captives and Detainees in Grenada. However, there were plenty of violations in the areas of Civilians and Private Property and Prevention and Reporting of Unlawful Acts. For example, many local civilian automobiles in Grenada were improperly seized for use by military personnel. Many of these vehicles were marked with various slogans, soldier's initials, graffiti, and unit identifications. The most serious violations were the looting and transporting of scuba equipment back to the U.S. Unfortunately, all these violations could have been prevented. International law recognizes that during a conflict some hostile government and private property may be used for military purposes. In these cases some sort of compensation must be made to the owner prior to, during, or after hostility has ceased. In all cases each unit must keep records of seizure and issue a receipt to the owner (if known) to assist in the repayment for goods and services.

Many captured enemy weapons were illegally brought back to the U.S. Although evacuating captured enemy weapons and equipment is not a violation of International Law, it is a violation of U.S. Laws for soldiers to bring back automatic weapons, ammunition, and other explosives. The Soviet-made AK-47, an automatic weapon, made up the bulk of illegal weapons sent back to the U.S. [32]


The following regulations and publications provide guidance for commanders to educate U.S. soldiers to abide by the international laws of war.

AR 190-8, Enemy Prisoners of War, Administration, Employment, and Compensation, Dec 1985.

AR 350-1, Army Training, Aug 1987, requires that all military personnel maintain a high level of proficiency and knowledge in Common Military Training (CMT) subjects. The Geneva/Hague Convention is one of the common subjects.

AR 220-10, Preparation for Overseas Movement of Units (POM), requires that commanders insure all personnel alerted for overseas movements have a personal knowledge of their rights and responsibilities as soldiers.

AR 608-4, Control and Registration of War Trophies and War Trophy Firearms, defines what a war trophy is and prescribes the procedures for legally shipping war trophies back to the United States.

AR 755-2, Disposal of Excess Surplus, Control, and Disposal of Captured, and Unwanted Material.

AR 700-99, Acquisition, Accounting, Control, and Disposal of Captured Equipment, and Foreign Material.

FM 27-2, Your Conduct in Combat Under the Laws of War, Nov 1984. This manual explains the Law of War in very simple terms and highlights those laws that soldiers are most likely to encounter.

FM 27-10, The Law of Land Warfare, July 1956, combines into one document a complete text of the Geneva/Hague Conventions.

FM 19-40, Enemy Prisoners of War, Civilian Internees, and Detained Persons, Feb 1976, provides guidance for the treatment of detainees from point of capture, through evacuation to internment and release from captivity.

TC 27-10-1, June 1979, Selected Problems in the Law of War.

TC 27-10-2, September 1980, Prisoners of War.

TC 27-10-3, April 1985, Instructor's Guide to the Law of War.

Bottom Line

The laws of war must be integrated into training. It will be too late in the stress of combat.

Table of Contents
Realistic Training

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