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From International Committee of the Red Cross - Practice Relating to Rule 62. Improper Use of Flags or Military Emblems, Insignia or Uniforms of the Adversary:

According to custom, it is permissible for a belligerent warship to use false colours and to disguise her outward appearance in other ways in order to deceive an enemy, provided that prior to going into action the warship shows her true colours. Aircraft are not, however, enentitled to use false markings.

From false flag Wikipedia page

In land warfare, such operations are generally deemed acceptable under certain circumstances, such as to deceive enemies, provided the deception is not perfidious and that all such deceptions are discarded before opening fire upon the enemy. Similarly, in naval warfare such a deception is considered permissible, provided the false flag is lowered and the true flag raised before engaging in battle.

Initial question: What is the intention of this law, like why is it considered unfair fighting to use false flags (when taking action/open firing already)? ETA: By which I mean to ask: Why is it considered unfair/inhumane/inhuman/unethical/immoral fighting to (continue to) use false flags (when taking action/open firing already)?

Context:

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What I understand is that a 'war crime' is something which gives you an unfair advantage in that civilians are affected at the cost of your military progress eg chemical weapons, incendiary weapons (at least in our world; alternatively see here or directly here) or well actually directly killing civilians for example.

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My intention is to genuinely understand what is inhumane/unfair/unjust about attacking with false flags. There's an answer given below that says

neither of these groups is afforded protection from the rules of war. Only if you fire under your own flag you get the protections of a POW if you fall into their hands.

But as Nassim Nicholas Taleb said

'Someone saying "ethics is good for success" is missing the entire point of ethics.'

I'm asking like: If there weren't these incentives, then what would be inhumane about doing this?

So far what I'm seeing is that this so-called war crime is not inhumane at all but really just some dumb rule...or at least some kind of 'deal' or 'gamble' like 'Ok fine, you can use false flags to attack, but you don't get this or that if you lose.'

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And then finally I can ask on SciFi SE (about Sokka from ATLA) not merely 'Why didn't Sokka follow this rule?' (cheap conventional, stage 2 of 3 in Lawrence Kohlberg's moral development theory that causes reactance like 'There's no Geneva/UN in ATLA. What are you talking about?') but really 'Why did Sokka do this seemingly inhumane thing?' (which would be postconventional, stage 3 of 3 in moral development).

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    Do not rewrite your question in such a way that it invalidates an existing answer. If you want to edit in an addendum then mark it clearly as such so that the existing answer does not lose its context.
    – feetwet
    Commented Aug 27, 2022 at 0:19
  • @feetwet that's it? lol easy solution just say '(edited to clarify based on an answer given)' ? Re 'f you want to edit in an addendum then mark it clearly as such' - what? I even said 'There's an answer given below that says'
    – BCLC
    Commented Aug 27, 2022 at 11:08
  • A Wikipedia editor has given their take on the purposes and principles underlying the laws of war. It might help. Commented Aug 27, 2022 at 14:18
  • @NateEldredge (1/2) yeah...that's in general. I get the proper treatment of POWs, no killing civilians, etc. Those kinda speak for themselves. For those parts I can see how UN/geneva etc is merely a formalisation of what we already know should be the case. Like did Cain really need 'thou shall not kill' to know it was wrong to kill Abel? (But what I did learn in school is that the context of the 5th commandment was actually not about generic murder but about how to deal with - oh hell my memory might be biased given the current topic - POWs and civilians in war.)
    – BCLC
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 12:28
  • @NateEldredge (2/2) But it seems this particular false flag thing doesn't really speak for itself. Maybe your comment came after my edit but I edited to say 'So far what I'm seeing is that this so-called war crime is not inhumane at all but really just some dumb rule'. Of course everyone will respond with 'there's no UN/geneva.' They're arguing stage 2 morality because I started with stage 2. I've yet to read your answer, but hopefully it's stage 3. I mean, does anyone really need to ask the intent of 'no intentional direct killing civilians' ?
    – BCLC
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 12:29

2 Answers 2

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To my mind, one of the major goals of the customary laws of war is to try to limit the overall harm caused by a war, especially harm caused to parties other than the military forces of the nations who are actually fighting each other. Obvious examples are prohibitions on attacking civilians, destroying civilian property and infrastructure, neglecting civilian public health, harming prisoners who are incapable of fighting, and so on. I wouldn't say these are about "fairness" or any other such abstract ethical principle; they are simply pragmatic. All other things equal, the world is better off if fewer civilians end up dead.

And so just as the laws try to avoid collateral damage to individuals who are not fighting (civilians, prisoners, injured troops, etc), they likewise try to avoid collateral damage to nations who are not fighting (neutrals). Combat under a false flag carries a risk of harm to the nation whose flag is impersonated, as the belligerents may get the wrong idea about who is attacking them.

Here are a couple of scenarios that could occur if false flag combat were considered acceptable:

  1. Potsylvania is at war with Grand Fenwick, while Freedonia remains neutral in the conflict. The Potsylvanian ship Fearless sights the Fenwickian ship Goose, and as a ruse, the Fearless runs up a Freedonian flag. The Goose, knowing that Freedonia is neutral, assumes the Fearless is harmless and lets it approach. When within range, the Fearless fires at the Goose, while still flying the Freedonian flag. The Goose reports back to its government that they have been attacked by a Freedonian vessel. The Fenwickian government considers this a hostile act, declares war on Freedonia, and launches an immediate retaliatory invasion of Freedonian territory. Now Freedonia has been brought into the war despite no party actually having anything against them. This is not desirable.

  2. Same scenario, but instead of raising a Freedonian flag, the Fearless runs up a Fenwickian flag. The Goose knows the flag must be fake, as no genuine Fenwickian vessel would attack them, but they don't know what nation the Fearless actually does belong to. They faintly hear the captain of the Fearless shouting orders in Potsylvanian, but he has a Freedonian accent and they think he's speaking in Freedonian. They report to their government that a Freedonian vessel has attacked them, and Grand Fenwick again declares war on Freedonia.

Note that using a false flag when not attacking doesn't carry the same risks, which is why it is not included in the prohibition. Suppose that the Fearless doesn't plan to attack the Goose, but simply wants to avoid being attacked so they can get away. If their ruse of flying a Freedonian flag is successful, then the Goose simply thinks they saw a neutral Freedonian vessel going about its business, and Grand Fenwick does not get the idea that Freedonia is doing anything aggressive. And if it's unsuccessful, then the Goose must have figured out that the Fearless is not Freedonian at all, but instead Potsylvanian, and so likewise Freedonia does not come under suspicion.

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  • false flags for attacking. They are acceptable as long as you traverse only. The brits in WW2 did send a somewhat disguised ship under the german flag, stuffed with munitions to blow up a dock. Once they were sighted and spotted as enemy, they cut the german flag loose and hoisted the White Ensign, shooting at anything that moved and then ramming the dock wall. 500 set out, and they paid a bloody toll for disabling the dock.
    – Trish
    Commented Aug 27, 2022 at 7:44
  • Why it is then acceptable to attack after gaining advantage due to false flag? That tactic (pretending to be a law-protected merchant vessel) was used by British Q-ships and resulted in unrestricted underwater warfare in WWI, as it was too risky for U-boots to lawfully approach what they perceived as a merchant vessel.
    – abukaj
    Commented Oct 13, 2022 at 18:16
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it's not considered unfair

Fairness is not a concept in law.

It is considered acceptable only to some degree.

Flags are there to identify friends from foes. Flying a false flag for non-hostile action such as sneaking your ship through a blockade or getting a unit into a position to act or retreat from the frontline is deemed general maneuvers that have been used since military history - and acceptable.

However, firing under a false flag is something you really don't want, because doing that means you automatically belong to one of 2 groups:

  • Rebels or traitors of the nation who's flag you fly.
  • Someone breaking the customs of war.

Neither of these groups is a legitimate combatant - and neither of these groups is afforded protection from the rules of war. Only if you fire under your own flag you get the protections of a POW if you fall into their hands.

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    Nassim Nicholas Taleb: 'Someone saying "ethics is good for success" is missing the entire point of ethics.' Ok you've given incentives why a certain party should practice false flag: in case you lose that particular battle and want POW protections. But like why is it a war crime? Re 'Someone breaking the customs of war.' yeah why? That's my entire question.
    – BCLC
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 23:23
  • You're kinda nitpicking me I think, but I'll bite: Is it wrong to consider 'war crime' as synonymous to 'unfair war strategy' ?
    – BCLC
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 23:24
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    @BCLC take a look at the Wikipedia entry on the Law of War, in particular the section on the purposes of the law. In general the laws exist not to prevent "unfair" military advantage, but to limit needless destruction and casualties. So for example, shooting people jumping out of a disabled plane is forbidden, but shooting invading paratroopers is OK. The idea being that someone jumping out of disabled plane provides no military benefit, and is simply inhumane, whereas shooting paratroopers provides an obvious and proportionate military purpose. Commented Aug 24, 2022 at 0:07
  • @CharlesE.Grant So that suggests that attacking under false colors causes needless destruction or casualties, whereas travelling under false colors does not. Why would that be the case? Because the former could lead to increased friendly fire?
    – T Hummus
    Commented Aug 24, 2022 at 1:13
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    @THummus A company Alpha generally doesn't shoot at company Beta that carries their own flag but tries to communicate with Beta to tell them that you are friendlies. At the point that Alfa realizes that Beta is flying false flag, Alfa has suffered quite some casualties and will not just fight back, they will be enranged and not even take prisoners.
    – Trish
    Commented Aug 24, 2022 at 8:36

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