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Erik Ringmar, How to Fight Savage Tribes

Erik Ringmar, How to Fight Savage Tribes

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Published by: Erik Ringmar on Apr 01, 2012
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01/21/2013

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 “How to Fight Savage Tribes”: TheGlobal War on Terror in HistoricalPerspective
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Erik Ringmar, NCTU 
abstract 
: The Bush administration’s “Global War on Terror” has, by both defendersand critics, been characterized as unique. However, as this article shows, there is along tradition, both in the United States and in Europe, of fighting wars against “savage tribes” ― against enemies who fail to make a distinction between soldiersand civilians, and who use terror as a weapon. The problem of how to fight suchgroups was much discussed in the legal literature of the nineteenth-century. This isa discussion from which it is possible to learn contemporary lessons. “The deliberate and deadly attacks, which were carried out yesterday against ourcountry,” president George W. Bush declared on September 12, 2001, “were morethan acts of terror. They were acts of war. ... The American people need to knowwe're facing a different enemy than we have ever faced.” 
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During the subsequent “Global War on Terror,” as it was semi-officially known, the Bush administrationauthorized methods which broke with international conventions as well as withdomestic laws.
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Between 2001 and 2008, the American government held suspectsindefinitely without trial, tortured prisoners and subjected them to degradingtreatment, or, in a practice known as “extraordinary rendition,” subcontracted theinterrogations to assorted unsavory regimes.
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These techniques, said VicePresident Dick Cheney, constitute “a tougher program, for tougher customers.” 
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For a country such as the United States, with a long tradition of both definingand defending the statutes of international law, this policy, and the statements
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backing it up, would seem to constitute a radical break with past practices.Contrasting this legalistic legacy with the policy of the Bush administration, manyAmericans ― especially those of a liberal and internationalist bent ― declaredthemselves horrified. For these critics, Barack Obama’s first acts in office came asa great relief. On January 22, 2009, the new president signed an executive orderbanning torture and extraordinary rendition and dismantling the clandestinenetwork of prisons operated by the CIA. “We are not,” Obama insisted, “going tocontinue with the false choice between our safety and our ideals.” 
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"We intend towin this fight. We are going to win it on our own terms."Yet there is something wrong with this historiography. The United States hasindeed been a staunch defender of international law, but at the same time Bush’swar on terror is not all that exceptional. In fact, extraordinary, and illegal,measures have always been employed by the United States in fighting some of itswars. Indeed, the same extraordinary, illegal, methods have often been employedby European powers. This contradiction ― between a strict adherence to the law insome cases and a routine flaunting of it in others ― can be reconciled if only wedraw a distinction between wars fought against “civilized” and against “uncivilized” opponents. From the nineteenth-century onwards, the ethical and legal frameworkwhich regulates warfare has been a two-tier system with different standards forcombating “civilized” and “uncivilized” enemies. It is against civilized enemies thatthe laws of war should be adhered to, and in wars against uncivilized enemies thatthey may be broken.
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The very same soldiers who displayed their humanitarianinstincts on the battlefields of Europe turned into barbarians in the colonies.Understanding this distinction puts the Global War on Terror into a muchneeded historical context.
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The Bush administration made exactly the same choiceof policies, and of rationales backing them up, which many previous administrationsmade, and which European governments repeatedly have been making. Indeed,there is nothing unique, and hence nothing necessarily reassuring, about president
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Obama’s insistence on sticking to the letter of the law. Several previous Americanpresidents have given much the same assurances. The Global War on Terror maybe over in its Bushian incarnation, but the problem of “how to make war on savagetribes” has not, and will not, go away.
the laws of civilized warfare
Wars in medieval and early modern Europe were at the same time limited in scopeand distinctly barbarian.
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More than anything the limits were set by logisticalconcerns and organizational factors ― by the size of the armies or problems intransporting and supplying them, or by the inaccuracy and limited range of theweapons used. At the same time wars were barbarian since the aim of the soldiersinvariably was to inflict as much damage as possible on the enemy. Whenever theopportunity presented itself nothing but expediency stopped the stronger partyfrom having its way with the weaker. “Everything is permitted in relation toenemies,” early writers on international law, such as Cornelius van Bynkershoekand Christian Wolff, explained; “victory in a war gives the victor complete powerover the vanquished.” 
Beginning in the eighteenth-century, legal scholars, statesmen, and evensome generals, began to consider the question of 
 jus in bello:
how, and to whatextent, legal provisions could make warfare more humane.
Despite differences,there was, by the mid-nineteenth-century, a reasonable degree of consensus onbasic principles. One such principle was that wars should be fought between statesand not between individuals.
Another principle was that only such actions areallowed which directly help further the goal of winning the war.“
No use of forceis lawful,” as the American jurist Henry Wheaton put it in 1836, “except so far as itis necessary.” 
And, as a corollary, enemy property should be respected unless ittoo is directly relevant to the war effort.A number of practical consequences can be deduced from these general
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