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.


Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 3 months ago

This is just as relevant as this question:

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

Abdu Omar 5 years, 3 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.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 3 months ago

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

Richard Heckler 5 years, 3 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) http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Project_for_the_New_American_Century

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.





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

jhawkinsf 5 years, 3 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.

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 3 months ago

I thought that following "the procedures outlined in the Constitution" had been tossed by the wayside long ago. But, that's just the opinion of some writers that I've read.

Satirical 5 years, 3 months ago


The Constitution does not require a declaration of war before the US engages in self-defense.

Also, the US couldn't declare war because Al-Qaeda isn't a nation-state. Finally, even if the US could have, and did declare war, it have little effect on the threat Mr. Will is talking about. The Law of War and Law of Armed Conflict isn't settled when dealing with non-state actors.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 3 months ago

Right, the Constitution does not require a declaration before hostilities commence. Hence, if we were attacked at a time when Congress was in recess, we would not be hamstrung into non-action. On the other hand, conflicts such as Korea and Vietnam should have been dealt with with declarations of war. Granada, maybe not. Iraq, yes. Al Qaeda, you're correct, very difficult. But the Constitution should prevail, even if both Congress and the Presidency have abdicated their responsibilities with the War Powers Act.

Getaroom 5 years, 3 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.


Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 3 months ago

That's an interesting link, and I think it would be good for many to read it. But, what can be done? It appears that everyone, except for some of the Arabs, thinks that a two state solution is the best. But until there is a consensus it's not going to happen, or last as a peaceful situation.

I've read about the subject a great deal, and it's obvious that it's a religious conflict, because it's spoken of as a "Holy War" repeatedly to cheering crowds quite often. We in the West don't usually think that way, but of course there are exceptions.

Until there is more of a pragmatic secular attitude prevailing in the Arab street, not much is going to change. And, it looks as though that change will be a long time coming.

This is another interesting read, and makes it quite clear why something like 40,000 deaths in Syria aren't that important, but events in Israel are always a crisis:

'The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Saves Lives'

"All governments, except the US, a few African countries and tiny Polynesian nations, use Israel as a way to distract their people from issues at home. Israel provides catharsis for local problems.

People often ignore the tremendous amount of good the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does for humanity. It provides endless hours of entertainment, a place to project one’s anger, a way to ignore problems at home and in so doing, it may actually save lives by preventing local conflicts through distracting people and encouraging them to focus their hate and emotions at a far off place they cannot change."

To read the rest of the article: http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Article.aspx?id=177889

deec 5 years, 3 months ago

Depending on the poll and year, support/opposition to a two state solution seems to be in the 50-60 percent range on both sides. Withdrawal from occupied territories and removal of illegitimate settlements has little support overall.

It is not just the Arabs who use religion to stifle a solution.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 3 months ago

Israel's policies and actions towards Palestinians are largely determined by people who want all Palestinians expelled from "Eretz Israel" just as fervently as Hamas wants all Jews expelled from Palestine. But there are lots of moderates on both sides who just want to figure out how to peacefully coexist. Sadly, it's the terrorists on both sides who call the shots, so to speak.

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 3 months ago

Apparently then the withdrawal and removal of the settlements in Gaza in 2005 was done without popular support. Actually, that was done as an experiment, will it stop the rockets, and will this prove that withdrawal from the West Bank also is a good idea?

Unfortunately, the result was that the rocket fire increased. Over 13,000 rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip after the withdrawal was completed in 2005.

Peace seems as far away as ever, despite the withdrawal from Gaza.

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 3 months ago

Do you really think peace is even possible when the Arabs are teaching this to their children? You can watch the Arabic broadcast on this link. Of course, the Arabs wouldn't want to broadcast this in the USA or the United Nations!


Palestinian children: Martyrdom for Allah is preferable to life, suicide terror is natural

Host: "You described Shahada (Martydrdom) as something beautiful. Do you think it is beautiful?"

Walla, age 11: "Shahada (Martyrdom) is a very, very beautiful thing. Everyone yearns for Shahada. What could be sweeter than going to paradise?"

Host: "What is better, peace and full rights for the Palestinian people, or Shahada?"

Walla: "Shahada. I will achieve my rights after becoming a Shahida (Martyr)."

Host: "Ok, Yussra, would you agree with that?"

Yussra, age 11: "Of course, Shahada is sweet. We don't want this world, we want the Afterlife. We benefit not from this life, but from the Afterlife."

Host: "Do you actually love death? "

Yussra: "Death is not Shahada."

Host: "No, I mean the absence after death. "

Yussra: "No child loves death. The children of Palestine adopted the concept that Shahada is very good. Every Palestinian child, say someone aged 12, says: 'Oh Lord, I would like to become a Shahid.'"

Host: "We've got a call, Sabrine from Ramallah."

Sabrine (on telephone): "Ayyat Al-Akhras (suicide bomber who murdered two people and injured 22 in Jerusalem in 2002) was 17 when she blew herself up –

Host: "Sabrine, are you for it or against it?"

Sabrine (on telephone): "Of course I support blowing up, it is our right."

Host: "Sabrine, now, is it natural that Ayyat Al-Akhras blows herself up?"

Sabrine (on telephone): "Of course it's natural."

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 3 months ago

You can watch this broadcast here: http://palwatch.org/site/modules/videos/pal/videos.aspx?fld_id=139&doc_id=5832

PA TV shows Israeli Channel 1 TV re-broadcast of interview:

Israeli interviewer: "Who chose Sbarro [restaurant, as the target of the attack]?"

Tamimi: "I did. For nine days I examined the place very carefully and chose it after seeing the large number of patrons at the Sbarro restaurant. I didn't want to blow [myself] up, I didn't want to carry out a Martyrdom-seeking operation (i.e., a suicide attack). My mission was just to choose the place and to bring the Martyrdom-seeker (i.e., the suicide bomber). [I made] the general plan of the operation, but carrying it out was entrusted to the Martyrdom-seeker. ... I told him to enter the restaurant, eat a meal, and then after 15 minutes carry out the Martyrdom-seeking operation. During the quarter of an hour I would return the same way that I had arrived. Then I bade him farewell. He went inside, he crossed the road and went to the restaurant, and I went back the way I had come... You have to know something: a Martyrdom-seeker has a very special character, and I was amazed at his great wish to carry out the operation, his great wish to pass over to a different life. How beautiful it is when you make a person - [starts the sentence again] [Suppose] there's a poor person and you give him a lot of money. He will be happy and you yourself will be happy that you realized for him the happy life that he wanted. My job was to realize, for this Martyrdom-seeker, the happy life that he wanted."

Interviewer: "Didn't you think about the people who were in the restaurant? The children? The families?"

Tamimi: "No."

Tamimi: "I have no regrets, and no Palestinian prisoner regrets what he or she has done. We were defending ourselves. What are we supposed to regret? Should we regret defending ourselves? Should we regret that the Israelis killed one of us so we killed a different one of them? We have no regrets."

Interviewer: "Do you know how many children were killed in the restaurant?"

Tamimi: "Three children were killed in the operation, I think. [Smiles.]"

Interviewer: "Eight."

Tamimi: "Eight?! [Smiles.] Eight."

jhawkinsf 5 years, 3 months ago

Khaled Meshall, Hamas leader, on his first ever trip to Gaza, reaffirmed his opposition to Israel existing, now or ever, on any land whatsoever. Palestine, he said, was from the river to the sea, top to bottom. Might we label that as Eretz Palestine?

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 3 months ago

Eretz Palestine would have to include all of Jordan as well because in 1922, over 75% of Palestine was taken away to form Trans-Jordan. Later, the name was changed to Jordan.

That makes it obvious what's really going on. If they really wanted to form the former British Palestinian Mandate into a nation, there would be calls for Jordan's destruction. But that has never been suggested.

"There are no differences between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. We are all part of one nation. It is only for political reasons that we carefully underline our Palestinian identity. Yes, the existence of a separate Palestinian identity serves only tactical purposes. The founding of a Palestinian state is a new tool in the continuing battle against Israel."

  • Zuhair Muhsin, military commander of the PLO and member of the PLO Executive Council, in 1967

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 3 months ago

You have to wonder where some of the Arabs think they are going to go for advanced medical treatment if they are successful in getting rid of all of the Jewish doctors, nurses, and hospitals.

There are hospitals in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank of Jordan, but they cannot effectively treat serious diseases such as cancer. For that, the Palestinians go to Israeli doctors and hospitals.

And then, after their treatment, they go back to hating Jews,,, go figure.

Satirical 5 years, 3 months ago


Same writer. Most of his other columns are equally thought-provoking and intelligent. Someone who doesn't have the same opinion might think otherwise because Mr. Will makes conclusions with which s/he doesn't agree, and s/he is then blinded by partisan prejudice.

Isn't it amazing how a reader's open/closed mindedness changes when the reader isn't blinded by partisan hatred? Wouldn't it be nice if everyone looked at the merits of a writer/argument without such limitations?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 3 months ago

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

Satirical 5 years, 3 months ago

"The 'rules of war' aren't changing-- they're just being eliminated" - stated by someone who has probably never read any of part of the volumes of treaties/agreements/laws/rules/regulations dealing with the Law of War/Law of Armed Conflict/Operational Law.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 3 months ago

Will's entire column can be distilled down to this-- the US (and any other military power who can pull it off) can kill anyone, anywhere, any time for any reason they choose, your precious tomes notwithstanding.

Satirical 5 years, 3 months ago


Can you quote somewhere in his column to back up your assertion?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 3 months ago

Reposting the entire column would exceed the 3000-character limit (aside from being rather pointless.)

Satirical 5 years, 3 months ago


I totally see what you are saying now. How could I have been so blind before? Will's entire column could also be distilled to conclude that the flying spaghetti monster has a plan to destroy mankind. I can't back it up with quotes or argument. But it's right there in the article! You are crazy if you don't see it too!

(As always, I am not going to engage in a game of who can get the last word, so you are free to have it if you want).

Mike Ford 5 years, 3 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.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 3 months ago

The question you might ask is did the U.S. behave any better 50 years after that incident, or 50 years after that, or 50 years after that or the next 40 years that brings us to 2012? it's not that the U.S. has behaved badly in the past. That's a given. But are we trending towards behaving better? Are we trending better, relative to other countries in the world?

We could compare hostilities between the various Native peoples hundreds of years ago, and then compare that to hostilities between them today. I suspect the trend would be similar to that of the U.S. We all behaved badly then. Hopefully, we'll strive towards behaving better in the future.

Chris Golledge 5 years, 3 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.

Chris Golledge 5 years, 3 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 5 years, 3 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.

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