Anti-war sentiment is large and latent in most political arenas around the globe.

What clumsily goes under the ‘anti-war movement’ banner is actually an unlikely array of bedfellows from veterans persuaded of war’s ghastliness to conscientious objectors, from religious pacifists such as the Amish or Yazidis to militant socialists objecting to capitalist warfare, and from fiscal conservatives worried about the spiralling cost of war to the isolationist right.

On the other side, there are the warhawks, Islamists, militant communists and liberal internationalists, passionately committed to spreading their ideology throughout the world, if necessary by violent means.

In reality, the mass of the global population is probably somewhere in between, not wanting conflict, but recognising two facts about warfare: (i) that the deterrence effect of a capable military has a role to play in preventing conflict, and (ii) that if the security of your nation is threatened and you do not respond, the bullies win.

The contention that most people do not believe that countries should make no provision for their national security seems incontrovertible. Far from being the greatest of all evils, going to war may sometimes be a moral imperative. If your country faces the option of between being invaded with the disenfranchisement of future generations of your people that this represents and being willing to war to defend your freedom and your children’s freedom, then most people would choose to do the latter.

Given that this is the case, more attention ought to be paid to the question of how warfare is prosecuted. It is my contention here that there are decent and barbarous ways of conducting war. The fact that public debate on warfare is dominated by shills for the two extreme positions has diminished the conversation around the ethics of conducting warfare. So here I would like to lay out Twelve Simple Rules for the conduct of warfare that should serve as a baseline minimum standard of decency for those who lead and those who fight.

  1. Declare both war and peace.
  2. Maintain discipline.
  3. Use discriminate weapons.1
  4. Protect civilians.
  5. Honour the dignity and rights of captives.
  6. Never engage in sexual violence.
  7. Never engage in torture.
  8. Reunite children with their families.
  9. Protect cultural heritage.
  10. Eschew moral hazard.2
  11. Show magnanimity in victory.
  12. Honour the peace.

It will no doubt be objected that there are many more items that could be added to the list. I doubt there are many fighting around the world today, even in senior ranks, who have read the Geneva Conventions. Obviously the conventions prescribe a far greater degree of protection for civilians and prisoners of war, and this is to be commended. But given their extraordinary length, there is surely also a place for a guide to conduct that is short, simple and easy both to teach and remember.

None of this either should be read as playing down the real costs of war, even war fought cleanly: orphaned children, widowed spouses, broken bodies, grieving parents, shattered communities. The question here is rather, if you must go to war, by what rules should you fight.

If we accept these rules, what’s to say that anyone would accept them?

The justice of a cause is shaped by the character and motivations of the leaders, the righteousness of a people, the rightness of the claims at stake, the cause of the conflict, and the manner in which a conflict is pursued.

If we accept this claim, which I think most people would, we should acknowledge that good people could come to different conclusions as to the justice of a particular conflict, and given that, that war may be conducted with a degree of equanimity.

If we admit Pyrrhic victories as defeats and acknowledge that there are many inconclusive outcomes, a particular side in a conflict has a less than fifty percent chance of winning any particular war. Moreover, for sure, one day, your country will lose a war; it’s only a matter of time. How your country conducts warfare will be remembered down the ages. It is therefore in your self-interest as a nation to conduct warfare in an ethical manner.

Moreover, even during combat, your reputation for how you fight will quickly become known to the other side. Take the instance of Bwana Drum, sent up into the Kenyan mountains to fight the Mao Mao. Drummond fought brutally against the Mao Mao killing in cold blood when required, but demonstrated remarkable magnanimity to captives. When it became known with what civility captives were treated, Drummond was rapidly able to expand the size of his fighting force with converted ex-terrorists.

To take torture as an example, the fact that your enemy does it doesn’t justify you doing it. But equally, if you would rather not be tortured, then don’t do torture yourself. It is surely enough that you have chosen to live and die by the sword.

If you fight cleanly, it will be held to your eternal credit; if you fight dirty, it will be held to your eternal shame. To this day, the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish remember how the Viking invaders came and raped and pillaged their way down the coastlines of the British Isles. We praise God that their settlement here, and the resultant relations with Scandinavia became an important vector by which Scandinavia was Christianised. We do not hold any grudge or illwill towards modern-day Scandinavians. But will we always hold it against the memory of the Vikings, remembering the suffering of our ancestors? You had better believe it!

There are no secrets in warfare.

Your enemy will one day become your neighbour, and his children will become your children’s peers.

The world will remember the story of how you fought for time immemorial.

And one day you will stand before a just God and face judgement for all your acts, even the ones committed in the heat of battle.

Again, I repeat, war is a terrible thing.

It destroys families, communities, nations and peoples. It leads to the permanent loss of culture and heritage. It is rarely ever done with decency.

But if you absolutely must go to war, as an absolute minimum for maintaining your human decency, try sticking to these twelve simple rules.

The article may only be republished by permission. The twelve rules are the public domain. 

Picture by Ad MeskensOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link. Picture cropped.


  1. Do not use chemical or biological weapons, landmines or cluster munitions, or other indiscriminate weapons.
  2. To fight you must be willing to put yourself at risk. If you use weapons such as drones or autonomous ‘killer robots’ where the controller is absent from the battlefield such that your enemy cannot strike back against you, then you incentivise them to strike back asymmetrically, i.e. against civilian or soft targets.
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