The Crimes of War

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In Iraq several apparent atrocities, alleged to have been committed by U.S. forces, have recently come to light. The purpose of this article is not to determine the guilt or innocence of any individuals accused in these incidents. That can only be done by the judicial process as it unfolds in each case. My purpose is, rather, to examine the nature of war crimes or atrocities generally, and the effect such events have on both the military and society as a whole.

For clarity’s sake, we should begin by distinguishing between war crimes or atrocities and what are often called, euphemistically, “aggravations of war.” By that phrase I mean actions that, while illegal, are often the unavoidable sequels to combat – for example, the killing of enemy combatants who attempt to surrender just as a bitter battle goes against them, or the killing of prisoners who cannot, through force of circumstance, be conveyed back to their captors’ lines. Such actions, while technically illegal under the laws of war,1 are rarely if ever brought to light or punished.

Strict adherence to the laws of war is at times simply impossible under the extreme conditions of combat, especially on the modern battlefield. To believe otherwise is the preserve of the idealist who has never seen battle. Quite simply, there is a world that many of us like to pretend exists, and then there is the world as it really is. My subject here is the world as it is.

What, then, is an atrocity or war crime within the context of a conflict like Iraq? It appears that the rules of engagement for U.S. forces permit our troops to fire on adult males in civilian clothes who happen to flee from the scene (3) of a roadside bombing. This is probably justifiable, given that the enemy in Iraq wears no uniform and obeys none of the rules of war. In urban fighting under such conditions, stricter rules of engagement would no doubt be an absurdity. The combat effectiveness of U.S. forces fighting against urban guerrillas in a place like Iraq would swiftly diminish (along with their morale) if they were not given a very wide latitude for action. I don’t mean to imply that U.S. forces in Iraq should have the right to undertake reprisals in the form of the deliberate killing of civilians. I am merely pointing out that the nature of the Iraq conflict often makes it difficult for U.S. forces to tell the difference between a civilian and an insurgent, and that as a result our troops probably should be given almost every benefit of the doubt. (I will leave aside for the moment the question of whether our troops should actually be in Iraq at all.)

Because our troops in Iraq are fighting an irregular enemy force – a force that wears no proper uniform, obeys no internationally recognized leadership, and adheres to none of the rules of war – a quite narrow definition of atrocities or war crimes is called for. This having been said, however, it seems indisputable that the torture, rape, or deliberate murder of civilians, especially women, children, the elderly, and the infirm, are war crimes. Such behavior is always and without exception illegal, immoral, and barbarous, and if

Many of the best shy away from military service when a war like Iraq is on, and who can blame them? Why choose to serve in a messy, indecisive conflict with no clear goal and no end in sight?


proved to have occurred must be punished severely. From a purely practical standpoint, soldiers (at least in modern armies) cannot be allowed to carry out such atrocities unchecked and unpunished, lest they eventually degenerate into an armed mob, lacking discipline and effectiveness in (4) the field. And obviously, there is also the moral aspect, quite unclouded by the complexities of “aggravations of war.” The stresses of combat, even in an urban guerrilla campaign, can- not excuse rape or the deliberate murder of noncombatants. To maintain otherwise is, surely, to plunge into an abyss.

No doubt there are people (some of them, I suspect, readers of Liberty) who would maintain that all’s fair in war, that victory alone matters, and that therefore absolutely no rules of war should exist. In response I would point to professional opinion. The professional soldiers I know want the conduct of war to be governed by some rules. They may disagree with this or that aspect of the Geneva Conventions or the War Crimes Acts but war without rules is not something they like to contemplate. So far as I have been able to determine, there is unanimity on this point throughout the professional ranks.

Some of us in the U.S. no doubt suffer from complacency brought on by the fact that we have not been invaded or even attacked (excepting Pearl Harbor and the Twin Towers) for nearly 200 years. Had we in this country undergone the ordeal of Belgium in 1914, or Russia in 1941, or Germany in 1945, all of us would, I think, welcome rules governing warfare – the more the better, I daresay.

As of this writing, no fewer than five possible incidents of war crimes involving U.S. troops in Iraq are being investigated (6) by U.S. authorities. The most notorious of these are the incidents at Haditha in November 2005, and at Mahmudiya in March 2006.

At Haditha it is alleged that U.S. Marines murdered, execution-style, some 24 Iraqi civilians, including women, children, and an elderly man in a wheelchair? The event that is said to have precipitated the massacre was the killing of one Marine in a roadside bombing. If the massacre indeed occurred as described, it unquestionably constitutes a war crime. (It bears repeating here that all individuals accused remain innocent until proven guilty.)

The events that allegedly occurred at Mahmudiya are even more shocking. According to U.S. federal court documents, four U.S. Army soldiers left their unit and entered the home of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and her family, where they allegedly murdered the girl’s father, mother, and 7-year-old sister. It is further alleged that two or possibly three of the soldiers then raped the girl before killing her. They are then alleged to have burned her body in an attempt to destroy (8) evidence.

Unfortunately, we have been here before. From Wounded Knee to My Lai, U.S. troops have been guilty of atrocities. This is not to say that our record is worse than that of other nations. I would argue the opposite. But we should be clear that American exceptionalism, in this area, is an illusion. Even though the U.S. armed forces are arguably the most humane in the world, we are still confronted with events like My Lai and Mahmudiya. What conclusions should we draw from this apparent contradiction?

It is too facile to say, with Gen. William Tecumseh Sher- man, that war is hell, and that therefore it must be avoided at all costs. War is and will remain an instrument of policy so long as the nation-state, and indeed the human race, continue to exist. Once again, let’s deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. War is not going to go away, at least not any time soon. How then do we try to prevent crimes like My Lai, or Haditha and Mahmudiya (assuming that in these latter two cases the worst proves to be true)?

Clearly, we need to attract the very best people we can to our armed forces. It was not America’s best and brightest that perpetrated the My Lai massacre. By “best and brightest” I do not mean young college professors or software programmers in uniform. What I do mean is people who possess character, that is, moral strength, together with intelligence and physical courage. At the ver)T, very least, we need to keep petty criminals and the emotionally unstable (9) out of the ranks.

How do we get the best in uniform? From a classical liberal point of view, conscription, absent a threat to our very existence as a nation, is anathema. (10)

Furthermore, in the past (particularly during most of the Vietnam period) conscription was weighted against achieving the highest possible

Had we in this country undergone the ordeal of Belgium in 1914, or Russian in 1941, or Germany in 1945, all of us would welcome rules governing warfare – the more the better. 


granted to college students, which guaranteed that most would never serve. We must search for the answer within the context of a voluntary system.

During the post-Vietnam era of voluntary service, and especially in the 1980s and ’90s, the military was successful in recruiting high-caliber people. Some of these cadres still serve today. They are the”super soldiers” who form the backbone of a force that remains the best trained, the most efficient, and probably the most humane in the world. In the weeks and months immediately following 9/11, an influx of (11)

dedicated patriots further invigorated the force.
In rural America, where I now live, there are many young men and women who enter the military not because they view it as a job, or a ticket to see the world, but out of patriotism and a real desire to soldier. In cities and suburbs, where I used to live, there are young people like this, too. The best are out there.

But many of the best shy away from military service when a war like Iraq is on, and who can blame them? Why choose to serve in a messy, indecisive conflict with no clear goal and no end in sight? Why choose to serve in a conflict that involves, not the nation’s survival, but the whims of its political leadership? (12)

As the Iraq war drags on, the Army has had to reduce standards for enlistment in order to maintain its force levels. (13) We should never permit this to happen, short of our national survival being at stake. If, in order to uphold high military standards, the force must shrink, and with it our commitments around the world, so be it. Why, after all, do we still maintain 30,000 troops on the Korean peninsula, when the nation that we are supposedly protecting, South Korea, has twice the population and an economy 30 times the size of its enem~ North Korea? Why do we fight Israel’s battles in the Middle East (as we have twice done in Iraq), when that nation’s military is more than a match for those of all the Arab states put together – and when Israel, alone in the Middle East, disposes of a nuclear arsenal that is primed and ready for delivery? (14)

Empires that overextend themselves are ripe for bankruptcy, both materially and morally.15 Who can deny that the United States is overextended in the world today? The time

We need a smaller but better military – not one, perhaps, that can police the whole world, but one that is powerful enough to protect the nation and its truly vital interests.


has come to draw back from the brink. This is not a call for isolationism, but for realism. We need a smaller but better military – not one, perhaps, that can police the whole world, but one that is powerful enough to protect the nation and its truly vital interests (our interests, not South Korea’s, or Isra- el’s, or Taiwan’s). I envision a military composed only of our best and brightest men and women, those who can embody the warrior ethos without losing their humanity. If we are to achieve this, we must resolve as a nation never again to wage unnecessary wars, wars that can only injure and degrade us, wars like Vietnam and Iraq. Let’s save our best and brightest for battles against real enemies, when these do appear.

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