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The rules of war, at least the ones I know about, are all based on humanitarian principles. Except for the one that forbids the use of enemy flags, insignia, uniforms and emblems. Why was that rule included in international humanitarian law? Why is pretending to be with the other party a war crime while so many other types of deception are fine?

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I understand why the use of symbols of neutral countries or of the red cross would be considered war crimes, those follow from humanitarian considerations.

I think an argument can be made that accountability for an attack must be given based on humanitarian principles, but according to that reasoning any form of attack where the acting party is unclear should be a war crime. Instead only the specific use of enemy symbols is forbidden, but there are no laws forbidding other types of unaccountable attacks. Some examples:

  • Using artillery, rockets, sniper rifles, or other ranged weapons where the attacker can not be seen and the projectile itself, even if it carried an emblem, would not be identifiable in practice.
  • Attacking in poor visibility or at night, when flags/emblems/etc can not be distinguished
  • Planting bombs, laying mines, and similar types of remote attacks.
  • Nowadays, the use of (small) drones, although that technology is too recent to be included in laws-of-war conventions.
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    What other acceptable forms of deception did you have in mind?
    – phoog
    Jun 23, 2023 at 6:53
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    It is forbidden to attack using enemy (or any non-own) insignia. Using them without the intent to attack (like trying to move past the enemy lines) is allowed. Source in Polish Jun 23, 2023 at 6:57
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    Relevant article by the ICRC: ihl-databases.icrc.org/en/customary-ihl/v1/rule62
    – xyldke
    Jun 23, 2023 at 7:59
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    @phoog Using enemy flags etc as long as you're not shooting, feigning an attack or other action, using decoys, spreading misinformation, even trying to convince others that an attack was made by another party than who really made it, as long as that does not include false use of enemy symbols. And lots more.
    – JanKanis
    Jun 23, 2023 at 8:08
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    Related: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfidy Jun 23, 2023 at 8:22

4 Answers 4

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The rules try to classify people and sites into different categories. Combatants from different parties, the red cross, cultural heritage, and civilian non-combatants.

At the most basic, combatants must have a distinctive, visible insignia. This does not have be a proper uniform, it should be enough to wear a colored sash if it is generally understood what that color stands for. Part of the reason is accountability. Look at the destruction of the Kakhovka dam. Immediately there were accusations that this was a false flag operation, even if the evidence points to a delibate, internal explosion. When soldiers are actually allowed to wear enemy uniforms, it would get even more messy.

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    Part of it is also bound in trust, as you pointed out the Red Cross, the known cases of people misusing the Red Cross symbol is a big issue for them - that is, both the Red Cross, and those who may need the Red Cross' services. 162 fatalities over the past 10 years came from people not trusting that the uniform used indicated that they were, in fact, a humanitarian assistance and protection member. Similarly, there's value in trusting your own units. Jun 23, 2023 at 6:39
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    I don't think messyness is a consideration in the law of war, if so, war itself would be outlawed 😖. I have added a section to the question addressing the issue of accountability.
    – JanKanis
    Jun 23, 2023 at 8:49
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    It's worth noting that none of this matters one bit if you "win". Nobody is going to prosecute Russia for any war crimes if they fully take over Ukraine - and even if Russia withdraws from Ukraine, who's going to go into Russia and extradite supposed war criminals? None of these "rules of war" matter unless someone else is willing to enforce them - and currently not one nation is interested in enforcing them, nor has the ability to enforce them. With that said, if you can gain advantage by wearing the enemy uniforms - you're going to do it and nobody will be able to stop or punish you.
    – SnakeDoc
    Jun 23, 2023 at 19:06
  • @SnakeDoc: I'd argue it's not "If you win", but "If you get caught"; if you get caught by the army in question, their country will prosecute you, or hand you over for that, probably before prisoner exchanges, at minimum for the P.R. win. When Among Us became popular, that's when the Red Cross found out that they accidentally misused the Red Cross filing, at which point they were told to change the icon to avoid violating the Geneva Convention...after doing so unintentionally for two years. Jun 24, 2023 at 1:17
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    A better example than the destruction of the Kakhovka dam is the blowing up NordStream pipeline - the accused (so far) include the United States, Norway, United Kingdom, Poland, Ukraine and Russia.
    – sfxedit
    Jun 24, 2023 at 19:39
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The rule reduces unnecessary killings (friendly fire) that would occur on both sides, not contributing to any of the sides winning.

For the same reason, both sides may agree not to use some very deadly weapons (like chemical in WWII), allow to surrender, exchange prisoners of war, do not kill representatives that have been sent to negotiate, respect the signed agreements and the like. While breaking such rules may give the short advantage for the side that breaks them first, no side longer following them just makes the war more bloody without approaching the victory to any of the sides.

The most extreme cases of this approach, known even from the Bible, David vs Goliath, but now unfortunately faded, is to solve the whole conflict by the single combat between the two best fighters of the opposing sides. All war done with just one killing.

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    The weapons being banned are usually the "non-lethal" ones, as wounding rather than killing an enemy results in intense suffering or slow and painful deaths, which intensifies the overall suffering and cruelty of war. And in addition to that chemical warfare is probably also banned due to it's damage to the environment and the inability to prevent excess civilian casualties. Like apparently some regions are still contaminated by WWI en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zone_rouge . So cleaning up after a war might take way longer than the war itself and can draw casualties way after it ended.
    – haxor789
    Jun 23, 2023 at 9:03
  • solve the whole conflict by the single combat between the two best fighters - did this ever actually happen in the history of warfare? Jun 23, 2023 at 12:12
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    @JonathanReez there are many records from antiquity and especially medieval times: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single_combat - it's plausible for societies where combat prowess is a big factor in a king or nobleman's legitimacy. Especially when armies were small and the expected outcome was being taken for ransom rather than killed. Jun 23, 2023 at 14:32
  • As far as I can tell, such fights were usually a prelude to the real battle. There’s some legendary examples of single combat replacing the war entirely but they don’t have solid proof. Jun 23, 2023 at 14:42
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    Small nitpick: after David killed Goliath, the victorious Israelites pursued the Philistines and killed many more of them... Not calling into question the concept per se, just the applicability of that specific example.
    – DLosc
    Jun 23, 2023 at 17:20
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To understand the origins of this prohibition it seems best to go back to when it was first put in writing and its context there.

https: //ijms.nmdl.org/article/download/15891/10023) - (url misformatting is intentional, this is a download only link.)

Throughout history, opposing nations have established ground rules for war, but until the nineteenth century these rules applied only to a particular conflict and the countries involved. With the 1864 Geneva Conventions, rules of war became international. Dating from the Middle Ages, “a knight always trusted the word of another knight, even if he were an enemy. Perfidy was considered a dishonor which could (never) be redeemed.” 59

The use of false national flags in terrestrial warfare was considered a perfidy and consequently banned by Section II, Chapter 1, CORIOLIS Volume 5, Number 2, 2015[Type text] Page 58 Article 23 of the Hague Convention With Respect To the Laws And Customs of War On Land (Hague II)(29 July 1899) Since the flying of false colors ruse has been barred for over a century by international law with respect to terrestrial warfare.

The link above is mostly meant to provide some context to Hague's introduction.

Hague 1899 Article 23:

Article 23 Besides the prohibitions provided by special Conventions, it is especially prohibited:--

To employ poison or poisoned arms;

To kill or wound treacherously individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army;

To kill or wound an enemy who, having laid down arms, or having no longer means of defence, has surrendered at discretion;

To declare that no quarter will be given;

To employ arms, projectiles, or material of a nature to cause superfluous injury;

To make improper use of a flag of truce, the national flag, or military ensigns and the enemy's uniform, as well as the distinctive badges of the Geneva Convention;

To destroy or seize the enemy's property, unless such destruction or seizure be imperatively demanded by the necessities of war.

As others have said, the requirements to spare civilians and also to treat enemy POWs humanely have, almost as corollary, the need to clearly identify one's troops and that is certainly a motivation.

But, article 23 in general seems to aim to make warfare more "gentlemanly" and humane and this is where the original intent seems to have been.

If you recall your WW1 history, there were initially all sorts of recently-introduced provisions - Hague 1899, 1907 - that were supposed to outlaw certain classes of weapons and behaviors, many of which were quickly discarded:

  • no mine warfare
  • restrictions on submarine warfare, such as subs hailing before firing and taking in shipwrecked sailors and passengers
  • poison gas

After WW1 some of them were brought back in, as unrestricted warfare doesn't really benefit anyone: poison gas for example is initially an advantage to the attacker, but quickly makes everyone miserable once soldiers wear NBC gear.

Likewise, the prohibition to fly false colors (which is treated somewhat differently in sea warfare), seems to be a generally good idea, giving benefits to all, while a breach is not all that advantageous.

As wikipedia states, covering this under perfidy:

In the context of war, perfidy is a form of deception in which one side promises to act in good faith (such as by raising a flag of truce) with the intention of breaking that promise once the unsuspecting enemy is exposed (such as by coming out of cover to take the "surrendering" prisoners into custody).

Perfidy constitutes a breach of the laws of war and so is a war crime, as it degrades the protections and mutual restraints developed in the interest of all parties, combatants and civilians.

Hague got carried over into the Geneva conventions, which are mostly about humanitarian laws, but also very much concerned with rules of warfare in general:

Red Cross

International humanitarian law (IHL) is a set of rules that seek for humanitarian reasons to limit the effects of armed conflict. IHL protects persons who are not or who are no longer participating in hostilities and it restricts the means and methods of warfare. IHL is also known as the law of war and the law of armed conflict.

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From the comment given by @xyldke, I read up on the details, and it's important to note that it's the "improper use" that is forbidden. Specifically, the International Humanitarian Law Databases has this to say about it:

The employment of the national flag, military insignia or uniform of the enemy for the purpose of ruse is not forbidden, but the [Hague Regulations] prohibit their improper use, leaving unsettled what use is proper and what use is not. However, their employment is forbidden during a combat, that is, the opening of fire whilst in the guise of the enemy. But there is no unanimity as to whether the uniform of the enemy may be worn and his flag displayed for the purpose of approach or withdrawal. Use of enemy uniform for the purpose of and in connection with sabotage is in the same category as spying.

Furthermore:

Belgium’s Law of War Manual provides the following examples of improper use: opening fire or participating in an attack while wearing an enemy uniform and opening fire from a captured enemy combat vehicle with its insignia. The manual states that “infiltrating enemy lines in order to create panic to the point that the adversary starts firing on its own soldiers believing that they are disguised enemies or operating behind enemy lines wearing enemy uniform in order to collect information or commit acts of sabotage” is not considered an improper use, although these acts may lead to loss of the right to prisoner-of-war status (see Rule 106).

So, it seems that not only are you not the only one uncertain about exactly what the meaning or purpose of the law is, but experts also have their own ways of interpreting it.

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    And if you capture an enemy vehicle in a battle situation are you forbidden from using it's weapons?? Jun 23, 2023 at 20:46
  • @LorenPechtel, it seems that Belgium's Law of War Manual is against it, though I think that others might find it "proper use". I think there might also be a difference between using a weapon captured in the heat of battle versus deliberately sneaking in and stealing an enemy's weapons with the purpose of using it deceitfully. Even then, reading between the lines, it seems some might even consider that proper, as long as it was used against enemy combatants and not neutral countries in order to bring neutrals onto your side. Jun 24, 2023 at 10:47
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    Using it against a neutral would certainly be wrong, but I'm thinking more along the lines of a cutting out operation. Jun 24, 2023 at 21:45
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    @LorenPechtel I guess you're supposed to remove the enemy's markings or clearly add your own before using the weapons.
    – JanKanis
    Jun 29, 2023 at 12:40

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