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There are many things which happen in war which can have the appearance, to someone unfamiliar with war, of a crime. Let's say for instance that a machine gun crew has kept an enemy platoon pinned down for what may seem like hours, but in reality may only be minutes. While keeping that enemy unit in place the machine gun crew has inflicted a number of casualties, both killed and wounded, upon that unit.
The machine gun crew notices that they are running low on ammunition, they also know that they have nowhere to run. So when the ammunition is gone, they surrender. Rather I should say that they attempt to surrender. Tentatively they stand up at their position, hands in the air. The enemy unit, frustrated, tired, and understandably angry, open fire on the machine gun crew, killing them all.**
The commander of a large unit cannot know every single detail of what the units under his command are doing. If the unit is well-trained and well-led, there is still a remote possibility of those troops committing war crimes. But what is a war crime?
One of the better definitions I've seen is:
A war crime is a violation of the laws of war. The legal understanding of war crimes has been codified in several multilateral treaties, most notably the Geneva Conventions. More recently, the most comprehensive legal statement on war crimes was the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. (Source)A commander is, by law and by practice, responsible for the conduct and actions of the forces under his/her command. But how high does that responsibility go? Who gets to decide what is criminal and what is not?
Of the many war crimes committed by the Germans in the European Theater of Operations, many Germans were tried, convicted, executed or imprisoned. Many were not. Albert Speer lived to write his memoirs, Werner von Braun lived to assist the United States in putting men on the moon. Josef "Sepp" Dietrich, commander of the Sixth Panzer Army in the Ardennes, a number of units of which committed atrocities against American POWs and Belgian civilians, did do time in prison. Joachim Peiper, commander of a Kampfgruppe in the Sixth Panzer Army, whose unit perpetrated the Malmedy Massacre, also did time in prison.
Some were executed for their crimes, some were not.
Units under the command of Generals Yamashita and Honma did indeed commit appalling crimes against Allied POWs and Filipino civilians. Both men were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Why them and not certain Nazi officers?
Why was Surgeon General Ishii Shirō, a Japanese army medical officer, microbiologist and director of Unit 731, a biological warfare unit of the Imperial Japanese Army involved in forced and frequently lethal human experimentation during the Second Sino-Japanese War not prosecuted and executed?
Arrested by the US occupation authorities at the end of World War II, Ishii and other Unit 731 leaders were to be thoroughly interrogated by the Soviet authorities. Instead, Ishii and his team managed to negotiate and receive immunity in 1946 from war-crimes prosecution before the Tokyo tribunal in exchange for their full disclosure of germ warfare data based on human experimentation. Although the Soviet authorities wished the prosecutions to take place, the United States objected after the reports of the investigating US microbiologists. Among these was Dr. Edwin Hill (Chief of Fort Detrick), whose report stated that the information was "absolutely invaluable", it "could never have been obtained in the United States because of scruples attached to experiments on humans", and "the information was obtained fairly cheaply". On 6 May 1947, Douglas MacArthur wrote to Washington that "additional data, possibly some statements from Ishii probably can be obtained by informing Japanese involved that information will be retained in intelligence channels and will not be employed as 'War Crimes' evidence." The deal was concluded in 1948. In this way Ishii was never prosecuted for any war crimes. (Source)A war crime is a crime, regardless of the war criminal's usefulness to the victors. Otherwise, prosecution for war crimes is simply a vindictive exercise by the victorious power meant to punish the defeated. Consistency is important, otherwise the wrong message is sent.
Tomoyuki Yamashita (sic) was a Japanese general of the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. Yamashita led Japanese forces during the invasion of Malaya and Battle of Singapore, with his accomplishment of conquering Malaya and Singapore in 70 days earning him the sobriquet The Tiger of Malaya and led to the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, calling the ignominious fall of Singapore to Japan the "worst disaster" and "largest capitulation" in British military history. Yamashita was assigned to defend the Philippines from the advancing Allied forces later in the war, and while unable to stop the Allied advance, he was able to hold on to part of Luzon until after the formal Surrender of Japan in August 1945.
After the war, Yamashita was tried for war crimes committed by troops under his command during the Japanese defense of the occupied Philippines in 1944. In a controversial trial, Yamashita was found guilty of his troops' atrocities even though there was no evidence that he approved or even knew of them, and indeed many of the atrocities were committed by troops not actually under his command. Yamashita was sentenced to death and executed by hanging in 1946. The ruling against Yamashita – holding the commander responsible for subordinates' war crimes as long as the commander did not attempt to discover and stop them from occurring – came to be known as the Yamashita standard. (Source)
Masaharu Homma (sic) was a lieutenant general in the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. Homma commanded the Japanese 14th Army, which invaded the Philippines and perpetrated the Bataan Death March. After the war, Homma was convicted of war crimes relating to the actions of troops under his direct command and executed by firing squad on April 3, 1946.
Historian Kevin C Murphy argues that while it is not clear whether Homma ordered the atrocities that occurred during the march, Homma's lack of administrative expertise and his inability to adequately delegate authority and control his men helped to enable the atrocities. After American–Filipino forces surrendered the Bataan Peninsula, Homma turned the logistics of handling the estimated 25,000 prisoners to Major-General Yoshitake Kawane (sic). Homma publicly stated that the POWs would be treated fairly. A plan was formulated, approved by Homma, to transport and march the prisoners to Camp O'Donnell. However, the plan was severely flawed, as the American and Filipino POWs were starving, were weak with malaria, and numbered not 25,000 but 76,000 men, far more than any Japanese plan had anticipated. (Source)
What say you?
* The general's name, 本間, has typically been transliterated in history as "Homma." The name is also transliterated as "Honma." As pronounced in Japanese it sounds closer to the latter. So I use that form here.
** A story related to me by my uncle, who served in World War II in the infantry, in the ETO.