April 3, 2013 at 4:54 am #3497
This post was inspired by Scout's comments over at his blog (my emphasis in bold):
Personally, I find the whole talk of war crimes to be farcical. It would be comical if so many people did not take the notion so seriously. .... What has happened in the last hundred years is a Quixotic attempt to civilize war, an activity that is inherently uncivilized. The right of the victors would have sufficed perfectly to put the perpetrators of the holocaust against a wall but for some reason, the West felt the need for legalized vengeance. ... There was no need to justify the destruction of Dresden, it was an enemy city and thus subject to attack. The severity of said attack was and is irrelevant. There is no such concept of proportionality in warfare, nor should their be. Warfare is doing what you think you need to do to compel your enemy to submit; no more and no less.
So what it seems like you are saying is that since the intent of war is to defeat the opposition through gross acts of violence to begin with, attempting to qualify the types of violence along degrees of propriety is pointless and irrelevant.I can understand this line of reasoning, but I still must ask if you see any way of distinguishing various acts of war which would result in disparate treatment of enemy POWs or nations - for example, there are acts which are within the discretion of the actor. Rather than the firebombing of Dresden, what if infantry moves into a city and intentionally rapes all the women and intentionally lets some of them live so as to spread the horror stories of the aggressor, thereby causing other cities to submit? Or what if an aggressor moves in a city and begins executing civilians - including children, disables, elderly - en masse in order to break the spirit of the conquered? I presume that these methods would be effective in achieving the larger goal of victory, yet they are done in ways that violate standards which may be presumed retained even in times of war. Basically, what I'm asking is whether you think there are any limits to the degrees of warring acts, or if it's an all-or-nothing scenario.April 3, 2013 at 9:04 am #28510
It depends on the type of war. There are essentially two; limited and unlimited wars. The deciding factor is the objective of the belligerents. A war can be limited for one army and unlimited for the other. Iraq is an example of this. It was a limited war for the US but unlimited for Saddam because the survival of himself and his regime rode on victory.Within those broad types of war pretty much anything goes that advances the objective of the belligerents. There are limits to what is acceptable but those limits are based on what the belligerents determine and nothing else. For example, in general prisoners are not killed although they are completely within the power of their captors and thus subject to summary execution. Prisoners are mostly not killed because if we start killing prisoners then the other side will start killing our men they have captured, it is self-limiting.But essentially you are right, anything goes. The nice guy often does not win. War is the ultimate Hobbesian situation and those with scruples who refuse to do the hard or distasteful things lose or win only partial victories. That being said, every war is different and so is every situation so the maximum use of force is not always appropriate. The amount of force used must be tailored to each situation with only that amount of force being used that is required to accomplish the mission. Calculating the right amount of force is the most difficult thing to do and in the modern era most Westerners have erred on the side of not using enough force.April 3, 2013 at 3:17 pm #28511
That being said, every war is different and so is every situation so the maximum use of force is not always appropriate. The amount of force used must be tailored to each situation with only that amount of force being used that is required to accomplish the mission. Calculating the right amount of force is the most difficult thing to do and in the modern era most Westerners have erred on the side of not using enough force.
So if a side exceeds the appropriate amount of force for a particular situation, should it be held accountable later on? It seems to me that this is the nature of the so-called "war crime"; whether artificially-crafted or not, there is a limit as to the types of actions one side may take within its larger mission. We could take an example of the army that rapes a town's women as part of its intimidation techniques. It has no real direct military purpose and is a gross violation of a human right. After the war is over, should the nation (whether on the winning or losing side) be punished/treated more harshly for this type of action by the rest of the community of nations? It seems to me that this is the basic idea of the "war crime"; society as a whole recognizes the tragedy of war but also recognizes that even in the midst of it, there are limits which may be collectively agreed upon.April 3, 2013 at 5:41 pm #28512
i think what opens the firebombing of Dresden up to a serious critical discussion is the fact that is was against a civilian population. To my knowledge, albeit limited, Dresden did not present much in the way of a military or industrial target. The objective, to terrorize and demoralize the civilian population. A sort of “Shock and Awe” before the phrase was coined. This style of warfare goes to the beginning of time, Genghis Khan was a firm proponent. Although i do not believe war was brought to civilians in the massive modern scale until the Second World War. However, the problem comes when one side judges another side, whilst performing the same actions themselves, and only because they won do they limit their own responsibilities while criminalizing the actions of the losing side. Therein lies the proverbial rub.i both agree with Phidippides, in that there must be some rules to war, however theoretical they may be. And Scout, whom i paraphrase, that it is a quixotic attempt to civilize something that is inherently uncivilized. And Sherman, "War is hell. And I intend to prove it."but thats just my opinion.April 3, 2013 at 6:05 pm #28513
I'm not that knowledgeable on the topic either, but most everything I've read about it says Dresden was a major industrial and communications hub for the Nazis.April 3, 2013 at 6:46 pm #28514
Phid, what I am saying is that each belligerent determines what they think is the appropriate level of force. Right and wrong have nothing to do with it; it is a question of winning or losing. Not seeing or failing to recognize that fact is what has doomed western armies to failure in every insurgency since WWII. And yes, I consider Iraq and Afghanistan both failures in general. In both places we let our moral qualms get in the way of effectively prosecuting the wars. In the process we kept our humanity but the fact remains that if we had been willing to round up and execute the families of insurgents we could have decisively won in both places. The nature of both cultures is that they are family and tribally oriented and a real threat to the continued existence of either would be an extremely effective way to ensure control of the country. It worked for Saddam for almost 35 years, why would it not work for us?The only method of enforcement on the battlefield is terror and terror is what generally keeps armies from going hog wild. The terror that the same thing they are doing are doing could be done to them or theirs. It really is that simple.April 3, 2013 at 11:14 pm #28515
Phid, what I am saying is that each belligerent determines what they think is the appropriate level of force. Right and wrong have nothing to do with it; it is a question of winning or losing. Not seeing or failing to recognize that fact is what has doomed western armies to failure in every insurgency since WWII. And yes, I consider Iraq and Afghanistan both failures in general. In both places we let our moral qualms get in the way of effectively prosecuting the wars. In the process we kept our humanity but the fact remains that if we had been willing to round up and execute the families of insurgents we could have decisively won in both places. The nature of both cultures is that they are family and tribally oriented and a real threat to the continued existence of either would be an extremely effective way to ensure control of the country. It worked for Saddam for almost 35 years, why would it not work for us?The only method of enforcement on the battlefield is terror and terror is what generally keeps armies from going hog wild. The terror that the same thing they are doing are doing could be done to them or theirs. It really is that simple.
My view is that I hope war is not simply about winning or losing, and that rightness and wrongness are quite relevant in this discussion. Yes, I realize that may seem counter-intuitive to the very notion of entering war in the first place - no one enters to lose - but I think it is necessary if we are to rightly call ourselves rational animals. If winning were the only criteria, then we should have no qualms about nuking any nation which poses a threat. It would, after all, be the quickest and most efficient way of neutralizing an enemy's force's and spirit. I should point out that I am speaking about the philosophical principles of waging war, rather than to specific instances post-WWII (or of Dresden). It may very well be the case that facing insurgencies requires a stronger hand than we have used in the past, but I do not see how executing the families of insurgents leads to a just outcome. Executing innocent people in order to stop guilty insurgents would seem to put us in the realm of those same insurgents who violate principles of justice themselves. At what point would we turn into the very monsters that we claim to be fighting against?April 4, 2013 at 11:09 am #28516
I think the main problem or area of divergence is that our concepts of what war is are different. You seem to be talking more about what war should be than what it really is. I try and take a realistic approach to looking at war. Humanistic principles are OK if both sides to a conflict agree upon them. It is when they don't that brute force comes into play.Example 1: Siege WarfareIn the Middle Ages it was common for besiegers to ask for the surrender of a besieged town or castle once it had been fully invested. If the besieged took this opportunity the surrender was generally negotiated and the besieged wer allowed to leave with an agreed upon amount of goods and normally on payment of a ransom. These are the terms Saladin demanded after he took Jerusalem in 1187
"After lengthy negotiations, an agreement was reached between Salah al-Din and the Latins according to which they were granted safe conduct to leave the city, provided that each male paid a ransom of ten dinars, each female paid five dinars, and each child was ransomed for two dinars. All those who paid their ransom within forty days were allowed to leave the city, while those who could not ransom themselves were to be enslaved." source
That was not unusual. However, if the besieged refused to surrender once the place was invested and defeat was only a matter of time, for whatever reason, a relieving force was on the way, the enemy camp had disease, or winter was coming, etc. then once the besieger took the town or castle the lives and property of everyone in the place was forfeit and it was liable to be sacked. That is where you get the stories such as Jerusalem in 1099, Carcassone in 1209 or the sack of Magdeburg in 1631. The rules were known to all and the besieged threw the dice if they refused surrender. Not all sieges ended badly for the defender. I think I remember reading somewhere that less than 50% of medieval sieges were successfully concluded.Example 2: ParoleParole as a concept goes back to classical times. It is essentially when captured troops are released on their word of honor that they will not reenter the current war. The caveat is that if previously paroled troops were recaptured they were subject to summary execution. Parole was used in the West until WWI. The last time I am aware of parole being used by a Western nation is by the British in the Boer War.There are other common rules that fi the traditional Law of War and are not in the Geneva Conventions. One that would be called a war crime today is the doctrine of reprisal. Which, if you really think about it, reprisal is the only effective method of retaliating for violations of typical conventions of war. Another thing is the farcical notion that an absolute right to surrender exists. It does not. Surrender does not have to be accepted and thus take no prisoner orders are legal, even under the Geneva Conventions. Those that violate surrender are liable to be summarily executed and to cause their comrades surrender to be refused.At the risk of engaging in metaphysics: What is justice? It is a subjective term and depends very much on cultural norms. Just compare the criminal punishments of various nations for the same crimes (theft for instance) and you will see exactly what I am talking about. To paraphrase, the only Just War is the one that my side wins.April 4, 2013 at 1:54 pm #28517
Ok, I will agree that I am arguing for what war should be rather than what it really is, but this is no different from something like the law in general; police on the streets/victims/defendants may have a view of how the law should be, but they are not the ones who decide. They may have valuable input, but they are not necessarily neutral observers. If justice guiding wartime activities is all subjective and the decision of the actor, then morality turns into a will to power, and thus an activity in moral relativism, which I dispute.With that said, I concede that you have a good point about the problematic nature of trying to adhere to "rules" to which the enemy does not, thereby making accomplishing the objective difficult if not impossible. Are stronger measures merited when the enemy does not abide by these rules? Yes, I think so, but I still do not see how the violation of universal norms of justice could be considered justified. I believe it was Socrates who coined one of the most useful guidelines for justice, when it said it was always wrong to commit injustice, but never wrong to suffer it. I can see this issue is a complex one that we are barely able to begin addressing here.April 4, 2013 at 5:40 pm #28518
Give me a universal norm of justice and I will give you examples where that norm has been ignored or violated at will. Such norms are a pipe dream and those dreams don't come out of a tobacco pipe.April 4, 2013 at 6:15 pm #28519
Give me a universal norm of justice and I will give you examples where that norm has been ignored or violated at will. Such norms are a pipe dream and those dreams don't come out of a tobacco pipe.
Do not intentionally kill innocent human life. That is a universal rule that I think governs our humanity.I am not saying this is universally followed, but it is a universal rule that everyone ought to abide by. If you were asking whether there are any rules that are universally followed, then I don't think there are any, since any group can potentially define its own rules if it so chooses. But what is done and what should be done are two separate things. I fully realize that there are those who do not act morally and who break all sorts of moral rules in the name of war, but I don't think that give us the right to stoop to their level.I guess at the end of the day, nations need to decide whether they want to act morally or not. If nations decide to behave according to the lowest common denominator of what is done rather than what should be done, then I fear humanity is lost.April 5, 2013 at 8:06 am #28520
Do not intentionally kill innocent human life.
You are right that it should be a universal rule but sadly, it is not. Let me list examples where it is not:1. Muslim culture: the blood debt is alive and well there and children are killed because they are potential threats later as they seek vengeance. I have personally seen that occur in Iraq.2. It was common in medieval sacks to kill even the women and children. It was derided at the time but still done because killing the children stopped later attempts at revenge.In a perfect world there would be a universal justice. Sadly, we live in a far from perfect world. We can only operate on the basis of the world we live in, not the world as we would have it. We can strive for the ideal and we should. But that does not change reality.
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