The Laws of Engagement
Imam Ali demonstrated that while fighting is sometimes necessary, it does not have to be laced with corruption and injustice. The Ahlul Bayt never fought while anger or indignation controlled them. They never sought revenge. They never mutilated bodies. They did not attack civilians or poison wells. They did not block access to water. When an enemy combatant claimed a change of heart, it was accepted at its word.
The 4th Infantry Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team, based at Fort Carson, Colorado, fought in many of the worst battles in Iraq and took heavy casualties. An investigation by Dave Phillips of The Gazette has revealed that the casualties have not stopped after the soldiers come home. Of the approximately 3500 soldiers in the unit, around a dozen have so far ended up in US courts for charges like murder, attempted murder, and manslaughter. Many more have attempted suicide or been involved in other violent crimes.
With the improvement of body armor, the soldiers, many of them teenagers at the time of their duty in Iraq, were returned repeatedly to intense combat situations that a generation ago would have been fatal or cause to be sent home. They reported that in Iraq training went by the wayside, and soldiers were routinely engaged in questionable battles against uncertain enemies using ethically-challenged tactics. The toll was extremely heavy in Iraq and remains so to this day, but the soldiers themselves did not come out unscathed either. Many of them have been psychologically damaged, and the negative effects are rippling through their families and communities. These data play out not only for this group of soldiers, but are in fact widespread. Everyone has a general grasp of the devastating effects of unjust, unethical war on civilians, on the losing side, and on the occupied territories. But we are now learning that even the victors are losers when the rules of engagement are brutal and morally bereft. As the computer Joshua said in War Games, “The only winning move is not to play.”
It is common Western rhetoric to associate Islam with brutality, violence, and terrorism. In the recent Times Square car bomb attempt, much is made of the religion of the alleged perpetrator, but the fact that the person who prevented possible tragedy through the initial report that something was amiss claims the same religion, Islam, is downplayed by those who wish to paint only in black and white. Confusion reigns in an era of propagandized “news” networks. Rightfully, connections to training camps and organized efforts for violence would be concerning to any country, but no group can claim moral supremacy when the actions of real, flawed people are weighed instead of idealized beliefs, and when moral standards of war have been almost completely obliterated.
The Prophet and Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them), particularly Imam Ali (peace be upon him), demonstrated that while fighting is sometimes necessary, it does not have to be laced with corruption and injustice. They never fought while anger or indignation controlled them. They never sought revenge. They never mutilated bodies. They did not attack civilians or poison wells. They did not block access to water. When an enemy combatant claimed a change of heart, it was accepted at its word. Islamic rules of engagement as modeled by the Prophet, Ahlul Bayt, and the righteous companions would preclude a great deal of the war-waging in the modern world, and that which is not precluded would be waged in an entirely different manner than the war that more typically plagues human society across the ages.
As Sayyid Hossein Nasr notes, the moral standards of force are clear: “[Force] is the exertion of human will and effort in the direction of conforming to the Will of God and in surrendering the human will to the divine Will. From this surrender (taslim) comes peace (salam), hence islam, and only through this islam can the violence inbred within the nature of fallen man be controlled and the beast within subdued so that man lives at peace with himself and the world because he lives at peace with God.” Whenever man wages violence or exerts force for any reason contrarily to this, there can be no victory for anyone. On the other hand, it is logical to content that a just warrior would not be psychologically destroyed as a consequence of his actions, nor would he be planting the seeds of further hostility through his murder of innocents and destruction of the basic human provisions needed by civilians. He would not leave behind him a terrorized, occupied, oppressed populace.
Ayatollah Sayyid Mahmud Taleqani noted that the just war has no selfish motive or nationalist motive. The just war is of course first and foremost the greater struggle against the self. “There are only two possibilities: either man’s existence and will come under God’s control, the effect of which is that gradually the individual will come out of the darkness of selfishness and wrong- doing, and therefore, with the aid of knowledge and wisdom, his foresight will broaden; or taghut (discord, tyranny) will possess him.” The Qur’an clearly excludes warfare for expansionism, spoils, revenge, or through hatred, extremism, or racism/classism. In fact, the domain of these -isms are diametrically opposed to the right path and lie wholly in the realm of injustice and oppression.
A man asked the Noble Prophet, “Messenger of God! [What is the reward of] a poor person who goes to the battlefield for the sake of booty?” The Prophet repeated three times, “He has no divine reward.” Another person asked the Noble Prophet, “Is the one who goes to the battlefield in order to test his own courage or to see fame properly called mujahid fi sabil Allah (striver in the way of God)?” “No! He replied. The person asked, “Then who can properly be called mujahid fi sabil Allah?” The Prophet answered, “[The one who strives so] that God’s word becomes the uppermost,” meaning that God’s will manifests itself and rules their wills.
Islam is in truth peaceful, just, strong, patient, forgiving, compassionate, generous, and moderate. In a nutshell, striving so that God’s word becomes uppermost is the rule of engagement against oneself and against anyone or anything else in this world and in this life. If this rule is violated, then there are no victors of the battle and no winners of the war. Believers need to keep this in perspective or they risk either becoming radicalized on the extremist path or becoming subjugated on the secular/pluralist path.