The rules of combat

by Lucas Wisenthal, BA'03

Image: Ed Kwong

Chaotic though it may seem, war still has some ground rules ­­— international statutes that have governed the way battles can be fought. But, as the past decade has shown, combat no longer requires a formal battlefield.

Frédéric Mégret, an associate professor in the Faculty of Law, investigates the changing nature of warfare in “War and the Vanishing Battlefield,” an article he published earlier this year in the Loyola University Chicago International Law Review. “I’ve always been interested in the interaction of law and violence,” says Mégret. “I think the attempt, historically, to regulate the laws of the practice of war is one of the most audacious things attempted by international law.”

And, in recent years, it’s also proven to be one of the most slippery. Mégret maintains that war had long been an organized, ritualized practice, one limited in time and place. “The battle-field symbolized that regulation.” Events like 9/11, however, and the war on terror it spurred altered the definition of combat. “The laws before don’t actually apply, because there is no battlefield. The war is wherever you, as an enemy of the state, are. The war will be brought to you.”

But this shift was not encouraged by Western governments alone. “It’s the terrorists who have pushed the furthest the idea that we don’t need a battlefield,” Mégret says. “It’s a joint effort.”

These changes, Mégret concludes, likely signal the end of the laws of war as we know them. “There is something in the idea of the battlefield that’s worth keeping,” he says. “But we’re not going back to the 19th century or the 18th century, and armies facing each other at dawn on a nice field somewhere in central Europe. That’s gone forever.”