There are a few things in life with which one does not mess, such as the M2 .50-caliber machine gun, known affectionately among troops as “Ma Deuce.” The weapon fires a round that can crack an engine block without breaking a sweat, so getting hit by one would ruin your day.
Legend has it that the .50-caliber is so powerful that the Geneva Conventions prohibit U.S. troops from using it against human targets, but does that make sense considering it is okay to fire much larger artillery shells against enemy troops?
Since U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq deserve to know if there are any legal restrictions on using the .50-caliber, The Rumor Doctor looked into the rules that provide all the caveats to the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.”
In truth, neither the 1949 Geneva Conventions nor other laws governing the conduct of war forbid U.S. troops from using the weapon against enemy fighters, said Gary D. Solis, an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University.
Solis has written a book on the Law of Armed Conflict, the body of international laws that govern the conduct of war. Those laws prohibit weapons that cause “unnecessary suffering,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean they outlaw weapons that cause horrific wounds, he said.
“One of the four core concepts of the Law of Armed Conflict says the test to be employed to determine whether or not unnecessary suffering is created by a weapon is whether or not the direct military advantage gained by the use of the weapon is outweighed by the suffering engendered by the weapon,” he said. “So you balance the suffering versus military use, and needless to say, it always comes out military use.”
Since all weapons issued to U.S. troops have passed a review that they comply with international law, .50-caliber machine-gunners can legally use the weapon against human targets, he said in e-mail.
It is very hard to convict a military commander for causing unnecessary suffering, Solis said.
“If you had an enemy sniper in an oasis in the middle of the desert, you could drop a nuclear weapon on the guy and it would be perfectly lawful – well, there might be some environmental issues involved, but it would not cause undue suffering,” he said.
The exact origin of the rumor is unclear. Solis said it dates back to the Korean War, possibly earlier. Another story suggests that commanders in Vietnam were told to conserve their .50-caliber ammunition by only using it against enemy equipment or hard targets.
But retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey said his troops used .50-caliber machine guns when fighting enemy troops at close range and when bombarding the enemy from afar.
“Great fun to watch four [anti-aircraft] guns open up at night arcing thousands of tracers away into the night sky target some goose egg on a map miles away,” he said in an e-mail. “Doubt any [North Vietnamese] soldier ever got hit… but it raised our morale greatly.”
THE RUMOR DOCTOR’S DIAGNOSIS: The Ma Deuce is a tool. It works. Don’t feel bad for the guy who’s on the wrong end of it.