On War in Fiction: The “Laws” of War

I hope all is well with everyone!  I’m picking up from last month with my series on war in history and what we can learn from it that might help our fiction.

In this series of posts, I’ll be exploring some themes gleaned from military history to illuminate points that I think many people misunderstand or perhaps just blindly disbelieve because they desperately wish it were otherwise.  I hope you find them useful!

Sorry that this one seems even more rough around the edges this week than usual–I spent last weekend in the hospital.  I’m doing much better, but I’m still trying to take it easy until I have to go back to work on Monday.


“International law is the law which the wicked do not obey and the righteous do not enforce.”

–Abba Eban, Israeli Diplomat

The laws of war are much referenced in times of peace.  They are a very warm and fuzzy set of standards that are supposed to prevent an inherently painful process–that of humans killing each other with the greatest of enthusiasm until one side or the other gets its way–from turning into something “unacceptable.”  In doing so, well-meaning diplomats and countries hope to somehow make sure they are on the right side of that equally fuzzy concept:  just war.

Unfortunately, though their intentions are good, on the practical level, these laws just don’t seem to matter much when countries really come to blows.  They, in all their grandeur,  are all too often overbalanced in the minds of participants by a single, more convincing maxim:  Might makes right.  As such, to paraphrase Captain Barbossa, “laws” of war are really more like “guidelines.”

Signing the First Geneva Agreement.

While nations and people have set rules of conduct for each individual military for thousands of years, what we usually think of as the “laws of war” is a modern, western concept.  The Jews might apply Jewish laws (written by God) to Jewish armies, but they didn’t very well expect the Egyptians to work that way.  The west put more of an emphasis on coming up with absolute agreements binding on all.  In the 19th Century, enlightened progressives, thinking that they could fix most everything else through government, decided to sit down on an international level and attempt to regulate what countries could and could not do while pursuing a war.  The end result was a series of agreements, such as the famous Geneva Conventions, that supposedly defined what kinds of killing were fair and what sorts weren’t.

As an absolute remedy, the “laws” of war have been proven to be mere fiction.  Diplomats can puff and blow about them as much as they like, but history has shown that they are limited by (at least) two key shortcomings:

  • They are are based on the false assumption that human nature is essentially good and will follow rules when given the chance.  Human nature has shown itself to be anything but “good” over the course of history.  In fact, humans show all too often that they can’t be trusted to make right decisions in even the best of circumstances.  War is the most obvious time when authority is suspended and people and nations must turn inwards in order to find the moral courage to determine right from wrong.  If you can’t take the essentially good nature of humanity for granted, then writing laws to govern them in war is an exercise in futility.
  • They are basically unenforcable while a war is actually occurring.  The only time someone can hold another nation accountable for violating the provisions of the laws of war is when the country has been defeated and the war itself has been decided.  About the only practical method of reprisal during a war is to say that you can do the same thing back to them.  Otherwise, who has the power to stop them?  Hitler violated all sorts of international agreements during World War II.  Why should he care, when the Wehrmacht was rolling over Europe inexorably?  Are the Poles going to put him on trial in 1941 for the outrages of 1939?

So, like most laws of human invention, the laws of war are only effective when people feel like following them.  Yeah.  Good luck with that.

History does show us two situations where the laws of war are indeed very useful.  First, in smaller wars of more limited scope, the laws can keep things contained.  In these cases, nations aren’t laying everything on the line, and therefore they have quite a bit to lose in the court of international opinion.  That pressure can prevent small wars from exploding into big, destructive ones.  It also can keep weaker tyrants from risking too much and thereby starting a cascade effect that leads to something major.  Secondly, when the war is actually over, the laws provide a basis upon which to seek justice that (hopefully) won’t be entirely arbitrary.  These tribunals–such as the one at Nuremberg after World War II–can be quite effective in their own way.

To bring this down to fiction:  I would encourage you to have a strong, realistic view of the laws of war, what they can do, and more importantly what they can’t.  By definition, most authors are dreamers, and many of us can be overly optimistic about humanity (especially if you are into science fiction, where the myth of human progress is doubly entrenched).  While it is good to dream, giving our dreams an edge of truth can go a long way to making them feel real.


Next Week–Does war change everyone?


About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on April 12, 2013, in Brian Melton, History, Speculative Fiction, Story, War, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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