“Yes, the objective of any general is to defeat the enemy, but that doesn’t mean you should be a boor about it.”
THE GENEVA CONVENTION is in the news of late, thanks to Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump.
The bombastic billionaire-turned-politician has been taking aim at international laws governing the use of military force, characterizing them as impediments to the war on terror.
“The problem is we have… all sorts of rules and regulations, so the soldiers are afraid to fight,” Trump said during a campaign speech in Wisconsin last month.
Earlier this year, retired USAF general and CIA director Michael Hayden suggested that the U.S. military would likely ignore orders if a Trump White House directed the Pentagon commit war crimes.
“The armed forces would refuse to act,” he said in an interview on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher.
The continuing controversy has ignited discussions about both the Geneva Convention and the ‘rules of war’ in general.
Of course, laws governing the conduct of armies in the field are nothing new. As far back as the Old Testament, there have been attempts to regulate how combatants fight each other. Later during the Medieval period, the Code of Chivalry established the ‘proper’ way for knights to behave both on and off the battlefield. By the 18th Century, a surprisingly comprehensive set of principles for commanders of armies emerged that instructed officers on how to fight like gentlemen. Military history writer Josh Proven of the site Adventures in Historyland explores some of these widely followed conventions, many of which may seem hard to believe to modern readers. Consider the following:
Don’t Make It Personal
During the wars of 18th Century Europe, it was usual for armies to campaign in set seasons — usually from March to September. With the onset of autumn, armies would go into winter quarters and many officers would head home. Some would have to cross long distances and oftentimes travel through enemy territory.In such cases, officers would apply to their foes for passes of safe conduct. Usually, their requests would be granted.
Even with a permission to travel, it could still be dangerous to move through hostile country. In fact, the Duke of Marlborough himself was once held up by enemy troops while making for home. Yet inconveniencing an enemy that had fallen into your hands was further seen as bad form. Marlborough was known for his chivalry. After capturing Marshal Tallard at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, the duke offered up his own coach for the enemy commander to recuperate while he continued the battle.
Give Fair Warning
On May 11, 1745, the Duke of Cumberland‘s allied army engaged that of the French under Marshal de Saxe at the Battle of Fontenoy. As the coalition launched its attack against the French positions, the British 1st Foot Guards approached the enemy’s elite Gardes Françaises. Upon closing to within musket range, elegantly dressed officers from both sides walked out in front of their men and an exchange of hat doffing occurred. Lord Charles Hay was the first to speak.
“We are the English Guards, and we hope you will stand till we come up to you, and not swim the Scheldt as you did the Main at Dettingen,” he gibed, after which he invited the enemy to fire the first volley. “Gentlemen of the French Guards, fire,” he called. Comte d’Auteroche replied. “We never fire first; fire yourselves.” As it turned out, the French did let fly the first shots, after which the British closed advanced to within a few paces and delivered a devastating fusillade that killed or wounded as many as 700 enemy soldiers.
Don’t Be an Inconvenience
Yes, the objective of any general is to defeat the enemy, but that doesn’t mean you should be a boor about it. It did a general’s reputation no end of good if, during a long siege he displayed some sportsmanship. During the 1758 blockade of Louisbourg, General Geoffrey Amherst called several truces with the enemy commander, Chevalier de Drucourt. While offering the services of his doctor to tend the French wounded, it had come to Amherst’s attention that Madame Drucourt had been firing the fort’s guns at him in retaliation for British shot striking her quarters. Impressed, he offered his apologies and sent her some West Indian Pineapples to make amends. It was also entirely common for opposing commanders to keep up a lively correspondence in between battles and during sieges. The French were duly offered the Honours of War when they capitulated.
“Honours of War”
The honours were traditionally granted to an enemy that had put up a good fight. A vanquished force might be allowed them to march out with “drums beating and colours flying” and thence to be returned to their country their pride intact. General the Marquis de Montcalm is remembered as a chivalrous officer, who tried to bring such European sensibility into the savage no-holds-barred fighting in North America during the Seven Years War.
During the siege of Fort Oswego in 1756, British Colonel James Mercer was killed and his successor Colonel Littlehales instantly sought terms. But the Redcoat officer had surrendered too quickly for Montcalm’s liking and was afforded no honours. Littlehales was later beaten up by Canadian militia and Indians during the sacking of the stockade. Despite his enemy’s craven capitulation, such abuse of an enemy officer angered Montcalm. The Marquis was further incensed following the siege of Fort William Henry. After having granted the Honours of War to Colonel George Monro, his Canadians and Indians set upon the captives with tomahawks. Mortified, Montcalm duly wrote letters explaining and apologizing for the crime.
Nothing Below the Belt
Needless to say it was considered beyond the pale for soldiers to go about deliberately shooting down officers from a distance. It was further scandalous for a commander to sanction such tactics, which were considered tantamount to assassination. During the Saratoga campaign of 1777, the British were outraged when it was discovered that American commander Daniel Morgan had ordered a party of rifleman to shoot down Scottish general Simon Fraser, whose bravery on the battlefield was inspiring his men to fight harder. That same year at Brandywine, the famous rifle corps commander Colonel Patrick Ferguson saw an elegant, mounted officer attended by a hussar. Despite having the splendid figure dead in his sights, Ferguson couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger and called out to the enemy rider to retreat while he could. That officer was likely George Washington.
Turn About is Fair Play
Washington was no less a stickler for niceties. He once refused to open a letter from General William Howe addressed to “George Washington Esquire” rather than “His excellency General,” considering such a pedestrian honourific a slight. At Yorktown in 1781 when a defeated General Lord Charles Cornwallis sought surrender terms, Washington replied that he would be extending the same courtesy as that offered by the British to the garrison of Charlestown in 1780; the American defenders there were denied the Honours of War. Ultimately, the British were allowed to play their fifes and drums as they marched out from behind their earthworks. Cornwallis pled indisposition and did not appear to present his sword to Washington personally – a clear snub. Seeing that General Charles O’Hara was offering the surrender in his commander’s stead, Washington waved the British officer towards his own adjutant, General Benjamin Lincoln. In this sense the rules of propriety were observed. And a sharp lesson taught.