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 The (Third) Geneva Convention (of 12 August 1949), Article 4.A(2), defines a Lawful Combatant as "(a) that of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates; (b) that of having fixed distinctive insignia recognizable at a distance; (c) that of carrying arms openly; and (d) that of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war."

It is not true that all is fair in love and war. Especially in war. There are a considerable number of treaties governing the conduct of war. Even the utter chaos of war itself has standards.

Note that war has usually been governed by some sort of law or custom throughout history, but they differ in various times and places. As noted below, the Geneva Conventions recognize the right of a POW to attempt to escape. During the Napoleonic Wars, as an example, if a captured officer swore an oath to his captors that he would return home and no longer participate in the war until its resolution, he was honour-bound to keep his word. Many imperialist victories throughout history can be attributed to two different sets of customs regarding war coming to a head.

Dum-Dum Bullets

A quick way to show that a killer is really a bad guy is to have their bullets having a cross cut into the tip. This will cause the bullet to expand when it enters the body, causing far more damage. Since hollow points are permitted in most non-military applications and are more reliable (jacked dum-dums have a disturbing tendency to leave the jacket in the barrel of the gun, nevermind the fact that they don't expand that reliably) dum-dums are usually used to show how bad someone is. Or that setting pre-dates the invention of hollow points. Named after an arms factory in India, by the way.

In 1899, the Hague Convention stipulated that bullets must not be designed to expand or flatten within the body, causing grievous harm. This has been a contentious point, as modern rifle calibers often yaw or tumble within tissue due to their velocity and shape, and this behavior has been encouraged with both 5.56x45mm NATO and 5.45x39 rounds by selectively weakening the full metal jacket in certain portions or the addition of an air pocket.

Although the example points out the dum dum rounds as the specific example, the laws of war generally state that the use of altered projectiles is not permitted, including the use of glass projectiles.


These bullets, which expand in a person's body, are prohibited in formal warfare, but allowed in domestic law enforcement and actually required in some jurisdictions for hunting. Their downsides are that they have poor performance against armor and barriers as well as sometimes not expanding correctly. In addition, automatic or semi-automatic weapons capable of reliably feeding hollowpoints are a relatively recent invention. Their upsides is their relatively low chance of over-penetration (and hitting something behind your target) and of course increased stopping effectiveness.

Match grade ammunition (such as Sierra Match-King) often contains a thin hollow nose for ballistics reasons, but since its wound profile is not noticeably different from a normal FMJ wound, the U.S. military has authorized its use.

Tear Gas

Oddly enough, use of tear gas is banned in warfare but legal for use by civilian law enforcement. Technically not illegal, but strongly discouraged for fear of reprisal with deadly chemical weapons. One of the things that supposedly bothered Timothy McVeigh was that it was legal for the FBI to use these types of gases on women and children in the attack on Waco, but it would have been illegal for the U.S. Army to use them on soldiers in the battlefield.

  • It is, interestingly enough, perfectly OK to use tear gas on your OWN troops, for training purposes. As an example, all branches of the military have trainees stand in a gas chamber pumping out tear gas to show them that their chemical warfare protective gear will protect them.
    • Of course, they also have to take *off* the gear while they are in the chamber, showing them why they would want to wear all that crap to begin with.
      • With the gear off, they're ordered to sing the Star Spangled Banner. Because, hey, it shows just how detrimental the chemicals are. Sarcasm aside, they are told to sing to make sure no one is holding their breath.
      • Depending on the instructor, a recruit may alternately be required to introduce themselves, or recite various other memorized information or answer questions. In addition to make sure they don't hold their breath, it ensures that they can keep a cool head under pressure. If they panic, or drop any of their gear, they get to try again. For obvious reasons, a nerve toxin attack is the last place you want to lose your nerve.


Only those who actually fight are combatants. Civilians are not legitimate targets. Furthermore, combatants who have laid down their arms or become hors de combat, including those who are leaving sinking ships or parachuting from planes, must be treated humanely. However, should a combatant deliberately disguise themselves as a noncombatant or attempt to hide among noncombatants, they become categorized as Unlawful Combatants and the situation becomes much less pleasant. Playing Possum is a war crime because it discourages people from obeying this law and custom.

While civilians are allowed by the Geneva Conventions to take up arms as militia against an invading army, they must still abide by the Geneva Conventions in their own behavior, be "carrying arms openly", and do their best to have "a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance" in order to still enjoy the protection of the Geneva Conventions for themselves. The intent of this particular section of the Geneva Conventions is to make the distinction between 'combatant' and 'noncombatant' immediately obvious at a distance; to try and minimize noncombatant casualties by letting the enemy be able to know which people are fighting him and which ones are just bystanders. The 'illegal combatant' distinction generally comes into play when that distinction is deliberately being abused.

There are several quasi-military jobs that were taken into uniformed services to give protection under the Geneva convention to those workers. Otherwise they were unlawful combatants and possibly spies. The Public Health and NOAA Corps are American examples of battlefield surveyors and ambulance personnel put in a uniform to give them protection on a battlefield.

Aircrew escaping from a doomed plane are not to be fired upon, as they are already out of the fight and now completely helpless to defend themselves. In the European Theatre in WWII, any pilot who intentionally fired at parachuting aircrews in sight of the enemy effectively signed their own death warrant. Any enemy fighter pilots in the area would ditch all other priorities just to take the son of a bitch down.

Name, rank and number- Prisoners Of War

There are actually four Geneva Conventions- number three being the relevant one for POWs.

Being taken prisoner

If a group of soldiers decides that they want to surrender, they should make their intentions clear. This usually entails waving a white flag (or something big and white) or raising your hands. (Faking it is a war crime in itself.)

  • The white flag is also used to ask for a truce -- its fundamental meaning is "Stop shooting."
  • Black flags are often used for this purpose. This caused some awkwardness when Iraqis tried to surrender to Americans who were unaware of the custom.

Once the other side captures you, they are allowed to search you and restrain you. They can confiscate your pack animals (these are still used in less developed parts of the world where motorized transportation has problems), weaponry and any military documents. However, a prisoner must be permitted to retain his personal protective equipment, such as helmets and gas masks. And, once a prisoner has been captured, his health, safety, and well-being is the responsibility of his captors.

A surrender can be under conditions or unconditional, the latter meaning that only international law applies. The Allies in World War Two demanded- and got- an unconditional surrender from Germany. It has been argued that the end of the war in Europe is also a case of debellatio, completely destroying a hostile state, as Nazi Germany ceased to exist.

The only things that you are obliged to tell the people capturing you are your name, rank, serial (or service) number and date of birth. The US permits provision of relevant health and welfare information too. Telling more may result in a court-martial if and when you get home.

  • Since the experience of American POWs in the Vietnam War, it has been recognized that pretty much anyone under torture will break at some point, even if only to make up crap to make it stop. Many military forces now teach their troops to not give anything the enemy anything more than legally required, and if tortured to try and minimize the information they give but not at the cost of their own lives.
  • In training for preparation for the eventual capture in Iraq, soldiers have been taught not to antagonize their interrogators and to give cooperative, although not helpful answers rather than lies, which may be used against the prisoners later.

In captivity

If I become a prisoner of war, I will keep faith with my fellow prisoners. I will give no information or take part in any action which might be harmful to my comrades. If I am senior, I will take command. If not, I will obey the lawful orders of those appointed over me and will back them up in every way.
Article IV of the Code of the U.S Fighting Force

Once taken to a camp (these have to be designated in a way that aircraft can see them and should be well away from the front line), prisoners are to be well treated. They are allowed to write letters home and receive them, the Red Cross can send them parcels with food and religious freedom is allowed. You also are allowed pay in line with your rank.

Being forced to work

Prisoners of war can be compelled to work, but only in non-military capacities. Farm work is a common one for this.

You cannot be forced to do dangerous or unhealthy work. Officers and NCOs cannot be compelled to work, but may agree to do so if they wish.

The Medic and chaplain must be permitted to work in those roles, and must not be forced to perform any other. However, medics and chaplains can be put to the care of prisoners other than those from the nation they represent if necessary. They also remain bound by the ethical requirements of their professions, meaning that they may need to minister to the enemy in an emergency.

The use of torture on legitimate prisoners of war (actually, on anyone) is absolutely prohibited.

However, realizing that the people it fights have frequently not adhered to Geneva (as in World War Two and the Vietnam War), the United States military, plus others, trains its aircrew in resistance techniques, including "waterboarding" them. The "legitimate" in the header above refers to the fact that under the original Geneva Conventions, there are protections only for lawful combatants and noncombatants, not "unlawful combatants". However, Article 75 of the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions (1977) contains a prohibition of torture as one of the basic minimum protections applicable to everyone, even if they are eligible for protection under none of the other Geneva Conventions. The US has never ratified the First Additional Protocol, but did sign and ratify the UN Convention Against Torture.

Medical Experiments

The use of prisoners for medical experiments is also prohibited, unless it is for the prisoner's clear well being.


Prisoners are permitted to attempt to escape (many forces see it as a duty to do so) and are not to be executed if they attempt to do so. Prisoners can still be shot while attempting to escape, though they must be warned first.

Medical and religious personnel are exempt from the requirement to attempt to escape, as their specialties are more valuable to the remaining prisoners than the harm done by their escape.

Medics and chaplains

Medical personnel and chaplains, being noncombatants, are not technically prisoners of war, though they must receive as good treatment as the prisoners. Furthermore, they must be permitted to carry out their ministrations. They can be required to minister to prisoners from other nationalities, however, and are still bound by professional and ethical obligations that may compel them to minister to the enemy in an emergency.

Unlawful Combatants

Geneva III in its 1949 revision, states the requirements for someone to be considered eligible to be a POW:
(a) That of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
(b) That of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance [a uniform or something that allows identification];
(c) That of carrying arms openly;
(d) That of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.

Mercenaries, even if they are uniformed regular units conducting operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war, are still specifically not covered by the Geneva Conventions as specified by Article 47 of the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions (1977). Terrorists are not covered by the Geneva Conventions - they fail eligibility under Geneva III because of their failure to meet the standards listed above, and they are not covered as civilians under Geneva IV because Geneva IV does not apply to individuals taking a direct part in ongoing hostilities, only to noncombatants and similar personnel. In addition, the usual tactics of terrorists, most especially random attacks against noncombatants, are themselves acts specifically proscribed by Geneva IV. However, article 75 of the First Additional Protocol establishes certain very basic minimum protections that apply to everyone regardless of whatever categories of eligibility they may or may not qualify for, including terrorists/unlawful combatants.

Mercenaries that are an integral part of a given State's military system (Gurkhas, Foreign Legionaires, etc.) are not considered mercenaries for this purpose even though they are in fact soldiering for a foreign state which is a common definition of "mercenary". A captured Legionnaire would be covered by the Convention.

The Medic and military personnel are noncombatants despite being in the army.

The 1949 version also covers spontaneous resistance movements, even not in uniform, if their conduct abides by the laws and customs of war. However, they are not exempt from the four basic requirements at the top of this subheading and most classic resistance movements deliberately avoid using uniforms or identifying symbols, thus forfeiting their protection and leaving them liable to be shot as spies or saboteurs. Many resistance actions, such as sabotage or bombing, also fail to be 'carrying arms openly'. A resistance movement that did fulfill all the requirements, even just to the point of using colored armbands during their overt attacks, should still qualify.

No Quarter

It is a war crime to state that soldiers cannot surrender or not to take prisoners.

Showing Your True Colours

Despite a more general prohibition on Dressing as the Enemy these days, this is still a permissible action.

A ship is allowed to fly the flags of an opposing or neutral nation (although protected symbols are banned) as it approaches an enemy vessel or the coast. However, before it engages the enemy, it has to lower the colours it is flying and reveal its true colours. Witness the Q-Ships of World War One and World War Two.

Lowering your colours (called "striking") is the naval symbol for surrendering. This is also the origin of the expression "nailing one's colours to the mast", meaning you weren't going to surrender.

This is not as relevant these days- it's a lot harder to disguise a particular cruiser type than a sailing ship and naval warfare these days takes place at far longer ranges.

This applies also to ground troops, who may wear enemy uniforms as a deception up until they engage. However, as Lawful Combatants can still be tried for any criminal offences they commit in the execution of their duty (rape, theft, etc.) if they use uniforms other than their own to gather intelligence/spread despondency or falsehoods within the ranks of their enemies, they may be tried for espionage and, if found guilty, shot or otherwise punished as per the laws of the nation that has captured them.

Protected Symbols

War is hell, but there are some things you just don't do. Many things are allowed as ruses, even the aforementioned False Flag Operations, but even in war, this doesn't fly. Certain symbols are completely OFF LIMITS unless you're using them legitimately. These especially include the Red Cross/Crescent/Crystal and the UN logo. Note that if the UN is running a military operation (e.g. The Korean War), you're allowed to use their logo on your tank ... it's when the UN doesn't give you permission and you use it that you're running afoul of Article 38.

The white truce flag IS a protected symbol, too. Don't fake surrender in war; it violates Article 37 of the protocol addition to Geneva IV, "Protection against perfidy". The acts specifically proscribed are (a) the feigning of an intent to negotiate under a flag of truce or of a surrender; (b) the feigning of an incapacitation by wounds or sickness; (c) the feigning of civilian, non-combatant status; and (d) the feigning of protected status by the use of signs, emblems or uniforms of neutral parties. Note that the use of enemy uniforms is not prohibited, and is a legitimate ruse of war as far as the Geneva Conventions are concerned - although it can still get you shot for espionage, of course.

Ceasefires, Armistices

A ceasefire is a temporary cessation of hostilities, while an armistice is the wartime equivalent of a drawn game--sort of.

Ceasefires take effect at a set time after the agreement, allowing the word to get to troops in the field. In practice, people generally stop firing once they're told of the ceasefire; no-one wants to be the last to die in a war.

There might be a clear winner or loser at the end of an armistice; what matters is that the sides have only agreed to stop fighting until further notice. Generally speaking, an armistice is when the war has clearly ended. Usually, peace talks and a peace treaty immediately follow but the term "peace treaty" is something of a misnomer: a peace treaty is actually about restoring (or establishing) diplomatic recognition and ties, as well as settling at least some of the disputes that led to the war in the first place (generally in the victor's favor, assuming that there is one).

Note that a peace treaty need not follow an armistice: countries can agree to stop fighting without agreeing to establish diplomatic ties or settle their issues. As a result, armistices can last for a very long time, during which the sides remain technically at war. Two notable long-lasting armistices exist today

  • The armistice ending the Korean War was signed in July 1953, but no peace treaty will be signed in the foreseeable future.
  • The Arab-Israeli Conflict presents an interesting situation, where three wars were fought, each of which ended with an armistice. However, of the Arab states fighting these wars, only four--Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq--directly participated in all of them. So:
    • Egypt and Jordan both have signed peace treaties with Israel. Armistices most recently existed between Israel and Egypt 1973-1979 and between Israel and Jordan 1973-1994.
    • Syria and Iraq have not signed peace treaties, and thus have armistices but are still technically at war with Israel. Barring a sudden resolution of Israel's problems with the Palestinians, treaties seem unlikely in the immediate future.
      • While attempts at a treaty with Syria have come tantalizingly close on several occasions (including 2000 with American mediation and 2007-2008 with Turkish mediation), but these attempts stalled, and now Syria is likely to be busy reorganizing itself for several years after the 2011-2012 uprising.
      • Iraq not only has domestic problems, it has to walk a tightrope between the United States (to which the entire regime owes its existence for toppling Saddam) and Iran (which has a strong influence on the parties representing the country's Shiite majority).
    • Lebanon's last active and official participation in a war with Israel was in 1948, with the armistice signed in 1949; however, Israel has intervened in Lebanon against non-state military forces (e.g. the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Hizballah) several times since then, most recently in 2006.
    • Several other Arab states technically declared war on Israel and joined the Arab armistices, but never actually engaged in combat with the IDF. Most if not all of these countries have pledged to sign peace treaties with Israel upon the establishment of a Palestinian state, and some (including the Gulf States and Morocco) have good relations with Israel on the down-low.

Treaties don't settle as much as it would sound like they do, and often make the situation worse by favoring the victors. Actually the failures of peace treaties mean that almost every war can be traced back to a war before it, and that war to the one before it, and so on. For example, most of the wars in the 20th Century can be traced back to World War One, which was the result of a number of the various wars in the 19th Century. Furthermore, people have this habit of wanting to restore the status quo ante bellum, or rather "the situation before the war." However, since that situation they're trying to restore is presumably the one that led to the war in the first place, this doesn't always end well either.

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