Indiscriminate Weapons Of War

This story was written by CBS News military consultant Mitch Mitchell

For thousands of years, nations who have gone to war with each other have crafted and generally abided by laws of war. Two of the most important principles that have emerged from armed conflict are proportionality and discrimination. Proportionality refers to using weapons of the appropriate size to destroy or neutralize a target, but not cause excessive collateral damage. Discrimination addresses the differentiation between combatants and non-combatants. The intent of both principles is to protect innocent people from harm. We and most other civilized nations subscribe to the laws of war. Iraqi insurgents and terrorists do not. For them, killing innocent civilians is not only permissible, but encouraged for the political effect it produces.

When using improvised explosive devices (IED) or bombs strapped to their bodies to attack military forces, terrorists and many insurgents in Iraq may say they are attacking legitimate targets. The subject is open to debate, because neither of the groups constitutes a uniformed enemy. They blend in with the civilian population and, therefore, are not accorded the rights of legitimate combatants. One could argue that U.S. and Iraqi troops patrolling the cities and towns in Iraq are legitimate targets for attack, especially by ambush using IEDs and car bombs. In built up areas where civilians are always in proximity and subject to being killed or wounded, any vestige of legitimacy disappears. The attacks clearly violate the laws of war.

Journalists who choose to imbed with our military forces are non-combatants and should not be targeted by any enemy. Yet, they understand the danger of close association with our military, because it is virtually impossible for any enemy to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants moving in a convoy or even walking the streets. A number of journalists have been killed or wounded trying to do their jobs and tell the story. As long as our military permits them to imbed with them, the danger will always be there. That is understandable. What are the most appalling violations of any laws of war and the fundamentals of human decency are attacks directed at innocent civilians, including members of the press not embedded. Such cowardly acts are barbaric, inexcusable and unforgivable.

On a day when we remember those who put their lives on the line for our freedom we should also recognize the bravery and sacrifice of members of the press, 71 of whom have now died in Iraq. We must recognize that what we see in Iraq today is what we have to expect in this and any future conflict. More than ever before, the laws of war have become a one-sided set of guidelines that humanity dictates we must follow and that our enemies will continue to violate with impunity.

  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for