Posted by Brad @ 4:51 pm on May 19th 2014

CIA Says “Okay, No More Fake Vaccination Programs”

After a number of deans of schools of public health continue to raise alarm that after the CIA’s coordinated fake vaccination program in Pakistan, Pakistani’s who might have reason to fear the West (warlords in far flung areas) have, quite rationally, banned or otherwise harassed vaccination programs and the medical professionals trying to organize and execute them. Oh, and suddenly polio is resurgent there.

For what it’s worth. Although I suspect it’s not based on any internalization of the dangers of perfidy but rather just based on the fact that they don’t really have any going right now. So more a “yeah yeah, whatever, we’ll not do that for now”.

This is one of my hobby horses I know, but to reiterate again, the reason we have rules of war isn’t because we’re sissypants or because we’re following quaint and antiquated “civilized” rules in a world that no longer does, akin to the British lining up in fields to fight the Revolutionary War. Things like prohibitions on torture, on false flag operations, on mass and indiscriminate police state surveillance, on assassinating other heads of state, on indefinite detention or indiscriminate killing of non-battlefield “combatants”, and basically all those things you find prohibited in the Geneva Conventions and Army Field Manual, aren’t based on quint “gentlemen” agreements. They are rather based on centuries of hard won wisdom on unintended consequences and how, even if certain things may expedite short term military objectives, they do so at the expense of the long term goals of what Western Civilization is presumably trying to achieve with military action in the first place – peace, stability, health, freedom, etc.


  1. I agree broadly, but I’m not sure I’d include assassination of heads of state in that list. I’ve always thought the motive for that prohibition had less to do with unintended consequences and more to do with proportionate response.

    Comment by Rojas — 5/19/2014 @ 10:04 pm

  2. Actually, that’s kind of an interesting topic (the motives for that one). I kind of breezed passed that one but it’s actually interestingly muddy.

    Generally speaking, American law does not apply to heads of state with whom we are currently at war, but rather applies to “political assassination” (this came out of the Church Committee relating to Castro but was really a crystallization of a longstanding notion). This is roughly in line with the United Nations dictives on the topic, which bans assassination as a means of advancing foreign policy objectives (so, again, snuffing out a head of state we aren’t currently at war with to install a more friendly regime). So, if you’re parrying with a country in a contentious cold war, it is decidedly not cool to kill their head of state or government officials.

    The Geneva Conventions and the Hague take a different tact, and see to more ban the practice as it relates to perfidy and as it relates to the combatant status of civilian leadership. This kind of breaks down two ways. The first is that, generally speaking, any operation that killed a head of state would likely be a perfidious operation deep behind enemy lines. The second, and perhaps the easiest to understand, is simply the demarcation between combatants. And this is really easy to illustrate just by flipping it with America as the victim.

    Say we are in a declared war against Iraq. It is, presumably, perfectly fine (errr, you get what I mean) for an Iraqi soldier to kill a General on the battlefield or even one at a command center etc. Is it also okay for Iraq to send an operative to southeastern Pennsylvania and put a bullet in Rep. Patrick Murphy’s head in Palm Beach? Or, for that matter, to set a carbomb on Joe Biden’s SUV in Delaware? Or even, if President Obama visits with troops in the Green Zone, for a sniper to take him out?

    Those conventions would say no. WHY they say no is still a bit of an open question in international law – is it because any such operation would necessarily involve perfidy, or is it because, unless Obama is there with an M1 Carbine leading a battalion across Tikrit, he wouldn’t rightly be considered a combatant? And, of course, the modern permutations of warfare complicate it further still. If it is an INVASION sanctioned by international law (NATO, UN), is it still verboten? i.e. if we invade Iraq can we still consider presidential palaces valid military targets, as they are after a fashion military assets and command centers? Most would say yes. But if it’s Ho Chi Min sending assassins after LBJ while he’s drinking whiskey in Stonewall, Texas and planning a military operation against North Vietnam with his generals? Most would say no.

    Anyway, unlike most of the other prohibitions (torture, impersonating neutral medical personnel, biological weapons, etc), the prohibition on assassinating heads of state isn’t as cut and dry – very reasonable people still disagree about what it covers and what it doesn’t, and the prohibitions themselves are, I think, deliberately vague. They are, in that sense, less sacrosanct prohibitions (except in the case of purely political assassination), as most of the other things are, and are more instead problematizations.

    Comment by Brad — 5/20/2014 @ 8:30 pm

  3. The moral question is more interesting to me. I can’t conceive of a good reason as to why it’s morally acceptable to kill an 18-year-old Iraqi who has been drafted into Saddam Hussein’s army but not acceptable to kill Saddam himself.

    Comment by Rojas — 5/21/2014 @ 11:46 am

  4. I usually find it useful to not frame it in terms of America’s enemies, as we tend to have a certain way of thinking about them that often clouds these things.

    Flip it around instead. Had Saddam sent a covert force to say a behind-the-lines base Barack Obama was visiting, and they managed to take him out with a sniper shot to the head, is that something the world ought to consider fair play?

    Comment by Brad — 5/22/2014 @ 3:31 pm

  5. To your larger moral point:

    The rules of war would generally hold that there is a difference in kind between a battlefield solider and a person on their “side” who supports them. This is not explicit per se, except in one notable case, but it’s implied throughout.

    The explicit case is medics or medical personnel. Despite the fact that a medic standing behind the 18-year-old Iraqi you mentioned is, in essence, supplementing the fighting force – literally patching up the guy who is shooting bullets at you and sending him back out there – we accept that he is a unit of a different kind than the fighting force itself. Despite the fact that, theoretically, a single medic can do more harm to your front lines than a dozen 18-year-old soldiers.

    Likewise, pulling back the camera, that 18-year-old is just a cog. He is the guy with the gun shooting at you. But there is another guy building his weapon. There is another guy paving the road he’s walking on to get to you. There is another guy cooking the meal he’s eating to survive. There is another guy sewing the cloth that becomes his uniform. And so on and so forth. The rules of war have, historically, made a distinction between that 18-year-old and, basically, the rest of society behind him. There are some allowances, of course – factories making artillery shells or power plants supporting front lines. But for the most part, the farther you get from the 18-year-old shooting at you, the better a justification you need for blowing them up.

    I have always taken the prohibition on political assassination as part and parcel with that (again, others think its part and parcel with the prohibition on perfidy, etc). Namely, there is the 18-year-old. There is his commander. There is the general that put the commander and his battalion in the field. And so on and so forth. Go back far enough (and not very far at that), and there is the civilian political leadership that put the commander to his current task and who is deciding the broad strokes war strategy. There is the guy in Tikrit shooting an M1 at our 18-year-old, and then there is the Congressional representative back in Florida who was the key vote that put the commander on the ground who sent the 18-year-old out. The moral question is whether killing the Florida rep is the same, ethically, as killing the 18-year-old with the M1.

    Comment by Brad — 5/23/2014 @ 4:06 am

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