Recent allegations about alleged atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Iraq come as no surprise to seasoned observers of guerrilla warfare.
This ugly, messy conflict, where the line is deliberately blurred between soldiers and civilians, inevitably produces confusion, stress and extreme frustration on the battlefield. The nature of guerrilla war accelerates and amplifies the process of dehumanization of the enemy, and as an inevitable result, otherwise quite humane soldiers on both sides come to view atrocity as acceptable and even useful.
History has no example of a guerrilla war that did not feature crimes against humanity, committed in the heat of battle, by soldier and guerrilla alike. Call it the first iron law of guerrilla war: In such conflicts, there are always atrocities on both sides.
In every guerrilla war, from the Roman era through Napoleon's peninsula campaign to Iraq, regular and irregular armies have resorted to atrocity. British forces routinely massacred Boer civilians in South Africa more than a century ago, and Boer guerrillas responded in kind. In Vietnam, while U.S. forces slaughtered civilians at My Lai and other hamlets, Viet Cong guerrillas murdered many innocent villagers and city dwellers. Dutch and Indonesian civilians were massacred by the thousands during the guerrilla war for independence in the late 1940s.
To its credit, the U.S. military, which is without question the best and the most humane in human history, has minimized these crimes in Iraq. But in the end, as long as people are people, there will be no escaping the iron law. Atrocity will always accompany guerrilla war.
Further, since the first task of the conventional army battling guerrillas is to identify enemy combatants and separate them from the innocent, intelligence can often be decisive. Time and time again, regular militaries have eventually proved willing to extract vital information by whatever means necessary.
Thus the Second Iron Law of Guerrilla Warfare may be related to the first in a broad moral sense, but it springs from a different source. It is the desire for actionable intelligence, not frustration fueled by the nature of irregular combat, which drives the second law: In guerrilla warfare, torture is inevitable. At some point during every single guerrilla war in history, the conventional/stronger side has tortured its prisoners in the attempt to extract the information that is so vital to its cause.
Guerrillas unlucky enough to be captured alive by the regular forces of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, or the British in Northern Ireland, or the Nazis in Czechoslovakia were in for a most unpleasant experience. In most cases, they were unlikely to survive.
The Central American governments on both sides during the Cold War routinely tortured guerrilla captives throughout the wars of the 1980s. Palestinian prisoners today are subject to violent shaking for up to 16 straight days and nights without being charged.
Success in guerrilla wars - like that achieved by the United States in the Philippines, the French in Algeria and the British in Malaysia and Kenya - often has been achieved through the use of widespread, systematic torture, effectively employed. Regular troops, of course, can also expect little mercy should they fall into the hands of irregular forces.
Thus we should not have been surprised by either the revelations about secret CIA torture prisons or the haunting images from Abu Ghraib. In guerrilla war, torture is the rule, not the exception.
It is once again to the credit of the United States that such behavior is deemed unacceptable by the government and public alike. But there can be little doubt that what is euphemistically called coercive interrogation is widespread in Iraq.
None of this is meant to imply that atrocity or torture should be acceptable or forgivable. If anything, the two iron laws ought to give pause to any nation considering action that risks involvement in guerrilla warfare. There is little evidence to indicate that the United States was prepared to fight a widespread guerrilla uprising in Iraq. But, to misquote Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, a nation goes to war against the enemy it has, not the enemy it wishes it had.
As the recent past in Iraq demonstrates, not even 21st-century liberal democracies are immune to the two iron laws of guerrilla warfare. Until the war comes to a merciful end, we must expect a certain degree of ugliness in the news from the front.
Christopher J. Fettweis is an assistant professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I. The views expressed are his own. His e-mail is email@example.com.