Free Markets, Free People


Miranda and War

An interesting discussion broke out in the comment section of the Miranda post, which I’m hoping will continue. The primary issue (and I’m simplifying here) centers around just how detainees caught on a battlefield should be handled if they don’t fit the established parameters of soldiers under the Geneva Conventions. Although there appears to be agreement that reading detainees Miranda rights is a step (or three) too far, there is also wide agreement that we should be skeptical about allowing our government so much latitude as to hold anyone indefinitely. I think closing the gap on those parameters is the challenge to be met, but I don’t think it is possible to do so without understanding how war differs from law enforcement.

Clausewitz defined war as “continuation of policy with other means.” The crux of his definition is that “war” is simply a tactic used to further political goals. War is not waged as end in itself, but as a means towards other ends which, for whatever reason, could not be accomplished through non-violent tactics. There are always exceptions, of course, but certainly a rational state will not expend blood and treasure when the same goals can be accomplished without. Even an irrational state, with irrational goals, will not waste such resources if it understands that it does not have to.

The other tools in the box for continuing policy include diplomacy and capitulation. Once those are deemed exhausted or unacceptable (as the case may be) then the tool of war is likely to appear. In other words, if agreement cannot be reached between erstwhile enemies, and surrender by one side or the other is not acceptable, then actual battle will be necessary to decide whose policy will be continued. At that point all manner of understanding between the parties is dead and only victory or a credible threat thereof will allow the discarded tools to once again be used in the construction of policy.

In the absence of war, there is general agreement as to how competing parties will conduct themselves in the pursuit of their policies. Citizens may vote, senators may argue, special interests may agitate, and whole nations may barter. The agreements may deal with how citizens deal with one another, how governments deal with their citizens, or how violations of the agreements are handled (i.e. law enforcement). In the modern world those general agreements are reduced to treaties, constitutions, rules, regulations and the like, all of which may be considered law. The policies themselves may also be enacted into law, but without some understanding as to the mechanisms for peacefully deciding which policy will be followed, then war is the only tool available. A rule of law, which is only useful where there is broad agreement on it, obviates the need to use war to advance policy. All of the foregoing are the hallmarks of a civil society that depends on pursuing policies through peaceful tactics. To turn Clauswitz’s definition around, law is the continuation of war by other means.

To be sure, transgressors of law will be dealt with at times in violent ways, but there is at least a tacit agreement to the law’s authority to do so where the violator is operating from within the society and generally partaking of its benefits. If enough transgressors get together then the agreements have broken down, and civil war or revolution may occur. Therefore, war can be understood as the tactic that is used when the law has ceased to be of use. More simply, war is the absence of law.

Given the above, which is nothing more than a condensed version of my personal views on the subject, it is difficult for me to understand how legal concepts can be introduced into war. Opposing factions may agree with one another to fight under particular rules of engagement, or to treat enemy prisoners a certain way, but when those rules are broken there is no legitimate authority to enforce them. The Geneva Conventions represent a more elaborate attempt to impose limits on warfare, but even those were never intended to apply to non-signatories except in very limited circumstances (pre-Hamdan anyway). More importantly, it seems obviously ludicrous to apply laws outside such limited agreement to any of the parties involved in battle, because there would be no battle if such laws were being adhered to in the first place.

So while any number of parties may agree amongst themselves to fight under self-imposed rules, that does not give any of them authority to impose those rules on others. Furthermore, except where explicitly agreed to otherwise, such rules would not govern war between a party to such an agreement and a non-party. To look at it another way, if Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield agree to fight under certain sanctioned rules, that does not mean that either fighter must adhere to the same rules if attacked by a third party on the way home from the match.

Accordingly, in a world of asymmetrical warfare, the basic principle that “war is the absence of law” seems to apply. In this context, the very idea of approaching war with terrorists in foreign countries under a rubric of law intended to govern domestic life appears absurdly out of place. Treating detainees captured on the battlefield to the luxury of legal niceties intended to protect the very citizens those terrorists seek to harm defies all logic. And pretending that reading any of them Miranda rights will do anything more than hamper our ability to defeat these cretins is an exercise in serious delusion. In short, law is a manifestation of the agreements underlying a peaceful community, and war is the means of protecting those agreements from those who seek to subvert them.

When considering just where the line should be drawn then, between reading enemies their “rights” and allowing the government to detain them indefinitely, I think it’s useful to understand that we are not really talking about a “rule of law.” Instead, we are talking about how best to utilize the tactic of war in furthering our policy of not allowing crazed radicals to murder our citizens. While I find great merit in placing the government (i.e. our instrument of war) on a firm leash, I don’t think it is at all useful to conflate the means by which we protect ourselves from an overbearing government with the means by which the government protects us from enemies bent on our destruction.