Images that convey the essence of war are more likely to resemble the frenzied, merciless, mutual slaughter between the Aegeans and the Trojans as told in The Iliad, the rapes depicted in Goya’s The Disasters of War, the torture portrayed in The Battle of Algiers, or the indiscriminate napalm bombing in Vietnam dramatized in Apocalypse Now. It is commonly believed—and for good reason—that morality and civilization are inevitably forgotten in war, as participants become desperate to survive, get caught up in the bloodlust, or lose touch with their humanity. There is truth to that, so it might be surprising to think of banning hollow point bullets (Hague Convention, 1899) or regulating prisoner-of-war treatment (from the 1648 Peace of Westphalia through the 1949 Geneva Conventions) as simultaneously capturing an essential element of warfare, but in fact they represent a significant component of war, which is cooperation between enemies.
Some of the more amazing stories of cooperation in warfare come from the trenches of World War I. During the Christmas truces in 1914, and to a lesser extent in 1915, not only did 100,000 British and German soldiers in WWI unofficially stop fighting, but in some places in Belgium, German soldiers who decorated their trenches with candles and trees and sang carols were met with British soldiers singing in kind; eventually, the two sides mingled in No Man’s Land, exchanging gifts, food, and souvenirs, and even engaging in short, casual football games.
In addition to ad hoc cooperation on a shared holy day, opposing trenches spontaneously developed a longer-lived system of timed shellings to allow the other side to anticipate and avoid their impact. While trench warfare was a large part of the WWI experience, it is not particularly interesting militarily. Rather, it is noteworthy for what fighting did not happen. This “live and let live” system has been recounted in marvelous detail by Tony Ashworth (Trench Warfare 1914–1918). That reciprocal exchange—of minimization of injury and death—took different forms during the war: truces lasted anywhere from a few minutes to several months; some were explicit agreements between fraternizing soldiers in close quarters, while others were indirect (due to legal sanctions), over long distances, and involving large numbers of people.
There were numerous reports of people walking openly above trenches; unrestricted movement in and out of the trenches; Germans frying sausages and photos of Brits frying bacon in the trenches, despite the fact that smoke from the fires would have attracted gunfire on active fronts; and descriptions of “quiet” fronts, where there were no ammunition shortages. In some trenches, people hunted and retrieved small game, harvested vegetables, kept milking cows for fresh milk, and had pianos and books.
What kept these tacit truces alive? Inertial truces arose where there was general reluctance to fight, usually out of a combination of self-interest and empathy. If fired upon, parties would return fire, but both sides preferred to “let sleeping dogs lie.” High command did not look favorably on this inactivity, so in the latter half of the war, they exerted more direct control over the trenches, e.g., by ordering specific raids. Soldiers adapted by ritualizing their aggression and conforming with the letter, but not the spirit, of the commands. They deliberately aimed their rounds high, patrols pretended not to see each other or followed routes such that they would not encounter each other, they fired into no-man’s land instead of into the trenches, and they shelled the same place or at the same time every day so that the other side could avoid that area or schedule to suit. Such ritualized aggression still looked like a battle from the outside, and reports could be sent to high command about the times and duration of the battles and how much ammunition was spent. The complexity of this uncoordinated cooperation between warring parties—usually without direct communication between the two sides, with individuals constantly rotating in and out, and sanctions imposed both within each side and between enemies—is impressive, to say the least.
Truces were not all fun and games or cuddly cooperation, however. Underlying and holding the truce together was always the threat of damage should someone defect or secede from the agreement. For example, ritualized exchange of fire sometimes took the form of repeatedly “just missing” the target. This maintained the peace while simultaneously showing the enemy that one had the range and accuracy to harm him should the truce break down.
“Live and let live” is admittedly quite unique, partly because of the structure of trench warfare—such truces did not develop under other circumstances. It does not mean that fellow feeling or the desire to cooperate does not exist elsewhere; it is simply more diffuse or on a different scale, e.g., not sniping a man taking a cigarette break or trying not to kill women and children. The strategy of trench warfare just happens to have a structure that makes for clean iterative, cooperative games, and the “live and let live” that evolved shows cooperation in its distilled form.
As amazing as this sustained cooperation was, however, in some ways, it should not be surprising. Although the major warring parties stoked their populations’ nationalistic passions with stirring propaganda and dehumanization of the enemy, most of the soldiers in the trenches were conscripts with little at stake in the war. Once they experienced its horrors, many of them found they preferred to save themselves; and once they recognized the humanity of their enemies across the way, they were willing to collude to save others if that was necessary for their own survival.
Perhaps what is truly surprising is how cooperation between enemies can take much more systematic forms, in ways taken for granted such that we hardly notice them anymore. In addition to weapons bans and prisoner-of-war regulations, other notable examples include the Geneva Conventions regulations for wearing uniforms into combat and protections for clergy and medics who are national military personnel. The latter are especially notable because they developed in some form before any widespread discussion of human rights. They are conventional, a practice that has been agreed upon. But why should medics be treated as neutral (so long as they do not pick up arms) even when they are part of a national military? Their jobs are essential to the war effort, and the very soldiers they heal may return to the battlefield in the future and continue to fight.
These conventions were motivated by many different things, but one major goal was to minimize overall damage—although where the line is drawn is often arbitrary, as the medic case shows. For example, the distinction between soldiers and civilians is a matter of convention. Historically, no such differentiation was made, even if women and children were spared more often than men; and when members of the civilian population contribute in varying ways to the war effort, as they inevitably do, then where the line is drawn (e.g. munition factory workers can be targeted but medics cannot) is subjective and a matter of agreement.
At this point, some context is required: (1) Cooperation in warfare is certainly not the norm: historically, and even in contemporary times, it is an anomaly in human history. Guerrilla, or “irregular,” warfare—which takes an indirect approach and utilizes raids, ambushes, sabotage, and short skirmishes—has been and continues to be the norm over the 150,000 years of Homo sapiens. (2) Cooperation in warfare is not a uniquely modern phenomenon. It has happened all throughout human history, on a variety of levels, and in many different forms, although the contemporary systematization of this cooperation through international law and institutions is different. And (3) although the rules are not always obeyed—in fact, they are more often deliberately violated—and even if international law looks much less dramatic and interesting than tensely negotiated truces in muddy trenches, the systematization of cooperation at the interstate and international levels and the extent to which individuals do obey those rules in the field is significant. It shows that moral considerations are possible even in the most horrifying of human activities and even between people who have much to gain from not cooperating with each other.
Why would states and soldiers make it harder for themselves to win and end wars? While these rules could be a form of hegemony imposed by stronger states on weaker ones, they also make it harder to win, which is why countries and individuals are constantly trying to break the rules and get away with it. They were also created and sustained at least in part by sincere beliefs that there are right and wrong ways to win, and that it matters both practically—e.g., in building good will and reciprocity with opponents, whether they end up vanquished or one’s conquerors—and morally.
I want to note just two interesting tensions caused by an ethic of cooperation in warfare. The first is between cooperation and wanting to win the war. Cooperation with the enemy may delay victory or diminish one’s prospects of winning at all, as militaries restrain themselves from doing everything they can to win. Cooperation can also take valuable resources that can otherwise go toward fighting and ending the war; for example, during WWII, some German POWs in the United States were kept in better conditions and had a higher standard of living than the American civilians who lived around those camps.
In addition, one major purpose of such cooperation is to reduce overall harm, yet it may be that cooperation sometimes increases the damage. For example, the stereotypical full-frontal, open engagement of eighteenth and nineteenth century European confrontations—soldiers dressed in national uniforms, lined up in formation, shooting in unison—did not adapt well to developments in technology, especially long-range, more accurate artillery. The tragedy of pre-existing tactics (which arose in part from reciprocal cooperation over various issues) meeting new technology can be seen, for example, in the Napoleonic Wars, the Battle of Solferino (whose horrors led to the Red Cross’s creation), the American Civil War, and the WWI trenches when fighting did take place.
The second tension lies in how the ethic of cooperation has worked its way into practical thinking about just war theory. For example, U.S. drone operators are often uneasy about their work. Contrary to common belief that the video game–like quality of their experience desensitizes them, they feel it viscerally, because they see their targets’ faces clearly, track them for days as they go about normal life activities, and get to know them before killing them, in a way that a fighter pilot dropping a bomb from miles up in the air could not. Drone operators have talked about the unfairness of killing their enemies without putting themselves at risk; there is a sense that for it to be fair, they have to be endangered too—in this case, physically present in the battlefield and vulnerable to attack. Even after concerns about other criteria for just war—especially just cause, proportionality, and probability of success—have been satisfied, they are often still uncomfortable. In the context of how war has been waged since the beginning of human history, it is crazy to talk about reciprocal risk in warfare, but it persists. This sense of fairness, which is rooted in a specific notion of reciprocal cooperation, drives many of the questions being asked now about the ethics of drone warfare. The ethic of cooperation in warfare may sit in tension with other aspects of contemporary just war theory that are focused on justice (that the right thing has been done in the right way to the right person), and it raises important questions about what just war theory can and should pursue, and at what expense.