Saturday, February 13, 2021

War Crimes¹


So the topic of Dresden, specifically the bombing of that city in WWII, led to some interesting comments over the past cuppla days. I say "war crime" others argued tactical/strategic necessity. My opinion is precisely that, an opinion. Some at the time argued that it was a war crime, not just Germans either.

At any rate, what exactly is a war crime?

According to the U.N.
Even though the prohibition of certain behavior in the conduct of armed conflict can be traced back many centuries, the concept of war crimes developed particularly at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, when international humanitarian law, also known as the law of armed conflict, was codified. The Hague Conventions adopted in 1899 and 1907 focus on the prohibition to warring parties to use certain means and methods of warfare. Several other related treaties have been adopted since then. In contrast, the Geneva Convention of 1864 and subsequent Geneva Conventions, notably the four 1949 Geneva Conventions and the two 1977 Additional Protocols, focus on the protection of persons not or no longer taking part in hostilities. Both Hague Law and Geneva Law identify several of the violations of its norms, though not all, as war crimes. However there is no one single document in international law that codifies all war crimes. Lists of war crimes can be found in both international humanitarian law and international criminal law treaties, as well as in international customary law.
War crimes and the imposition of penalties upon those accused (and sometimes convicted) of war crimes is not a modern thing. A fellow named Peter von Hagenbach could attest to that, were he still alive to do so.
The trial of Peter von Hagenbach by an ad hoc tribunal of the Holy Roman Empire in 1474 was the first "international" war crimes trial, and also of command responsibility. He was convicted and beheaded for crimes that "he as a knight was deemed to have a duty to prevent", although he had argued that he was "just following orders".²
That last bit didn't fly in 1474, didn't fly in 1946, wouldn't fly today, unless...

You were on the winning side.

I have no doubt that had the Nazis and the Japanese won WWII, there would have been war crimes trials. But in the case of those two nations, the trial would no doubt be very pro forma followed by a quick execution. At least in the West we have trials and try to follow the rules governing such things. Though Lieutenant General Homma Masaharu might have something to say about that, were he still alive to do so.

General Homma was in command during the 1941 Japanese conquest of the Philippines. Multiple atrocities were committed by the men under his command, but the one which really pissed off the United States was the Bataan Death March.

When the war was over, Homma was tried, found guilty of war crimes, and shot by a firing squad. Some at the time said that his true crime was defeating Douglas MacArthur. There is some merit in such an argument.

Consider this, if Homma was held culpable for the conduct of the men under his command, why then was Emperor Hirohito not held to the same standard? He was not, in fact Japan did not surrender unconditionally in 1945. They got to keep their Emperor as one of the conditions of surrender. Unconditional means, "no conditions."

On the gripping hand, military necessity often requires that cold, hard decisions be made which will result in the deaths of many, including civilians. Where does one draw the line between what is right and what deserves death by execution.

I was told this story by a WWII veteran of the ETO³ -
"We were pinned down for what seemed like hours. A German machine gun nest had opened fire on our patrol, killing and wounding a number of men. We fought back, we maneuvered, eventually the Germans ran out of ammunition and attempted to surrender. When they stood up, hands in the air, everyone opened fire on them. We took no prisoners that day."
Keep fighting until you can't then quit and say, "Sorry, no hard feelings?" Nope, it doesn't work that way. An American general (I'm sure most of you know who) had the following to say about war -
You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have peace and a division of our country. If the United States submits to a division now, it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war ... I want peace, and believe it can only be reached through union and war, and I will ever conduct war with a view to perfect and early success. But, my dear sirs, when peace does come, you may call on me for anything. Then will I share with you the last cracker, and watch with you to shield your homes and families against danger from every quarter.
So yes, war crimes, a touchy subject. I'd be interested in hearing, well, reading, your thoughts and opinions on this topic.

Take it away, you have the floor.

¹ Still taking some time away from the book. Giving the Muse some time off, besides which, the research behind all this does take time.
³ European Theater of Operations


  1. War means total commitment to win. If both sides have total commitment then how does it end? Not even killing the people at the top will cause it to end if there is total commitment. It ends when you kill the baby makers and a people realize they are about to totally disappear.
    My curriculum vitae - graduate from the University of South Vietnam, class of 1968 and 1969, two tours.

  2. I remember reading that the Army Act (or something similar) that governed the conduct of British personnel had to be hurriedly amended during the latter stages of WW2 when one of the legal team preparing for the upcoming trials noted there was a sub-section of the act which protected personnel from the consequences of following orders issued by a superior, in other words 'I was only obeying orders' was available to British soldiers as a defense. Churchill favoured summary justice, i.e. shoot the nazi leadership upon capture but others said some form of judicial process had to followed to give the allies legitimacy.
    There is a certain element of 'victors justice' but some way has to be found to bring the perpetrators of such crimes to justice. It's a wicked problem and well it may sound hypocritical I shed no tears when an Al-Quaeda or ISIS bigwig gets a hellfire through their car window.
    One things for sure the problem ain't going away any time soon.

    1. The IWOOO defense was successfully used in the case of many enlisted. Iffy on the use by NCOs. It was the officers who got hammered trying to use that defense.

    2. They get justice when they are killed for their crimes, either by firing squad/hanging/guillotine or during acts of war.

  3. As always, remember that NOBODY touched dear ol' Joe, even though the Communists committed FAR more war crimes than did the Germans or the Japanese.

  4. Sherman had it right, So did R.E. Lee.

    1. And, sadly, so did the Papal legate, the Abbot of Citeaux, Arnaud Amalric, who, during the Albigensian Crusade, uttered the immortal words, "Kill them all, God will know his own." Which refers to the non-Albigensian population shielding the Albigensian Heretics.


  5. We have a comfortable distance to view from compared to '45. I try to remember that when I look at things like this.

    Maybe Herr Shicklgruber was just a prophet and we fulfilled that prophecy. It was a simple as that. I tend to think like SL, tho. If you start a war like that, don't complain when it comes back on you. "Don't start no ****, won't be no ****." Looking at today, there is a part of me that thinks we did crap like this around the world in the past, should we be surprised when it happens here in our own .gov?

    My reading of Hirohito was to make sure there would be peace. When you destroy the gods of a civilization, you would have to uproot the population and sprinkle them so lightly among another population as to water down their identity, at least in my mind that might work. I think the reason Japan was so calm after the war is because we made that decision. My lack of study of postwar Japan is probably showing. But I did read a bit about W. E. Deming's influence in Japan and it's result through the 50's and 60's. It was almost like they needed a reason to go on in my mind.

    Their generals were easily as guilty as the nazi's were, but a load of them got off lightly and became CEO's of major companies. I'm thinking especially of their biological unit commanders in China. I always wondered if it was because their names were harder to understand, or maybe we were sated after the Nuremberg trials.

    History is messy at best...

  6. Ah, correct, but? Were you attacking the right opponent? Several interesting stories since 9_11 say not. We did not find the correct enemy. The enemy is not your friend. And he could be the one making a profit off the conflict.

  7. Vae victis is a concept as old as Egypt and Rome.

    Sometimes, ultimately, it's the victors who decide who should be punished for 'crimes'. We tend to not realize that, especially when you consider the terms of Appomattox were damned light for the former Confederates. I sometimes wonder -- if Lincoln had not been assassinated, would the South have had so many issues post-Civil War?

    The best advice, though, might be this: if you're at war? Don't lose.

    1. No. Lincoln's plans were to wage peace. That got derailed.

  8. At the end of the day, a war crime is whatever the victor claims that it is. They are, after all, the ones who get to write the history books. Interesting thought exercise: What would the history books claim was the cause of the war had Nazi Germany managed to defeat the Normandy landings, the war degenerated into a stalemate that ended in a cease fire? What would the history of the past 75 years look like?

  9. As to the following orders defense. If you have orders in writing or with multiple witnesses it SHOULD be a defense. Soldiers will find it very hard to disobey any order legal or not. As to war itself, basically the goal should be to win. Period. I would throw out all conventions etc. You fight, you win. Civilians need to move or overthrow their govt. Prisoners are safe only on common sense and the golden rule....I will treat yours fairly and you treat mine fairly...or else it just becomes a war of no prisoners. That means War crime trials also need to be with some sense to them. If you are going after every officer with a death sentence possible no one surrenders. If the war is indeed over too many war crimes trials begs to have the losers start a guerilla war. My complaint about our recent war in Iraq...after it was over we kissed a** too much. Within a short time Iraq govt was telling us what we were allowed to do. We had been too nice in our victory.

  10. First Rule of Warfare: Don't lose.

  11. Wars cost a lot of money. Follow the money to find the worst of the war criminals.

  12. I would edit, Unknown@7:46 somewhat. First Rule of Warfare: Don't go to war unless your nation's survival is clearly at stake. Second Rule: Don't Lose.

    BTW: Neither of those is easy.

  13. And now I will contradict myself, kind of.

    A big showy mess of death is often a rather pointed way of saying to the rest of the enemy, "See? This WILL be you!" And it has been going on for such a long time.

    Many anti-Crusaders point out that the Crusader's Siege of Jerusalem, where, once they entered the City they pert near killed everyone, was a war crime.

    No. No it was not. Most assuredly not. Horrible? Yes. Messy? Oh heck yes. But not a War Crime!

    "But, Beans... the ch-ch-children, the old people, the Jews, the other non-combatants..."

    And here is where we get into the history of why Jerusalem was put to the sword. Again. (Poor Jerusalem, for such a holy city it sure has seen its streets run red.)

    Medievaly, in Western Europe, where all the Barbarians lived (that is if you listen to the Byzantines or the Islamics of the time) there was the rule of the Breech. As in, you and your army toodle up to said walled thingy, be it a building, a town or a city and you ask for surrender and they tell you to "Copulate Eslewhere!" So you begin sieging the place. And you poke a hole in the wall, enough that you can run in and do some serious killing. This is where the rule of the Breech comes in. Knowing that you can hole their wall, the other side is, by the conventions of the time, supposed to either (A) FIGHT TO THE DEATH! or (B) Surrender and pay out. Why? Because, once you get into hand-to-hand fighting in a walled location, there's no stopping the fighting. In fact, you encourage the Sack (that would be, killing, raping, pillaging) as a really good Sack will encourage the next group of jerks to either surrender directly or surrender once a breech is made.

    As Shakespeare so eloquently said in "Henry V" during the Siege of Harfleur.

    “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
    Or close the wall up with our English dead.
    In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
    As modest stillness and humility:

    But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
    Then imitate the action of the tiger. …” (and it goes on to nasty things like killing babies and such, so icky..)

    What this speech is about is Henry and his forces poked a hole in Le Frenchies' wall and they didn't give up. So, well, Henry, following the convention of the time, said "Copulate This and Them, Let's go kill everyone." So the next city he lay siege to opened their doors willingly and paid off the English and thus didn't suffer a sack.

    So back to the Crusades and the Siege of Jerusalem.

    A breech was made into the walls. The Crusaders called upon the City and it's defenders to surrender, pay some token compensation for poking a hole in the wall, and all would be cool.

    The defenders and the people in the city (not the same thing, kind of, sort of) said "No."

    Thus the elimination of much of the population of Jerusalem in a Sack not seen since the last time Jerusalem fell, or the time before, or the time before (see comment on Jerusalem's streets, it's nothing new, sadly.)

    And the Sack of Jerusalem actually saved many a smaller city and town as nobody wanted to get sacked.

    The Sack, by modern times, is a War Crime. In Medieval Europe it wasn't. By islamic standards of the time it wasn't. By islamic standards of modern times it wasn't.

    Thus, Dresden, a war crime, yes and no. (But a lot of people who did it probably never slept well ever again.) Same with carpet bombing and nuking Japan.

    1. Beans,
      the Japanese high command had stated that they were quite willing to lose 50% of the population of the Home Islands to keep the Allies out. They were expecting that possible loss to occur while killing Allied military personnel. After two cities evaporated from single bombs, it dawned on them that they were not going to even get the chance to kill any of their invading enemy to keep them out. There would not be an invasion, just cities going "poof".
      Check out the book "Hell to Pay", by D M Giangreco. He details all the defenses that we were going to encounter if we invaded. Turned out our intelligence on that subject was woefully incorrect. With our outdated info, the Allies estimated 1M casualties attempting to overrun the Islands. Really good chance THAT invasion would have failed spectacularly.

    2. The dropping of the atomic bombs did not suddenly "awaken" the Japanese Generals to surrender. They were still hell bent on havingthe nation commit mass suicide in the face of the Allied onslaught. They attempted to stop the Emperor from making his speech over the radio.

  14. I would first state: it is complicated. And at same time as simple as the guy that stood between amok GIs and villagers at My Lai.
    Complicated, because sometimes state at war has wildly different attitude towards war crimes depending on the branch, case in point WW2 Germany. On one hand we have horrors of the Holocaust and occupation in the East, on the other side fact that even Polish offical officer war prisoners had relative high survival rate - especially contrasted with fate of those captured by Soviet Russia.
    Simple because any decent human being will recognize one when he is witness to one. And will act to stop it like Japanese diplomat who kept cranking transit visas to Far East in Lithuania to Jews who desperately tried to flee coming Germans.
    In the WW2 you could pretty solidly delineate good guys from bad ones, even if Allies had lowered to opposition level some times. Before we condemn Tokyo and Dresden, we must understand Axis has been teaching allies cruelty for years, In Nanking, Guernica, Warsaw, Rotterdam, Coventry, Belgrade and countless other places. RAF started war by dropping leaflets and attacking strictly military targets like warships in port.
    Similarily, look at how suspicious population was treated in different countries.
    US had interned Japanese -descent citizens but compare that to the German or Soviet camps? No way! Just look at mortality rates.

  15. Most interesting comments and viewpoints today.


  16. .(Don McCollor)..the losers do not usually conduct war crimes trials...

  17. Why yes, I did delete some comments, they were not polite.

    Read the rules below, "Can't be nice, go somewhere else..."

    That is all.

  18. I had the good fortune to speak to the original Co-pilot on the Nagasaki strike. (he was preempted by Tibbets but sat in the engineers seat.) He even wrote a book about the experience. He never regretted our dropping of the bomb. My Dad who along with MacArthur took back the Phillipines and would have been wave 3 in the invasion of the main island. The bomb saved his life and the lives of many others on both sides. As a fluke my dad was in the army of occupation and was stationed in Nagasaki. He always said War is Hell. I hope we don't have Hell days coming.

  19. (Don McCollor)...worked with a guy by the name of Tibbets. Had a picture of his uncle standing by a B29 on the wall of his office...

  20. First of all Sarge, bravo for your bravery to be willing to open your blog to such a potentially rancorous discussion (and blessings on you for policing them).

    Once upon a time, when I had high hopes of being an artist I was part of a duo that performed songs from the Celtic World. One of the things that one notes if one does enough of this kind of music is that the Irish, Scots, and Welsh have quite an array of musical numbers celebrating the loss of most of the struggles to the English. We always noted that the victors got to write the histories, but the losers apparently got to write the music.

    Beans makes a good point - that our concept of "war crimes" is very much on a historical continuum. It is difficult to apply modern concepts to historical events except as a matter of "and we should never let that happen again" for events that happened, say, prior to the early 20th century. To do so is to make assumptions about cultures and peoples that simply cannot be done. The Sack of Jerusalem - the example given - was awful and it did create a roadblock to attempts to make peace and coexist later in the history of Outremer; this pales in comparison to the depredations of the Mongols under Genghis Khan (which, oddly enough, I do not hear used as an example very often).

    The 20th Century (and the 21st, I suppose): Different in that supposedly (finally) there are two sides. Except for the nagging problem that in order to win, a side has to sometimes act in a way that looks decidedly like the way the side they are fighting.

    It is ignored, of course, as part of the path to victory and in the minds of some, justified. But if there is truly an unalterable set of right and wrong principles (Plato would say there are, of course), then wrong is always wrong.

    I can say that, of course - I write this in front of my warm, comfy fire never having watched my comrades gunned down by a group that then suddenly "surrenders" or fighting against those that have killed my family, my friends, and my nation.

    The reality perhaps - for better or worse - is that like so many other things, the truth is not only that the victors write history, but the victors have the luxury of deciding after the fact what is history and what is moral. I think we like to believe that it is easily black and white in all cases - like "Putting People On Trains to Camps" or "Rounding People Up To Kill Them" black and white - but I suspect it is not always so.

    In some ways, like being a medical professional I suppose. You do not know what a life and death decision is until you actually have to make one. Then, of course, it is quite clear.

    1. A few comments crossed the line, so I deleted them.

      I just have to remember the old question, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"

      Yes, I'm in a Latin quoting mood today!

  21. In today's world it would be hard for the US to spell out war crimes, as a certain, big, social movement has proclaimed that morality doesn't matter. And have also shown that anything they are offended by is a crime. Wonder how they would react if/when they receive the treatment they want to dish out.
    On a practical level, any act that would make things more difficult should be looked at closely.
    Soldier rapes farmer's daughter, officers say 'no biggie', so farmer weakens a bridge support, and the next convoy going over it results in a number of casualties. Farmer's neighbors could also decide that the troops need events to make their lives more exciting.
    Why create unnecessary enemies.

    1. (Don McCollor)..."once again the grim members of the Marquis gather"....

    2. Sort of an old school morality tale. Setting of the fictional event was a Nazi occupied Scandinavian country.
      Some resistance fighters attacked a small, isolated base and killed 50 German soldiers. The area commander rounded up 500 civilians and had them executed. Shortly after that, two fully loaded Nazi troop ship blew up in harbor and a bit over 5,000 Germans froze/drowned.
      At which point, the resistance leader sent a note - "The game, I believe, is called 10 for 1. Your move."

  22. Friend,

    I have transgressed mightily and I apologize. I thought I was commenting on my blog and only realized my idiocy when it didn't work. Truly, in the oldest sense of the words, I beg your pardon.

    I would be most obliged if you deleted them. It was not my blog and I abused your hospitality.

    1. All sins are forgiven my dear Cap'n.

      'Tis done.

      Vade et amplius iam noli peccare.

  23. There are some books I have mentioned to you that you really might enjoy.
    The series starts with, 'A Small Colonial War'. As you read them you see that the LtCol of the battalion said of her husband, 'he liked Latin tags but he doesn't speak a word of Latin. You and me brother. I had it in the 3rd grade and it did not stick.
    Thank you.

    When you like, we should get together for another beer. Sadly it won't be anywhere near the Pub like last time. We do go to Maine every year and one year we did stop overnight at my old stomping grounds in Newport. Give us a few months and I'm sure two people like us could pull together a plan.

    1. Robert Frezza? Looks interesting.

      I would enjoy meeting for a beer and conversation. Let me know when you plan on being in my AO.

  24. Fifty years ago, I had my first adult job, cleaning machines on the second shift in a plastics factory. Many of the workers there were veterans of the Second World War and the Korean War.

    The My Lai Massacre court-martial was going on. One of the machine operators said that he had been a tanker in the ETO. Some Germans were surrendering to their tank platoon. Their LT dismounted to take the surrender. Either one of the Germans or a German sniper shot the LT (I'm unclear on that detail, as I said, it's been a long time).

    The tankers shot all of the Germans who were trying to surrender. They then killed every German that they found for the next three weeks.

    Horrible things happen in war. What makes things into war crimes, in my view, is whether or not the horrible thing is command policy.

    What also matters is the conduct of one side, as one of the unofficial laws of war is "I'll do unto you like you did unto me." If one side tries to bomb enemy cities into submission to break civilian morale, using twin-engined medium bombers, they have little cause for complaint if the other side then tries the same thing, using four-engined heavy bombers (and a shitload more of them).


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

NOTE: Comments on posts over 5 days old go into moderation, automatically.