... goes back a long way in history. It's been awhile since I read up on it, but the basic concept is that a formal declaration allows soldiers to kill without punishment. If there is no declaration, then it is considered murder, which can be punished by life imprisonment or execution.
The idea is that a formal declaration is supposed to be some sort of special set of laws. Not that it matters much these days when we have lawlessness (aka "anarchy" in what is supposed to be a rule of law government), but that's what they were thinking about 200 years ago.
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