Jump to content


Spartacus

E-HELP Debate: War Crimes in the 20th Century


  • Please log in to reply
35 replies to this topic

#1 John Simkin

John Simkin

    Super Member

  • admin
  • PipPipPipPip
  • 16,096 posts

Posted 10 May 2005 - 09:55 AM

I thought it might be a good idea to debate the subject of war crimes in the 20th Century. War Crimes are usually associated with those countries who have been defeated. However, in reality, all countries have committed war crimes. As the recent debate between Japan and China, countries are not very good at admitting to their own war crimes. All countries, with the possible exception of Germany, are unwilling to debate this issue in an open manner. This seems to me to create a false consciousness of the past. This is highly dangerous as politicians use this false picture of the past to justify its decision to invade other countries (see the recent arguments made by Tony Blair and George Bush to justify their act of war against Iraq.

Hopefully, people from a wide range of different countries will join in this debate. To start the ball rolling here is an article that appeared in today’s Guardian. Richard Drayton is senior lecturer in history at Cambridge University.

http://www.guardian....1480178,00.html

In 1945, as at the end of all wars, the victor powers spun the conflict's history to serve the interests of their elites. Wartime propaganda thus achieved an extraordinary afterlife. As Vladimir Putin showed yesterday, the Great Patriotic War remains a key political resource in Russia. In Britain and the US, too, a certain idea of the second world war is enthusiastically kept alive and less flattering memories suppressed.

Five years ago, Robert Lilly, a distinguished American sociologist, prepared a book based on military archives. Taken by Force is a study of the rapes committed by American soldiers in Europe between 1942 and 1945. He submitted his manuscript in 2001. But after September 11, its US publisher suppressed it, and it first appeared in 2003 in a French translation.

We know from Anthony Beevor about the sexual violence unleashed by the Red Army, but we prefer not to know about mass rape committed by American and British troops. Lilly suggests a minimum of 10,000 American rapes.

Contemporaries described a much wider scale of unpunished sex crime. Time Magazine reported in September 1945: "Our own army and the British army along with ours have done their share of looting and raping ... we too are considered an army of rapists."

The British and American publics share a sunny view of the second world war. The evil of Auschwitz and Dachau, turned inside out, clothes the conflict in a shiny virtue. Movies, popular histories and political speeches frame the war as a symbol of Anglo-American courage, with the Red Army's central role forgotten. This was, we believe, "a war for democracy". Americans believe that they fought the war to rescue the world. For apologists of the British Empire, such as Niall Ferguson, the war was an ethical bath where the sins of centuries of conquest, slavery and exploitation were expiated. We are marked forever as "the good guys"and can all happily chant "Two world wars and one world cup."

All this seems innocent fun, but patriotic myths have sharp edges. The "good war" against Hitler has underwritten 60 years of warmaking. It has become an ethical blank cheque for British and US power. We claim the right to bomb, to maim, to imprison without trial on the basis of direct and implicit appeals to the war against fascism.

When we fall out with such tyrant friends as Noriega, Milosevic or Saddam we rebrand them as "Hitler". In the "good war" against them, all bad things become forgettable "collateral damage". The devastation of civilian targets in Serbia or Iraq, torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, the war crime of collective punishment in Falluja, fade to oblivion as the "price of democracy".

Our democratic imperialism prefers to forget that fascism had important Anglo-American roots. Hitler's dream was inspired, in part, by the British Empire. In eastern Europe, the Nazis hoped to make their America and Australia, where ethnic cleansing and slave labour created a frontier for settlement. In western Europe, they sought their India from which revenues, labour and soldiers might be extracted.

American imperialism in Latin America gave explicit precedents for Germany's and Japan's claims of supremacy in their neighbouring regions. The British and Americans were key theorists of eugenics and had made racial segregation respectable. The concentration camp was a British invention, and in Iraq and Afghanistan the British were the first to use air power to repress partisan resistance. The Luftwaffe - in its assault on Guernica, and later London and Coventry - paid homage to Bomber Harris's terror bombing of the Kurds in the 1920s.

We forget, too, that British and US elites gave aid to the fascists. President Bush's grandfather, prosecuted for "trading with the enemy" in 1942, was one of many powerful Anglo-Americans who liked Mussolini and Hitler and did what they could to help. Appeasement as a state policy was only the tip of an iceberg of practical aid to these dictatorships. Capital and technology flowed freely, and fascist despots received dignified treatment in Washington and London. Henry Ford made Hitler birthday gifts of 50,000 marks.

We least like to remember that our side also committed war crimes in the 1940s. The destruction of Dresden, a city filled with women, children, the elderly and the wounded, and with no military significance, is only the best known of the atrocities committed by our bombers against civilian populations. We know about the notorious Japanese abuse of prisoners of war, but do not remember the torture and murder of captured Japanese. Edgar Jones, an "embedded" Pacific war correspondent, wrote in 1946: "'We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments."

After 1945, we borrowed many fascist methods. Nuremberg only punished a handful of the guilty; most walked free with our help. In 1946, Project Paperclip secretly brought more than 1,000 Nazi scientists to the US. Among their ranks were Kurt Blome, who had tested nerve gas at Auschwitz, and Konrad Schaeffer, who forced salt into victims at Dachau. Other experiments at mind control via drugs and surgery were folded into the CIA's Project Bluebird. Japan's Dr Shiro Ishii, who had experimented with prisoners in Manchuria, came to Maryland to advise on bio-weapons. Within a decade of British troops liberating Belsen, they were running their own concentration camps in Kenya to crush the Mau Mau. The Gestapo's torture techniques were borrowed by the French in Algeria, and then disseminated by the Americans to Latin American dictatorships in the 60s and 70s. We see their extension today in the American camps in Cuba and Diego Garcia.

War has a brutalising momentum. This is the moral of Taken By Force, which shows how American soldiers became increasingly indiscriminate in their sexual violence and military authorities increasingly lax in its prosecution. Even as we remember the evils of nazism, and the courage of those who defeated it, we should begin to remember the second world war with less self- satisfaction. We might, in particular, learn to distrust those who use it to justify contemporary warmongering.


#2 Mike Tribe

Mike Tribe

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 353 posts
  • Location:American School of Madrid

Posted 10 May 2005 - 12:50 PM

Was it Napoleon who said that history is written by the victors? To some extent, this was true of the Nuremburg trials. Certainly, some of the people on trial were animals with little or no moral sense who can committed unspeakable crimes - like Hoess, for example. But I think that some of them were, perhaps, no more guilty than some of the Allied leaders who had OK'd the terror bombing of Dresden or the use of atomic weapons against Japanese cities.

That said, I do think we've begun to move on somewhat. John mentioned the concentration camps used by the British against the Mau Mau, but I don't think that is an entirely fair comparison. I don't think there was any serious attempt at genocide in East Africa. Again, I think we can see how the moral climate has changed. The treatment of PoWs in the Balkans conflicts of the 90's excited world-wide condemnation, as has the whole sorry incident of the Abu Ghraib prison. I think there are more safguards and much more public awareness than there was back in the 1940s.

That's not to say that war crimes on the scale of the 1940s are now impossible - Rwanda is evidence that they are not - but I do think they're much less likely.

#3 David Richardson

David Richardson

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 711 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:Kalmar, Sweden

Posted 10 May 2005 - 01:20 PM

John mentioned the concentration camps used by the British against the Mau Mau, but I don't think that is an entirely fair comparison. I don't think there was any serious attempt at genocide in East Africa.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


Concentration camps were first developed as a tactic during the Boer War. The idea was basically the same as the US 'strategic hamlets' strategy in the Vietnam War: concentrate the civilian population into controlled areas and the guerrilla army will lose its main resource which enables it to keep on fighting.

I don't think that genocide was an aim - but it was certainly a consequence. The Nazi concentration camps were opened very early on in their period of rule (1934?) and the internees were social democrats, communists, homosexuals and gypsies. The idea of killing the camp inmates systematically didn't arise until after the Wannsee conference in January 1942.

However, thousands of people died in the various camps (British and others) simply because the facilities in the camps encouraged the spread of disease (often due to malnutrition). The heavy death toll in the Boer War camps helped to increase the hatred felt by the Boers towards the British (arguably fuelling the development of the apartheid ideology, since it was something the British were very much against).

The British may not have intended so many people to die, but, as the power in control, they were certainly responsible for their deaths, in my book at least.

#4 Mike Tribe

Mike Tribe

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 353 posts
  • Location:American School of Madrid

Posted 10 May 2005 - 02:45 PM

The British may not have intended so many people to die, but, as the power in control, they were certainly responsible for their deaths, in my book at least.


But I think the intentionality is a key factor. In the FIFA rules, for example, it isn't a foul unless it's the result of a deliberate act.

This is where the issue of war crimes tribunals becomes a bit iffy. If the issue is clear-cut and obvious, there isn't a problem. It's the "grey areas" which cause the problem. Where do we draw the lines between war crimes and the general nastiness of war in general. To a pacifist, it's fairly simple. There just isn't a line. War is, in and of itself, a crime. To the rest of us, making the distinction is much more tricky...

#5 alf wilkinson

alf wilkinson

    Experienced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 57 posts

Posted 10 May 2005 - 04:10 PM

The idea of war crimes is, despite international law, rife with ambiguities. It is, I think, the intentionality that is the key. That is what leads to a definition of genocide - King Leopold's Congo, South West Africa, Armenia, Nanking, the Kurds, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda all rank as intentional acts of murder and genocide.

My Lai, in Vietnam, for instance, was undoubtedly a war crime, ie 'against the rules of war' but would hardly rank as genocide. Some acts appear justifiable at the time - area blanket bombing in WW2 for instance - which we no longer accept as justifiable. Does that mean they were wrong in the context of 1943-44? Should we apologise for things that we think are wrong, but people at the time didn't think were wrong?

History is all about interpretations, and these, as we all know, change over time. The concept of War Crimes is nowhere near as straight forward as we might think.

#6 John Geraghty

John Geraghty

    Super Member

  • JFK
  • PipPipPipPip
  • 1,177 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:Dublin, Ireland

Posted 10 May 2005 - 04:11 PM

Mike is on to something with regard to allies being put on trial for war crimes. Curtis Lemay being the number one suspect of firibombing Japan and also 'bravely' winning the war by sending some of his pilots on what were effectively suicude missions.
Lemay and Robert McNamara were credited with making the air force more efficient, they got to the root of the problem of why a lot of planes seemed to be malfunctioning and pilots turning back before missions began. The reason for this was not technical and in fact it was simply because pilots were scared. Lemay with the love for his country gallantly put forth waves of airmen scared stiff to be shot down and to shoot at innocent civilians.

I watched a documentary a while ago about the bombing of Japan, one of the pilots made the point that it was hard to equate the bombs he was dropping with the ones that were causing such terrible murder below him.

We seem to take for granted that a life lost in war is not as grievious as one taken in everyday life.

#7 Derek McMillan

Derek McMillan

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 631 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:West Sussex
  • Interests:Cyberpsychology<br />Key Stage 3 ICT<br />Open Source Software

Posted 10 May 2005 - 05:50 PM

I am not an historian. The regression which has taken place in democratic societies used 9/11 as a pretext. Prior to 9/11 there was a public acceptance that "we" did not use torture or bomb hospitals or kill civilians. It was a false perception but politicians were expected to uphold the view that such practices were barbaric - the work of barbarians - lesser breeds without the law.

When the massacre of Fallujah began the American forces started by bombing the hospitals giving as their reason that the hospitals kept telling the world's media that there were civilian casualties. Fox News applauded the bombing of the hospitals and there was precious little opposition elsewhere in the media.

The use of torture at Guantanamo Bay is justified by the administration, especially the guardian of constitutional liberty Gonzales, with a mere fig-leaf of referring to torture as "tough interrogation methods."

Today the media applauds the killing of civilians relabelled as "terror suspects" or "insurgents".

In every case this is justified by reference to the terrorism of Al Quada. Al Quada is real enough but alongside the real Al Quada there is also Al Quada the myth. The war against this unseen enemy can in theory continue forever and can be used to justify more and more harsh methods.


Was it Napoleon who said that history is written by the victors? To some extent, this was true of the Nuremburg trials. Certainly, some of the people on trial were animals with little or no moral sense who can committed unspeakable crimes - like Hoess, for example. But I think that some of them were, perhaps, no more guilty than some of the Allied leaders who had OK'd the terror bombing of Dresden or the use of atomic weapons against Japanese cities.

That said, I do think we've begun to move on somewhat. John mentioned the concentration camps used by the British against the Mau Mau, but I don't think that is an entirely fair comparison. I don't think there was any serious attempt at genocide in East Africa. Again, I think we can see how the moral climate has changed. The treatment of PoWs in the Balkans conflicts of the 90's excited world-wide condemnation, as has the whole sorry incident of the Abu Ghraib prison. I think there are more safguards and much more public awareness than there was back in the 1940s.

That's not to say that war crimes on the scale of the 1940s are now impossible - Rwanda is evidence that they are not - but I do think they're much less likely.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>



#8 Caterina Gasparini

Caterina Gasparini

    Experienced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 92 posts
  • Gender:Female
  • Location:Udine, ITALY

Posted 10 May 2005 - 06:58 PM

Some acts appear justifiable at the time - area blanket bombing in WW2 for instance - which we no longer accept as justifiable. Does that mean they were wrong in the context of 1943-44? Should we apologise for things that we think are wrong, but people at the time didn't think were wrong?

History is all about interpretations, and these, as we all know, change over time. The concept of War Crimes is nowhere near as straight forward as we might think.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

I am not a historian, but giving an opinion on WW2 events in Italy is extremely difficult, not only because, as Alf writes, interpretations may have changed over time, but mainly because it was a troubled time and many facts are not known yet.
In Italy, and particularly in my region which is on the border with Austria and Slovenia, there were so many different events and factions that it is still difficult to understand what happened exactly. I think it will take time before we can have a clear and complete view of the events. When it happens, maybe we won't need to blame or justify anyone.

#9 John Geraghty

John Geraghty

    Super Member

  • JFK
  • PipPipPipPip
  • 1,177 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:Dublin, Ireland

Posted 10 May 2005 - 09:09 PM

In time we may know the full truth of war crimes committed by the west, in fact we know a lot of them now.

But if we wait 60 years to know about war crimes every time a war happens it really deflates the message that should be sent.

As time passes the severity of these crimes seems to lessen. What is the difference between the murderous acts by Genghus Khan and Hitler, no difference but over time Khans murders seem less barbarous.

We only see the acts of barbarism as we are shown them, as Derek points out torture is brushed off as interrogation and civilians labelled as terrorists so as to deflect any blame.

Torture in Guantanamo bay is no different than any other point in history except the full truth is not yet known and will be released when it is less harmful to the political establishment.

John

#10 David Richardson

David Richardson

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 711 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:Kalmar, Sweden

Posted 10 May 2005 - 09:14 PM

Good intentions just don't cut it for me when it comes to war crimes. It's so easy for any state to claim that their intention in acting the way they did was to make things better. I'm sure, for example, that dedicated Nazis genuinely felt that they were doing Jews a favour by exterminating them, since they saw being Jewish as such a bad thing. The Soviet Union liberated the countries of eastern Europe. The Americans went into Iraq with the intention of bringing peace and democracy … and the good intentions of the British in bringing enlightenment to the uncivilised parts of the world are well known.

Generally speaking, when we catch people doing things that are bad, we take their intentions into account only when we decide on their sentence. You don't become innocent of a crime by having a good intention. The only crimes I can think of which are changed slightly by considering intention are the murder-manslaughter pair. But just because the lack of an intention changes murder into manslaughter, it doesn't mean that manslaughter isn't a crime.

#11 John Geraghty

John Geraghty

    Super Member

  • JFK
  • PipPipPipPip
  • 1,177 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:Dublin, Ireland

Posted 10 May 2005 - 09:26 PM

David,
My last sentence was badly written, what I meant to say in conclusion is that Guantanamo is no different to other concentration camps and should be treated as such.
I meant that we will know the full truth when a sufficient time has passed to make it seem (for the purpertrators) less barbaric.

War crimes in Guantanamo or known about, but not proven in a court or acknowledged, nevertheless they persist.

John

#12 David Richardson

David Richardson

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 711 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:Kalmar, Sweden

Posted 10 May 2005 - 09:31 PM

I had a very moving experience a couple of years ago at the Swedish Army base I sometimes work at. They'd invited over the Brigadier-General in charge of the UN forces in South Lebanon on the day the Israelis were forced to withdraw. He instructed the Swedish junior officers in peace-keeping by presenting a continuing account of the day to them. It went like this:

"It's 0600 and you're the lieutenant in charge of 10 peace-keepers at the border post, who're armed with rifles and sidearms. You report that there are 60 men, women and children who say that they're going to march across no-man's-land and reclaim their homes at 0800. What do you do?"

The answer here was contact force HQ who contact UN HQ in New York. They didn't respond immediately, since they obviously needed to contact the US State Dept, NATO and the Israelis.

"Now it's 0700. The crowd has swelled to about 100, and the women and children have been placed at the front, ready to leave. What do you do?"

Contact force HQ again who tell you that the UN's orders are to shoot the civilians if they pass into no-man's-land. Force HQ, however, are commanded by a soldier from a non-NATO country, who immediately sends out an order that soldiers do not open fire on civilians under any circumstances. The lieutenant is instructed to try to persuade the crowd to wait until the UN can come up with better orders!

"Now it's 0800, and you've persuaded the crowd to give you another 30 minutes."

"No orders come from New York, it's 0830 and the crowd move into no-man's-land."

What happened next is that the Israelis dropped 155 mm artillery shells on either side of the road, just in front of the crowd, partly to intimidate them to turn back and partly as a range-finding exercise. When that didn't work, they started firing heavy machine-guns as close to the front of the crowd as possible. When that didn't work, they abandoned their posts and retreated into Israel, leaving behind their puppet South Lebanese Army (SLA) to face the wrath of the crowd.

"Now it's 1200 and there's a group of 12 SLA soldiers hammering on the gates of your command post, demanding that you let them in for their own protection. What do you do?"

The answer is that you must refuse to let them in - a peace-keeping force cannot take sides.

----------

The part of this story which really took my breath away was the casual way in which the Americans ordered the UN to shoot unarmed civilians … and the immense professionalism and personal courage of the Force Commander who refused the order. The Israelis have committed so many war crimes that their behaviour was less shocking … although it's interesting to see that their people on the ground couldn't quite bring themselves to fire into a crowd of civilians. I see this as a potential war crime that was narrowly averted.

#13 Mike Tribe

Mike Tribe

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 353 posts
  • Location:American School of Madrid

Posted 11 May 2005 - 06:24 AM

"Now it's 1200 and there's a group of 12 SLA soldiers hammering on the gates of your command post, demanding that you let them in for their own protection. What do you do?"


I think I was trying to suggest "perspective" here. You would judge the order to fire on unarmed civilians to be a "war crime", I suppose. What about the beating to death of 12 soldiers as they attempted to surrender? This would surely be a crime under the terms of the Geneva Conventions, but since they'd simply been left behind by the wicked Israelis "to face the wrath of the crowd", then their deaths are, somehow, less of a crime...

And since the Swedish UN troops did nothing to protect them, perhaps they could be seen as "aiding and abetting" a war crime, like the the UN troops which surrendered Bosnians to the Serbs in Sebrenitza (Sp... :ph34r: )

#14 David Richardson

David Richardson

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 711 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:Kalmar, Sweden

Posted 11 May 2005 - 08:40 AM

The UN troops weren't Swedes, by the way, but Fijians and Indians.

What happened to the SLA troops was that the UN troops came out of their base and negotiated their disarming and custody with Hezbollah. When the two sides finally started talking to each other (the SLA had ruled over the Israeli-controlled zone for a long time, and had demonized Hezbollah), it became clear that Hezbollah had no thought of revenge. The SLA soldiers who had committed crimes (such as theft) were tried in civil courts and the ones who hadn't were released after questioning.

This happens a lot more frequently than you'd expect … but even so, there are very stringent rules governing what UN troops are and aren't allowed to do. The basic division is between peace-enforcing (PE) and peace-keeping (PK). There has to be an agreement between the belligerent parties for a PK force to be put in place, and part of that agreement stipulates what weaponry the PK force may possess (no armour, light weapons only), and another part stipulates what relationship the force is allowed to have with belligerents and civilians.

Before a peace treaty has been signed, for example, the force isn't allowed to clear any mines, except for ones which hinder the force in its work (i.e they can't clear mines, or even mark where they are, to help civilians). If they did, they'd be intervening against the party which laid the mines in the first place, and thus couldn't be a neutral force.

Peace-keeping is a really hard job … and is made much harder and more dangerous by irresponsible actions by peace-enforcers (such as US forces using NGO aid agency activity as rewards in Afghanistan).

Incidentally, the neutral armies, such as the Swedish Army and the Irish Army are often much better at their jobs than the armies such as the US Army and the British Army. The ability to use lots of firepower indiscriminately, and from a distance (which are actually breaches of the Geneva Conventions most of the time) seems to make you into a 'lazier' force.

#15 David Richardson

David Richardson

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 711 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:Kalmar, Sweden

Posted 11 May 2005 - 11:39 AM

I've been working with the Swedish Army once or twice a year for ten years now. During that time, it's gone from a definitely conscript army to one which is in a bit of a limbo. 10 years ago, a very large proportion of young men served either in the armed forces, or in some kind of civilian equivalent. Nowadays the country doesn't have the money for it, so there's a lottery, and about 30-40% of young men get called up. This causes problems for people wanting to join the police force, but who don't get called up (since completed military service is usually a condition of employment for the police).

There are nuclear shelters all over the place, and a large number of people have 'reserve occupations'. In many places (such as Kalmar), the air-raid sirens are tested at 3 pm on the first Monday of the month.

The only permanently-employed soldiers are all officers. There are no experienced NCOs, for example. All the NCOs and lower ranks are conscripts, which means that officers have to have very good 'people skills' - they're the ones who have to make sure that the difficult jobs get done.

The reason for this situation is that the social-democrats were determined never again to be in the hands of a professional officer corps, who could make threats against the state without any check from ordinary people. In other words, if you want a 'people's army', you have to have most of the people in it.

It's exceptionally difficult to use this kind of army for the kind of aggressive, imperialistic campaigns both the Brits and the Americans have been involved in. However, whenever it's been tested in action, the Swedish Army has acquitted itself very well indeed. One major consequence of this policy is that Swedish Army officers are very well trained, and very aware of the world they live in. They also tend to be very versatile, and there's a requirement on everyone, from privates to generals, to make any problems known to their superiors … and to go above their superiors' heads if they don't listen.

Several of my acquaintances have been pressed to join the Americans in Iraq by foreign recruiters … but not one has had the slightest interest.




0 user(s) are reading this topic

0 members, 0 guests, 0 anonymous users