Ideology and the Laws of War

The laws of conduct in war consist of some of the most intriguing legal facets in the international system. They are remarkable in that agreements exist between many nations that establish rules in the most brutal of conditions, but have no method of enforcement, and no consequence should they be broken.

The laws of war exist as a final ruleset for conduct during times of conflict. Nations that engage in war abide by the Geneva Conventions and other laws of war, while also seeking every advantage possible to achieve victory. This dichotomy between utility and adherence seems unnatural given the brutality of war. Numerous conflicts have demonstrated, however, the nations are willing to abide by the laws of war, even during the most brutal of struggles.

However, it is equally intriguing to note the occurrences in which nations do not abide by the Geneva Conventions, particularly when Ideology is concerned. Just as there are examples of adherence, there are also many instances of violating the laws of war. Indeed, the phenomenon of Ideology has proven to be a key deciding factor in whether a nation abides by such laws. In certain cases, the same nation can have very different interactions with one enemy over another based on its ideology.

Nazi Germany is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon through its interactions with the Western Allies and with the Soviet Union during World War 2. In conducting the campaigns against France and Britain, the German Wehrmacht fought in a generally honorable fashion and abided by the laws of war. When enemies surrendered, they were taken prisoner. As prisoners, those troops were treated humanely for the duration of the war, or even released early in the case of many French soldiers. Though the Battle of France was brutal and swift, it was conducted in a remarkably honorable way.

In the case of the Soviet Union, however, the actions of Germany were considerably less humane. From the beginning, Hitler had made his intention known to completely eradicate the Soviet Union, both in terms of Communism and in the inferior Slavic peoples who lived in Eastern Europe. This Ideological disregard for the humanity of the enemy led to the German military conducting horrific offenses against the Soviet Union that were in drastic violation of the laws of war. In terms of prisoners, Germany took more than 5 million Soviet soldiers prisoner. Of that number, more than 3 and a half million died in captivity.

The Ideological nature of conduct in war persists to the modern day with radical Islamic sects in the Middle East. The Islamic State in Syria and the Levant have demonstrated an Ideological disregard for human rights in its assaults in Syria and Iraq. Prisoners taken by ISIL have been beheaded for little reason apart from intimidating the West. ISIL takes part in human trafficking and extortion to acquire funds for its war effort. Actions like this make the organization seem brutal and barbaric, while also granting no real benefit. Indeed, Western nations have responded with great hostility, launching massive aerial campaigns and deploying aid to ISIL’s enemies. Groups that fight against them are less likely to surrender because ISIL will not guarantee their safety, leading to even more brutal battles. In turn, ISIL’s enemies return the favor and execute prisoners of their own.

Ideology and respect for human rights has a large impact on how groups view the laws of war. Western nations, particularly the United States, are more likely to abide by the Geneva Convention and adhere to the Laws of War. This is in part due to an Ideological acceptance of basic human rights. Nazi Germany also had a similar value for the lives of its Western adversaries, leading to French, British, and American prisoners being treated relatively well. That value of human rights disappeared when faced with the Ideological opposition to the Soviet Union. When the Nazis could not reconcile their Ideology with the Laws of War, the Second World War achieved a level of brutality unseen before or since.

The argument I pose is this: Ideology is a fundamental determinant in whether an organization abides by the Laws of War. If the organization does not have a value for human rights, the Laws of War will not be upheld, and the conflict will be exceedingly brutal. If, on the other hand, the organizations involved recognize human rights for their enemies, the conflict will be less brutal, more humane, and the fighting will cease on the act of surrender. Does this argument satisfy you? Does Ideology play such an important role in the Laws of War? Moreover, if a nation has an Ideological value for human rights, will this inherently lead to adherence to the Geneva Convention?


4 thoughts on “Ideology and the Laws of War

  1. This argument is reasonable. If an ideology grants brutal punishment to dissenters then International Law may not have as much of an effect on controlling the actions of such an ideological faction during times of conflict against their enemies. Moral subjectivity really makes the world a complicated place, especially regarding laws.


  2. Another aspect to the Geneva Convention’s laws of warfare is this: combatants must wear identifying uniforms. When the enemy does not adhere to this rule, we find issues such as those in the Vietnam War, as well as the conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The main problem with this is soldiers cannot know who the enemy is until it is too late. This has probably lead to more civilian deaths than would otherwise occur had the enemy presented itself as a proper combatant. However, as you suggest, their ideals probably prevent them from viewing this as a problem, as civilian deaths allow them to further and expand their own cause.

    Additionally, the fact that insurgents fight without uniforms is one of the main reasons prisoners have been kept at Guantanamo Bay for so long: they are technically not enemy soldiers and do not fall under the terms of the Geneva Convention.


  3. Addressing your questions directly and upon further reflection I think this argument is quite sufficient particularly due to the fact that you point out that ” if… the organizations involved recognize human rights for their enemies,” that they will be less brutal. I think a very significant aspect of brutality among those in conflict, either in ethnic or political conflict is the fact that many times there is an extensive propaganda campaign of one group against another before such brutality occurs. A very straightforward and clear example is the one you pointed out about the Nazis in the case of the Soviets. The mythos the Nazis created to other the Soviets among others, allowed them to be brutal against an enemy that they do not believe worthy of human rights. This becomes partially ideological and partially socialization that allows a population at large or at least the military to buy into this ideology. If on the other hand, a country or an organization does not have an ideology that is more humane and less likely to other their counterparts, they stand a chance at rejecting brutality in their treatment of the enemy. Great post!


  4. I wonder if it is possible for the Geneva Convention, or possibly the UN if its authority could reach that far, to impose some sort of sanction on countries, individuals or groups of people that completely neglect the laws of war? It would most likely only work for countries that find the UN and other international institutions legitimate. Granted, it would be difficult to find all the laws neglected, especially with smaller scale conflicts, but it is worth considering. Maybe prisoners of war, civilian populations, refugees, and others would be treated more humanely.


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