Unlawful Combatants: A Genealogy of the Irregular Fighter.
By Sibylle Scheipers
New York, NY: Oxford
University Press, 2015
Dr. Sibylle Scheipers is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations JL"' at the University of St. Andrews in Scodand and was previously Director of Studies for the Changing Character of War Programme at Oxford University. She earned a PhD at Humboldt University in Berlin and was a post-doctoral fellow at Chatham House. This is her second solo-authored book in addition to editing three others including Prisoners in War (Oxford, 2010) and several articles published in scholarly journals.
Early in Unlawful Combatants the author reminds us, "Under the law of armed conflict, irregular fighters such as insurgents, guerrillas, and rebels are largely excluded from the privileges and protections of prisoner-of-war (POW) status." Her primary intent in this book is to explore "the ambiguity of the status of irregular fighters, the political opportunism entangled with categorizing someone as an irregular fighter, and ... the stark consequences of such a categorization." (2)
To a great extent Scheipers admirably succeeds in illuminating those topics through a detailed study of several specific periods in military history and related developments including international law (primarily Europe and North America from 1740 to 1815), the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, the Second World War, colonial wars in Haiti, Malaya and several parts of Africa, and recent struggles against Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Iraqi insurgents. I am impressed with the myriad examples of irregular fighters Scheipers identifies through her wide-ranging research, the careful distinctions she makes among them, and the frequently problematic interpretations of those combatants she teases out of the writings of generals, politicians, and lawyers.
An intriguing theme running throughout Unlawful Combatants is irregular warfare often occurs at the edges of conventional war, and even as an authorized auxiliary to it, e.g. in the American Civil War and Franco-Prussian War (ch. 3). Scheipers also conveys how difficult it can be to establish stable and robust legal rules regarding irregular warfare, given that it includes widely disparate forms ranging from organized insurgent groups, semi-official partisans, and widespread popular uprisings against occupying uniformed troops.
One drawback of Scheipers' approach is that by focusing on opportunistic uses of the term "irregular" and its synonyms from state apologists, she ignores ways in which typical irregular war tactics--stealth, surprise, raiding, looting, rape, indiscriminate killing etc.--were standard procedures (i.e. "regular") throughout much of human history. For example, while discussing North American conflicts in the late eighteenth century (ch. 1), she claims:
What Europeans encountered as "Indian warfare"--that is, the conduct of Native Americans on the battlefield--was an adaptation to the new weapons technologies that Europeans had brought to America. Native American warfare before the arrival of the gun had been mostly limited, ritualized, and rather low in mortality. (39)
But such claims are overly sweeping and misleading, as Lawrence Keeley demonstrated in his fascinating book, War before Civilisation: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). While Native Americans surely did adapt some of their tactics after being introduced to European weapons, Keeley proved that mortality rates in violent conflicts between Native American cultures prior to contact with Europeans were usually much higher than mortality rates from wars waged between modern industrialized countries. Moreover, human beings most likely inherited violently aggressive tendencies and even some war tactics from the common ancestor species that also produced chimpanzees, according to Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996). To be sure, Scheipers could not possibly write about every case of irregular warfare in human history, but it would be interesting to know whether her approach in Unlawful Combatants would have been modified by exposure to these works.
On America's "War on Terror," Scheipers is right to criticize the Bush Administration for denying, post-9/11, that the Geneva Conventions applied to Al Qaeda detainees. (195) She also perceptively points out the United States has supported some Afghan and Iraqi irregular fighters without clearly articulating how they differ legally or ethically from enemy irregulars. (217-221) But I am not persuaded by her claim the concept of "unlawful combatant" in itself "suffers from internal inconsistencies," (190, 222) since that term can simply refer today to a fighter who does not satisfy all of the Geneva Convention criteria required to be accorded full POW status.
Overall, I recommend Unlawful Combatants enthusiastically as a detailed and thoughtful history of irregular warfare.
Reviewed by Dr. David L. Perry, Professor of Applied Ethics and Director of the Vann Center for Ethics, Davidson College, and former Professor of Ethics, US Army War College