The Law of Cyberwar: What FDR, Hitler, and the Blitz Can Teach Us

I’ve just finished a longish piece on cyberwar and the role of lawyers, published in Foreign Policy magazine.  Here’s how it begins:

Lawyers don’t win wars. But can they lose one?

We’re likely to find out, and soon. Lawyers across the U.S. government have raised so many show-stopping legal questions about cyberwar that they’ve left the military unable to fight or even plan for a war in cyberspace.

And here’s the part that inspired the title of this post:

By the 1930s, everyone saw that aerial bombing would have the capacity to reduce cities to rubble in the next war. Just a few years earlier, the hellish slaughter in the trenches of World War I had destroyed the Victorian world; now air power promised to bring the same carnage to soldiers’ homes, wives, and children.

In Britain, some leaders expressed hardheaded realism about this grim possibility. Former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, summing up his country’s strategic position in 1932, showed a candor no recent American leader has dared to match. “There is no power on Earth that can protect [British citizens] from being bombed,” he said. “The bomber will always get through…. The only defense is in offense, which means that you have got to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves.”

The Americans, however, still hoped to head off the nightmare. Their tool of choice was international law. (Some things never change.) When war broke out in Europe on Sept. 1, 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a cable to all the combatants seeking express limits on the use of air power. Citing the potential horrors of aerial bombardment, he called on all combatants to publicly affirm that their armed forces “shall in no event, and under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations or of unfortified cities.”

Roosevelt had a pretty good legal case. The 1899 Hague conventions on the laws of war, adopted just two years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, declared that in bombardments, “all necessary steps should be taken to spare as far as possible edifices devoted to religion, art, science, and charity, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not used at the same time for military purposes.” The League of Nations had also declared that in air war, “the intentional bombing of civilian populations is illegal.”

But FDR didn’t rely just on law. He asked for a public pledge that would bind all sides in the new war — and, remarkably, he got it. The horror at aerial bombardment of civilians ran so deep in that era that Britain, France, Germany, and Poland all agreed to FDR’s bargain, before nightfall on Sept. 1, 1939.

Nearly a year later, with the Battle of Britain raging in the air, the Luftwaffe was still threatening to discipline any pilot who bombed civilian targets. The deal had held. FDR’s accomplishment began to look like a great victory for the international law of war — exactly what the lawyers and diplomats now dealing with cyberwar hope to achieve.

But that’s not how this story ends.