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John Simkin

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

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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.

I did indeed mentioned the Mau Mau being put in concentration camps in another thread about crimes committed by the British. (As David Richardson correctly points out these were first established by the British at the end of the 19th century in South Africa.)

Mike makes the point that we should not consider this as a war crime because it was not the intention of the British Army that these people died. However, is that an adequate defence? They could see that this was clearly the impact of their actions.

It is true that the war crimes committed by British and American soldiers in the 20th century appear small compared to the atrocities committed by the Nazis. However, that is irrelevant. Each crime must be judged by referring it to international law rather than comparing it to the worst examples of war crimes committed by the enemy.

If there is evidence that the British and American troops committed a large number of rapes while “liberating” Europe from the Nazis (Robert Lilly claims a figure of 10,000) then it is something that needs to be openly discussed.

I know that people are reluctant to accept that British and American troops could behave in this way. We much prefer to see them as heroes willing to sacrifice their lives for democracy and freedom. However, if they were brutalized so much by the war then we need to know. Partly because it is the task of the historian to discover the truth. Partly because we need to know as a society what happens when we send troops into battle. This will then have to be considered when we debate whether we are to send troops into Iraq, etc.

When I was a child my uncle used to tell me stories about his war experiences (he fought in North Africa and Italy and was on active duty from 1939 to 1945). Most of these were humorous stories and did not include accounts of actual battle. One day I asked him if he ever killed a German. I still remember the expression on his face. It was clear I should not have asked this question. Eventually, his face contorted by pain, said: “I suppose I must have.”

I now know why I should not have asked that question. War brutalizes. It makes people kill other human beings. The only way they can cope with that is by hating the enemy. This enables them to kill. It also allows them to treat the defeated nation in appalling ways. That is why British and American soldiers raped German women. (Of course we have no difficulty saying that Russian soldiers also did this.) It is the same reason why British and American soldiers murdered, tortured and mistreated Iraqis. Some were even proud of their actions and took photographs. That is what war does to people. It is vitally important that we teach our young people this is what happens during war. Then, when they grow up, they can make a rational decision about whether it is such a good idea to invade another country.

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That is what war does to people. It is vitally important that we teach our young people this is what happens during war. Then, when they grow up, they can make a rational decision about whether it is such a good idea to invade another country.

Which is a perfectly consistent position to take if you consider all war to be a crime. There's another thread somewhere about "just" wars. I think I belive that, in some cases, war is justifiable -- not desirable, but better than the alternative. I think I'd include resistance to fascism in the 1930s and 40s in that.

With regard to intentionality, I'm thinking along these lines: the Nazi leaders intended people in extermination camps to die. I look on this as a crime against humanity. When Himmler ordered the execution of all the male inhabitants of Lidice as a resprisal for the assassination of Heydrich, he intended them to die. I look on this as a war crime. On the other hand, when the Allies invaded Germany, there was no direct order to rape as many women as you could conveniently cope with and there was, thus, no intentionality. If it could be demonstrated that the Allied commanders "turned a blind eye" to abuses of human rights or even deliberately encouraged them, then I think that might be rather different, but, in the absence of such evidence, I'd have to say that the most I would find them guilty of would be negligence or incompetence.

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Don't forget Blieburg.....10,000 handed over to the Communists, mostly by the Brits, to certain death.....

OTOH, the America bashing/loathing is disturbing to me......while our troops are certainly not blameless....

Perhaps you Euro's would prefer to be speaking German or writing in Cyrillic?

I know it hurts, but without the USA.....where would you be, eh?

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OTOH, the America bashing/loathing is disturbing to me......while our troops are certainly not blameless....

Perhaps you Euro's would prefer to be speaking German or writing in Cyrillic?

I know it hurts, but without the USA.....where would you be, eh?

Can we nip this line of argument in the bud, please, before the level of argument degenerates to that on, say, the BBC Have Your Say site?

Tom, criticising actions or policies of the United States of America is not "America bashing/loathing". If you think that someone has made unjustifiable claims, why don't you identify the claims and try to refute them?

We were lucky in 1944 that the interests of the USA happened to coincide with ours, but that hasn't always been the case.

What's clear is that if you had to single out *one* Allied effort over all the others, then it was the Soviet Union that won the war. They had the superior fighting forces, the superior weaponry and the superior tactics and strategy (once Stalin had stopped interfering). However, without US food, shipped to Murmansk on largely British shipping, which kept the Soviet war machine working, the German forces in the East would have been much more difficult to defeat.

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okay, perhaps I was feeling a tad bit disagreeable this AM.....however, this thread resembles a certain bit of "self-criticism discussions" I am familiar with from other forum's.....

I'll agree on the Lend Lease thing somewhat....w/o Studebaker trucks, built in the USA or in the Kama, the USSR doesn't get the supplies to the front in quantities to capitalise(lol) on their battlefield successes....regardless of what kind hearted Uncle Joe would have liked to have had us believe.

and w/o his Majesties ships, well......

however, if you would like to discuss war crimes, what transpired on the Western Front, or Korea, Viet Nam, etc., pales in comparison to the sheer "man's inhumanity to man" or woman, that was a fact of death in the East '39-'46.....even subtracting the "kamps".

have a nice, fairly free, day.

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I think, perhaps, we're getting a bit "off topic" here. Maybe there ought to be another thread about guilt and denial. Certainly, I think there is a tendency on the part of the British to self-flagelate about all the evils they have inflicted on the world. Even to suggest that there may have been just a few positive aspects of imperialism, say, is to invite a torrent of abuse and accusations of racism... The Americans took decades to recover from the shock of Vietnam and presidents and secretaries of state felt obliged to preface every foreign affairs involvement with a statement that .................. (insert foreign country of your choice) would not be "another Vietnam".

Here in Spain, we don't have any such complexes. We still have a public holiday to celebrate "Hispanidad" in recognition of how lucky all our brown brothers in Latin America were to have been "civilized" by the conquistadores. No breast-beating here... we're not even quite convinced the Inquisition was such a bad idea...

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Certainly, I think there is a tendency on the part of the British to self-flagelate about all the evils they have inflicted on the world. Even to suggest that there may have been just a few positive aspects of imperialism, say, is to invite a torrent of abuse and accusations of racism...

I'm sure that this is true … but I'm also sure that there's a very marked tendency to pretend that the evils of imperialism didn't actually happen. And the problem with not learning from the past is that you're condemned to repeat it.

The fact that the Spanish haven't discovered what was wrong with their imperialism and with the Inquisition yet isn't much of an argument against condemnation of the barbarities committed by the Spanish in Latin America.

The use of poison gas by the British against Kurdish tribesmen in Iraq in the 1920s was what I would call a war crime. For me, that has first to be acknowledged and apologised for. After that, we can start comparing what the British did with, say, what Saddam Hussein did in Halabja, if we feel that comparison is important. What happens all too often, though, is that we see the mote in our neighbour's eye, whilst being blind to the beam in our own.

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I read Ricahrd Drayton's article and thought it was excellent; I will certainly use it with my trainees next year. I try to collect articles which demonstrate how difficult it is to exercise power and yet keep your hands completely clean. John Morrill's account of Cromwell in Ireland is a good example of this. It is important to problematise issues such as this through school history to teach young people about the moral and ethical complexity of power, democracy, war etc. and get them beyond 'two legs bad, four legs good' type thinking. One grimly ironic quote from a U.S. soldier recently, bemused by the furore over Falluja, 'What do they expect, we are soldiers, we kill people and break things.' There are also things like the recent documentary on Sky history about American brutality and war crimes in the Korean War, extracts from Graves' 'Goodbye to all that' to suggest the hypothesis that as Drayton points out, it's not about 'goodies and baddies', but about war having a brutalising effect on human beings.

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This may sound blunt, but the notion that war has a brutalising effect on soldiers is hardly news. It may be news to many of you that most soldiers don't become brutes. And that may be the most frightening fact of all - we all are capable of committing terrible deeds under particular circumstances.

In the course of my 13-month tour in 'Nam, I witnessed TWO events that might be considered war crimes. One was abuse of a suspected Viet Cong prisoner (beating) and the other was the shooting of an elderly Vietnamese who made the mistake of walking past our compound 5 minutes after curfew (he didn't have a watch). Considering the fact that our lives depending on being suspicious of EVERY Vietnamese we had contact with, I'd say that's a pretty remarkable record. I would also point out that the perpetrators of My Lai and ABu Ghraib were brought to trial by the US WHILE THE WAR WAS GOING ON. Admittedly, the perps of My Lai got off relatively unpunished (we'll see about the prisoner abuse in Iraq), but it is still remarkable that these people were held accountable under those circumstances. Even the Vietnamese were impressed by that.

The problem, as a number of you have pointed out, is war itself. If there is a war, there WILL be war crimes. The solution is thus obvious - no war, no war crime. The solution is also unattainable. We will always have war, "just" or not. I also doubt that international law will have much of an effect - though it could serve to bring transgressors to "justice". International law will also have little effect because there is no strong body able to enforce it. IF that were to happen - an international court with real enforcement powers - THEN perhaps the incidence of war crimes will be reduced (but not eliminated).

By the way, the notion that "victors get to decide what constitutes a war crime" took a hit in Vietnam. The Vietnamese were victorious over the US, yet were unable to impose any sort of sanction on the US - nor was the rest of the world.

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This may sound blunt, but the notion that war has a brutalising effect on soldiers is hardly news.  It may be news to many of you that most soldiers don't become brutes.  And that may be the most frightening fact of all - we all are capable of committing terrible deeds under particular circumstances.

This is exactly why much of the rest of the world has been so horrified at the Bush Administration's casual trashing of the Geneva Conventions. I've been working with peace-keepers and peace-enforcers from the Swedish Army this week, and I'm always impressed by the incredibly complicated nature of their task, and the professionalism with which they carry it out. It's taken us a lot of hard work to rein in the bloodier aspects of human nature to the extent that we have managed so far … and then come the neo-cons, sitting safely in Washington, making everyone's life a lot harder.

Candide ought to be compulsory reading for neo-cons - the descriptions of atrocities during the wars in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries are amongst the impulses which caused us to try to create some rules of war.

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It's not just "the rest of the world" who is upset at the performance of the clowns in Washington. There are many US citizens who aren't happy with Bush and his cronies. He was re-elected because US citizens were upset at the war crime perpetrated on them by Al quida (9/11 was a war crime, was it not?) and because the democrats don't have any vision.

I'm certain that the Swedish Army is very professional. They also haven't fought a war in some time - which is a good thing, of course. But when you're at the tip of the lance, life (and death) is also quite complicated.

Candide would not change the neo-cons one whit. I'll bet many of them have read it. They would simply re-interpret it to make it fit their vision of the world, or ignore it as irrelevant to the current situation. What might change them is if they have everything their way, and things fall apart. Unfortunately, they'll take the rest of us with them if this happens. If things DON"T fall apart, they will be encouraged in their world view and we're in for even more interesting times.

In another thread, I believe we discussed whether or not there are rules of war. Of course there are - the Geneva Convention being the most prominent example. But in reality, the average grunt is not operating under any other rule than survival. That's the nature of war.

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I followed the lines of arguments at this thread …… there is so much bitterness and unwillingness to recognise others arguments that it by itself shows that understanding of mechanism behind “war crimes” will never be reached.

Well, does anybody actually expect that it should be reached by these postings? Probably not but it’s funny to be a part of it ….. a lot of you think that.

If it wasn’t so that behind all words you produce there is dead people actually lying somewhere unburied ……

To all this confusion; what is …? or what is not ……? How could we view this incident compared to that incident …? Or should we talk in the same way about concentration camps in the South Africa of 1902-03 and Auschwitz and Treblinka of 1943-45 etc. ……?

I should probably not add yet another oneof the confussions .... but can I obstain.... Yeas I will try ....

I was lately thinking about how we (ordinary citizens) are dominated by the press and the “political correct” opinions of a people around us.

One example: We do know a lot about Vietnam War and all the atrocities which was committed there in 60th and 70th. In comparission to that how much do we know about let say French fighting in Algeria in 50th and 60th? Or Soviet Unions ten years long war in Afghanistan?

Are we able to immediately without checking sources, give spontaneously names of battles, commanding officers, strategies, atrocities f. ex. in these two wars in the same way as we are “ push the button “, ready to talk and condemn Vietnam War?

I think that this is a great problem if we want to achieve a status of impartial and honest debate forum. Are we striving for that?? Or do the debaters want to win the debate by using arguments from open sites and newspapers where all the “known” atrocities are already and often debated in shallow manners ……….?

My point with this posting is this: Are we ready to talk about war crimes or are we only ready to talk about the war crimes .....?

Edited by Dalibor Svoboda

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I presume that the point of this debate is to serve as an educational resource. Yet most of what has been presented so far is merely opinion. Why should that be "educational" or useful to students or teachers interested in this topic?

It seems to me that this thread would be more useful for its intended purpose if we had some sort of "official" declaration of what constitutes war crime.

I happened across the following book in a used book store a couple of years ago. It is Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy, by Telford Taylor. Taylor was US Chief Counsel at Nuremberg. I think students and teachers interested in war crimes in general, and My Lai in particular, would find this a very useful resource. Here are the contents: Introduction; War Crimes; Superior Orders and Reprisals; Just and Unjust Wars; Nuremberg; Aggressive War, Vietnam and the Courts; War Crimes: Son My; Crime and Punishment; War and Peace. The concluding sentence of the book is "Somehow we failed ourselves to learn the lessons we undertook to teach at Nuremberg, and that failure is today's American tragedy."

It is a book useful beyond its stated scope because Taylor traces the development of "rules of war" through history up to 1969 (the book was published in 1970).

Perhaps some of you could post other resources related to war crimes - or maybe extract from the Geneva Convention some concept of what constitutes a war crime. That would certainly fulfill the purpose of the forum.

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Illegal Orders!

This is a term that I have heard very much of in recent years. But while I was a U.S. military officer, no one ever instructed me that there was such a thing. At what point does a subordinate feel, knowing that information must be witheld from him as a result of the "need to know" principle which is in force in every tactical war time military operation, that he has enough information to refuse an order in combat. His refusal to carry out, for example, an order involving his 100 troops, regardless of how revolting the order may be, could result in the death of possibly thousands of other troops who proceeded with a plan that was dependent on his units successful accomplishment. Is he a WAR CRIMINAL if he carries out his initial repulsive orders which might have involved crimes against mankind, or is he a WAR CRIMINAL if his deliberate disobedience of a war time military order cost the lives of possibly thousands of friendly troops? It is easy during the heat of battle to do what would normally be considered "dastardly deeds" in an effort to maintain your life and those whose lives are entrusted to your best judgement.

I don't have the time, nor really the inclination, to delve too deeply in this most complex subject. There is one brief example that might shed a little light on a very frequent combat situation. Suppose that you receive orders to carry out a very important covert operation behind enemy lines. In the event your unit is engaged by the enemy en route, you are told of course, even tho you already would probably know, that you could take no prisoners. Prisoners would absolutely prevent mission accomplishment. When you kill these prisoners, are you and your men war criminals? Why or why not? Was it a "LEGAL ORDER"? Did you really have an option? Was the Colonel who gave the order a war criminal, or were the criminals just those who executed it?

This can easily become a problem infintessimal. Is there really a right and wrong in the context of war or is it really---to the victors go the spoils and to the losers all the soils. I think that in very many cases it is that force, which is within each of us, that must determine in our own minds and souls that invisible but very real line that cannot be crossed.

We must never forget that the enemy also thinks that God is on his side!

Charlie Black

Edited by Charles Black

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But surely you would agree, Charlie, that some orders plainly contravene a "higher law" which should take precedence over military orders. Suppose you were ordered to rape a seven-year old, or to kill all the women and children in a village based solely on their racial or religious characteristics -- like the einsatzgruppen (spelling!) in eastern Europe during WWII -- would you still feel bound to obey?

I agree that there may be "grey areas" like the one you mentioned with regard to the correct treatment of PoWs, but surely you must also agree that there are some cases that are very much black and white...

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