Elaine Scarry in the Boston Review:
In 1998, an article by Colonel Charles J. Dunlap Jr. appeared in the United States Air Force Academy’s Journal of Legal Studies warning that a new form of warfare lay ahead. Because our military resources are so far beyond those of any other country, Dunlap argued, no society can today meet us through symmetrical warfare. Therefore, our 21st-century opponents will stop confronting us with weapons and rules that are the mirror counterparts of our own. They will instead use asymmetrical or “neo-absolutist” forms of warfare, resorting to unconventional weapons and to procedures forbidden by international laws.
What Dunlap meant by “unconventional weapons” is clear: the category would include not only outlawed biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons (the last of which, in the view of the United States, only itself and a small number of other countries are legally permitted to have) but also unexpected weapons such as civilian passenger planes loaded with fuel and flown into towering buildings in densely populated cities.
But the term “neo-absolutism,” as used by Dunlap, applies not just to the use of unconventional weapons but to conduct that violates a sacrosanct set of rules—acts that are categorically prohibited by international law and by the regulations of the United States Air Force, Navy, and Army (along with the military forces of many other nations). For example, though warfare permits many forms of ruse and deception, it never permits the false use of a white flag of truce or a red cross.