Thursday 19 November 2020

Why Are War Crimes Committed?

This week there has a judicial report released in Australia concerning the conduct of SAS soldiers who served in Afghanistan. The report said that 39 people had been unlawfully killed and that 19 soldiers were responsible. It has been alleged that those killed were killed after being taken prisoner and once killed that weapons were planted on them to justify the killing. So far no charges have been levelled and no convictions have been obtained therefore none of this has been proven. I hope the Prime Minister and other senior figures remember that these men are innocent until proven guilty, at the moment they are skating quite close to thin ice in their comments.

But it raises a bigger question, why are war crimes committed? 

People seem to have two quite different ideas in their heads regarding war:

1) War is clean and soldiers conduct themselves to the highest standards

2) War is a free for all and anyone can kill anyone

Which can lead to further conclusions:

1) War crimes don't happen because our guys are not capable of that kind of thing

2) It happens all the time so why pick on these guys?

But war has rules and those rules are very old. Over time they have changed and there has certainly been inconsistencies in how they have been applied. But thats true of nearly everything not just the rules of war. Soldiers (I will use the term soldier to refer to all military personnel) are required to obey orders and that means that they must follow rules. One issue that arose out of WWII was that a soldier can no longer say that he was 'just following orders'. Many people find this confusing, after all how can a soldier be guilty of a war crime if he is required to follow orders?


A Guardsman is on guard duty outside Buckingham Palace in London. His Colonel, the most senior officer in his Regiment approaches him and hands him live ammunition and commands him to go into the Palace and kill the Queen. The same Queen that he swore his oath of allegiance to.

What should he do?

Should he disobey his Colonel or should he kill the Queen?

There is a correct answer.

A soldier is required to obey all lawful commands, not any command. Killing the Queen is obviously an illegal command. What should the Guardsmen do? He should inform the Captain of the Guard as quickly as possible.  

An order to attack a machine gun that will lead to almost certain death in battle is a lawful command. Killing random people is not a lawful command. War allows the killing of particular people in particular circumstances. The killing of enemy soldiers is lawful, killing the same man once he has surrendered is unlawful because he is now lawfully under your protection. 

 I think war crimes occur for 3 broad reasons.

1) Crime in War

Most soldiers are young men, most crime is committed by young men. This is more correctly a crime that has occurred in a war. I do not wish to trivialize this as the crimes committed can at times be quite serious. But in these cases war is incidental to the crime that has been committed. 

2) Commanded Crime

The command wants war crimes to be committed. During WWI the example, Germans had a policy called Frightfulness, which mean that they sort to stop any rebellion before it started by frightened people into not rebelling. War crimes are used to keep people under control or to extract revenge and/or for some type of financial or material gain. 

3) We are on our own!

The infamous My Lai massacre was caused by this. A unit or group of soldiers come to believe that they are in this by themselves, no one else is on their side and they turn inwards for support. Which means that they feel that they need to do anything to anyone in order to survive and that includes breaking any rule that they need to. Theft, rape, murder, what ever it takes. Now rape is not going to keep you alive, or in most cases kill you, but what happens is that once the rules start getting broken then rules that are not required to survive also get broken. None of this is possible with proper leadership or with proper oversight, but what you find over and over again is that those things are absent.

The first type of war crime can never be stopped as it is a problem of human nature. In theory the second and third types of war crimes can be stopped. Current international law has made the second type illegal and proper leadership and command oversight can fix the third. In reality I think that none of these will ever be be a thing of the past as at heart like the first they are all problems of human nature. That does not mean we should just throw up our hands as the war against crime is eternal and that remains true both inside and outside of war.

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