When I was in grade school, Oregon had no television and I listened a lot to the radio. One of my favorite programs always ended with someone asking about the hero of the series: “Who was that masked man?” The answer, of course, was “the Lone Ranger.”
I remembered this program recently when I noticed how many pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine and Islamic State fighters are wearing masks so we cannot see their faces. And of course there is the masked fellow with a British accent who has been beheading western hostages for us to admire over the Internet. The implications of these masks only gradually began to sink in.
The usual distinction between killing people in war and murdering them has, in recent centuries, been that war is a collective endeavor engaged in by political bodies while murder is an individual activity. Under international law people in armies must wear identifiable uniforms to inform people under whose flag they are fighting. Captured soldiers are required only to answer questions about their name, rank, and serial number, and are not supposed to be killed or held personally responsible for the people they have killed in battle. Murderers, however, are deemed to act as individuals and can be punished for violating the law.
Under the modern laws of war combatants who do not wear a uniform can be treated as spies and executed if they are caught. As I recall, the German saboteurs who landed clandestinely in the eastern U.S. during World War II were executed because, of course, they were not wearing uniforms. And my father, not a military man, was required to wear a uniform in the early 1950s when engineering work at American military bases required him to fly from point to point in Japan. There was concern that if the plane blundered into North Korea, then at war with the United States, he could have been shot.
So who are the masked men fighting the Ukrainian government? How many are disgruntled Ukrainians and how many are Russian soldiers? Are the Russians in organized military units or are they are enthusiastic soldiers who have come in as individuals while on leave? The Putin regime came up with the latter version when body bags started showing up in Russia, though it has also tried valiantly to hush the facts up.
The fact that the rebels and Russians are wearing masks suggests that something fishy is going on. The masks and lack of uniforms probably represent an effort to avoid both the collective responsibility entailed in war and personal responsibility for private individual actions. I suppose the masks on ISIS fighters in the Middle East represent a similar attempt to have their cake and eat it too.
One of my favorite Frank and Ernest cartoons shows a lawyer talking to his jailed client: “Well, no wonder you got caught, Ernie…You’re not supposed to wear a mask when you shoplift.” I included this cartoon in my 1981 college textbook, along with a deadpan comment” “Lawyers can be excellent sources of good advice.”
I wish someone could give us equally good advice about what to do about the current battles where so many people are wearing masks but not uniforms.