Opinion: The rules of war are changing

December 9, 2012


— ‘Gosh!’ Says Roosevelt

On Death of Yamamoto

— The New York Times, May 22, 1943

President Franklin Roosevelt was truly astonished when told by a reporter that Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, had been shot down by U.S. planes over a Pacific island after Americans decrypted Yamamoto’s flight plans. FDR had encouraged this “targeted killing” — destroying a particular person of military importance — a phrase that has become familiar since Israel began doing this in 2000 in combating the second Palestinian intifada.  

But was the downing of Yamamoto’s plane an “assassination”? If British commandos had succeeded in the plan to kill German Gen. Erwin Rommel in Libya in 1941, would that have been an assassination? If President Reagan’s 1986 attack on military and intelligence targets in Libya, including one that Moammar Gaddafi sometimes used as a residence, had killed him, would that have been an assassination? What about the November 2001 CIA drone attack on a Kabul meeting of high-level al-Qaida leaders that missed Osama bin Laden but killed his military chief? An old executive order and a new technology give these questions urgent pertinence.

Executive Order 12333, issued by Reagan in 1981, extended one promulgated by Gerald Ford in 1976 — in response to revelations about CIA attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro — and affirmed by Jimmy Carter. Order 12333 says: “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.” What, then, of the Navy SEALs who killed bin Laden? The new technology is the armed drone, which can loiter over the suspected location of an important enemy person and, in conjunction with satellite imagery, deliver precision-guided munitions in a matter of minutes.

Fortunately, John Yoo of the Berkeley School of Law has written a lucid guide to the legal and moral calculus of combating terrorism by targeting significant enemy individuals. In “Assassination or Targeted Killings After 9/11” (New York Law School Law Review, 2011/12) Yoo correctly notes that “precise attacks against individuals” have many precedents and “further the goals of the laws of war by eliminating the enemy and reducing harm to innocent civilians.” And he clarifies the compelling logic of using drones for targeted killings — attacking a specific person rather than a military unit or asset — in today’s “undefined war with a limitless battlefield.”

To be proper, any use of military force should be necessary, as discriminating as is practical, and proportional to the threat.

Waging war, says Yoo, is unlike administering criminal justice in one decisive particular. The criminal justice system is retrospective: It acts after a crime. A nation attacked, as America was on 9/11, goes to war to prevent future injuries, which inevitably involves probabilities and guesses.

Today’s war is additionally complicated by the fact that, as Yoo says, America’s enemy “resembles a network, not a nation.” Its commanders and fighters do not wear uniforms; they hide among civilian populations and are not parts of a transparent command and control apparatus. Drones enable the U.S. military — which, regarding drones, includes the CIA; an important distinction has been blurred — to wield a technology especially potent against al-Qaida’s organization and tactics. All its leaders are, effectively, military, not civilian. Killing them serves the military purposes of demoralizing the enemy, preventing planning, sowing confusion and draining the reservoir of experience.

Most U.S. wars have been fought with military mass sustained by economic might. But as Yoo says, today’s war is against a diffuse enemy that has no territory to invade and no massed forces to crush. So the war cannot be won by producing more tanks, army divisions or naval forces. The United States can win only by destroying al-Qaida’s “ability to function — by selectively killing or capturing its key members.”

After the terrorist bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, the Bill Clinton administration launched cruise missiles against suspected terrorist camps in Afghanistan, hoping bin Laden was there. If the missiles had killed him, would this have been improper? In March 2003, in the hours before the invasion of Iraq, the George W. Bush administration, thinking it knew where Saddam Hussein was, launched a cruise missile strike against one of his compounds. Was it wrong to try to economize violence by decapitating his regime? Would it have been morally preferable to attempt this by targeting, with heavy bombing, not a person but his neighborhood? Surely not.

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Chris Golledge 1 year, 4 months ago

Of course, I guess that begs the question. All you have to do to convert a soldier to a terrorist (partisan?) is not recognize the organization that he works for as a legitimate governing body.


Chris Golledge 1 year, 4 months ago

George misses the point; we are not at war with al Qaeda and others. War is between two (or more) nation-states. Bin Laden and his like are not acting on behalf of any nation; they are acting outside of any official government sanction. It is not a war; in war, when the leaders declare peace, the soldiers go their separate ways and it is not considered a crime to have fought for your country, even for the losers. That will never be the case for the terrorists, they are acting outside of any law, and they will be considered criminals (at least by their enemies) forever. What we are facing is a prolonged police action. All this about the rules of war changing is based on an incorrect assumption that we are engaged in war.


Chris Golledge 1 year, 4 months ago

Merriam-Webster: to murder (a usually prominent person) by sudden or secret attack often for political reasons

Let's not pretend 'we' do targeted killings, and 'they' do assassinations. Compelling reasons do not change the nature of the act, to murder a particular individual by sudden and secret attack.


Mike Ford 1 year, 4 months ago

ask Osceola about being taken prisoner during a truce by the US Military in the Seminole War Period as if US policy has ever been fair and bounded by rules. Andrew Jackson acquired Florida from Spain without public consultation or review to go after the Seminole and deal with the runaway slave issue in the 1820's. Integrity has never been a hallmark here.


tange 1 year, 4 months ago

I see how an accomplished rhetorician could mistake rhetoric for rules.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 1 year, 4 months ago

The "rules of war" aren't changing-- they're just being eliminated.


Steven Gaudreau 1 year, 4 months ago

Just keep using drones to kill targeted individuals. I believe the program is called Logistical Intense Air Raids or L.I.A.R.


Agnostick 1 year, 4 months ago

Okay... what thought-provoking, intelligent writer hijacked George's column this week??


Getaroom 1 year, 4 months ago

I suggest a thought provoking documentary film on the subject of "the war on terror" as seen through the eyes of 6 high ranking retired Israeli spies. After seeing it, consider the value of the of continuing this "war" as a way of life and it's consequences.


jhawkinsf 1 year, 4 months ago

The ambiguities surrounding targeted assassinations begins with the ambiguities surrounding the very nature of war. The U.S. hasn't formally declared war on anyone since WW II. Of course, we've fought more wars than I'd care to count since then. Perhaps it's time for our leaders to follow the procedures outlined in the Constitution when it comes to declaring war on others. When we've done that, then we might expect others to have formal procedures and to then follow them, or be judged as to why they choose to live with the ambiguities that will follow.


Richard Heckler 1 year, 4 months ago

Perhaps this is the real plan.

"Rebuilding America's Defences," openly advocates for total global military domination” (Very dangerous position which threatens OUR freedoms and the nations security)

Our aim is to remind Americans of these lessons and to draw their consequences for today. Here are four consequences.

--- we need to increase defense spending significantly if we are to carry out our global protection for Wal-Mart,Oil,Coca Cola,Pepsico,diamonds,gold etc etc etc.

--- we need to strengthen our ties to dictator regimes friendly to American interests and Bogus values.

--- we need to promote the cause of the political right wing and economic rape for corp USA abroad.

--- we need to accept responsibility for America's unique role in forcing others to accept our corrupt principles.

--- Such a Reaganite policy of military strength and immoral clarity may not be fashionable today. But it is necessary if the United States is to build on the extortions of this past century and to ensure our security and our greatness no matter how many innocent USA soldiers die.

The Plan.,12271,1312540,00.html

Endorsed by:

Elliott Abrams / Gary Bauer / William J. Bennett / Jeb Bush /

Dick Cheney / Eliot A. Cohen / Midge Decter / Paula Dobriansky / Steve Forbes /

Aaron Friedberg / Francis Fukuyama / Frank Gaffney / Fred C. Ikle /

Donald Kagan / Zalmay Khalilzad / Charles Krauthammer / I. Lewis Libby

/ Norman Podhoretz / Dan Quayle / Peter W. Rodman / Stephen P. Rosen /

Henry S. Rowen / Donald Rumsfeld / Vin Weber / George Weigel / Paul Wolfowitz

/ Newt Gingrich / George Herbert Walker Bush / James Baker /

Vice Adm John Poindexter


Paul R Getto 1 year, 4 months ago

Good points, Mr Will. We are on the right track wth the new strategies.


Abdu Omar 1 year, 4 months ago

As much as I believe that terrorism is totally against the interests of mankind, I think that targeted assasinations are the opposite. But the problem lies in the fact that one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. So it depends upon which shoe one is wearing.It is obvious to me that the easy way out of a situation is to kill everyone who is against you.


Ron Holzwarth 1 year, 4 months ago

This is just as relevant as this question:

During a war, is it proper behavior to shoot enemy soldiers?


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