Witness To War Crimes

Christopher Owens reviews the work of an author who witnessed war crimes and gave evidence in the Hague against those accused of such actions. 

Memoirs are funny old things.

Rather than looking at the author's entire life, and finding strands that keep repeating throughout, a memoir takes certain moments and highlights them above anything else that may have happened through that person's life.

Some will argue that this is a far more honest way to approach memories, as not everything is worth documenting (after all, who wants to read about someone's daily commute to work). But, at the same time, I can't help but feel like I'm being told a sanitised version of a story, careful not to upset anybody but making its point clear.

And I'm afraid to report that a bit of this creeps into Witness to War Crimes.

Throughout the memoir, Colm Doyle comes across as a stand up guy. A family man, and the person you turn to when advice is needed. Having seen action as a UNTSO member in Cyprus, Syria and Lebanon, he rather disappointingly only devotes a chapter to these adventures. Personally, I would have liked a bit more focus on this period (when Israel were implementing their 'Iron Fist' policy in the Lebanon) as it seems like there was an awful lot of situations that needed defusing, and it seems that the local Lebanese really took to the Irish peacekeeping forces.

When the story moves to Bosnia, he becomes an "ice cream man" (so called because the European Community's negotiating/peacekeeping team were required to wear all white) and realises the situation is far more dense in terms of history (he wryly remarks that, on arriving, his initial meetings with each side will descend into a history lesson as to why the other sides are bastards). The parallels with this country are painfully obvious, and give the reader pause for thought.

Anyone picking up the book hoping for tales of gun battles and tense stand offs will be disappointed, as they are very few and far between. Most of the evidence Doyle presented in the Hague was about meetings and communications. Interesting from a historical perspective but, with a title like this one, a tad misleading.

Doyle doesn't spend much time talking about how the mission left him (bearing in mind that the EC team he was attached to pretty much had the carpet pulled from under their feet, due to international recognition being presented to the Croatian and Bosnian governments without any of the conditions that the EC team was asked to negotiate) and, considering the diplomatic bureaucracy he details, it would be interesting to reflect on how he felt in the aftermath of realising he was being "used" by various sides, while still trying to bring a resolution to Bosnia.

Hindsight is certainly a wonderful thing, but a proper warts and all look at his time in the Middle East and Bosnia (as opposed to a standard memoir) would be a book that would dominate reading lists for a long time. As it stands currently, Witness to War Crimes is certainly worth a read, but could have been so much more.

Colm Doyle, 2018, Witness to War Crimes: The Memoirs of an Irish Peacekeeper in Bosnia, Merrion Press, ISBN-13: 978-1526736116

➽ Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

11 comments to ''Witness To War Crimes"

  1. The distinction between the Serbs or the Bosnian forces atrocities was framed to make things like spit roasting of live prisoners the actions of rogue militias for the latter, but systemic for the former.

    To make a general point, the prevention or prosecution of “war crimes” is another tool for war mongers. Even if there is fixed criteria of what constitutes that type of crime, there is no impartial mechanism to present such evidence before international courts. Westerners like to praise the media (or books like this perhaps) for “uncovering” the existence of CIA black sites where war crimes had likely taken place, but nothing happens to perpetrators or the chain of command that is ultimately responsible for them, and nothing actionable is exposed about current sites being operated.

    This is a long way of saying I do not trust accounts presented in books like this.

  2. Daithi,
    Valid point. We only see war crimes commited by our enemies. War crimes have always been an oxymoron to me. Expecting scared, threatened human beings to comply by laws is unrealistic to me. Noble idea though

  3. David

    So do we ignore the Assads and Putins simply because they are not part of the evil West? b(Do not get me wrong I want Saudi Arabia in the dock for the Yemeni atrocities)

    There is legal architecture to deal with war crimes, crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity i.e. the ICC,UN Genocide Convention of 1948 and the UN Responsibility to Protect Doctrine of 2005. Let's try and use it.

    Daithi D

    It is established fact that the atrocities of Serb (an d Croat) nationalists were far greater than those of the Bosniaks A similar symmetry applies to Spain in the 1930s (Franco outkilled the Spanish Republicans by 5:1; Assad vis-a-viz assorted rebels by 10:1)

    Franco never had to account for his monstrous crimes in the way that Karadzic and Mladic had to. It is my dearest wish that Assad will do as well; the noose or a firing squad would be a suitable end.

  4. Barry,

    spot on.


    no one's asking you to believe every word of such books. 9.5 times out of 10, you can detect bias and read the book accordingly. But even biased reads can reveal something. I have a book made up of soldiers discussing the conflict and an army chaplain (of all people) tells a tale about regularly finding foetuses in Divis Flats!

  5. Christopher

    And always remember that Britain and the USA did not (rightfully) declare war on Nazi Germany to save European Jews from the Holocaust contrary to what Tony Blair once said. It could never be a war aim as international law (based on the Westphalian sovereign state system) did not then permit military intervention to protect peoples at risk of genocide. That is why the Allies did not disturb transport links to the death camps as it was deemed that the Holocaust could only stop with victory over the Axis powers.

  6. Barry,
    You assume because because i am republican i am automatically anti western establishment. I appreciate the comforts that my birth place affords me. International courts were certain combatants are immune isn't justice it's politics. To put Saudi Arabia in the dock is to put the US in the dock. You are aware, surely that the US, Israel etc are quite often in breach of UN mandates of which you preach.

  7. Barry,
    there would have been few objections to the Allied bombing of transport lines to death camps.
    If the terrible war crimes launched against German cities by Bomber Command did not spark off moral outrage, bombing railway lines in Poland was not going to ignite moral outrage. Westphalian state systems protocol was no bar to assassinating Heydrich in Prague. But a similar argument was used by the UN and US for not bombing Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines during the Rwandan genocide: it would be a violation of free speech and a country's internal communication system. As I recall from my own reading, the opposition from the US to bombing Auschwitz was technical capacity and logistics, not out of observation of Westphalian treaties. Auschwitz and the Holocaust were monstrous crimes against humanity and the moral imperative was to halt them. The Jews of Europe were effectively abandoned to their fate.

  8. Only a complete lunatic would view the ICC as a just court allthewhile ignoring the fact that the biggest aggressor in the world does not adhere to it although it often uses it to target supposed enemies. A diplock court on steroids.

  9. David

    First of all, I did not assume that that you are either a Republican or anti-Western by default. I do not do personal or make ad hominem assumptions with people who identify themselves and make reasoned arguments that I may not always agree with.

    Of course Saudi Arabia should be in the dock not just for its atrocities in Yemen but for spreading the poison of Wahhabbist hate doctrines throughout the Islamic world. I have no problem with the US and UK being put in the dock for crimes committed during the Iraq War "The War on Terror". Yes Israel is in violation of UN Resolutions calling for withdrawal from the West Bank and end of settlement construction; the same resolutions also says that withdrawal should take place in response to peace and recognition declarations from Israel's Arab neighbours.

    Could you elaborate on your point on immunity of certain combatants from international courts?


    World War II by its nature signalled the end (if only temporarily) of the Westphalian principles of non-intervention in affairs of other sovereign states). The Nuremberg Judgements subsuming all Nazi war crimes under the supreme crime of "aggressive war". It did not specifically address the specificity of the Shoah/Holocaust. To me, acts of genocide are the supreme crimes.

    Btw, I accept your reasoning on "lunacy" comments and regret making an issue of the "L word"

  10. Barry,
    Am glad you have no problems with the uk, us being investigated. Maybe I assumed, by your writings you were one of those people who could only see crimes in other ideologies. If am wrong on that, i retracted it. Off the top of my head the US and Israel and am sure there are others who won't hand their soldiers over to international courts.

  11. David

    The US and Israel are not signatories to the ICC that is correct.

    You are right that many people who only see crimes in other ideologies or, more viscerally, the "other side". This was particularly true during the Cold War when Ronald Reagan praised the Nicaraguan Contras and UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick's notorious dichotomy between merely "authoritarian" pro-Western mass killing regimes in Latin America and the evil and "totalitarian" system of the Soviet Union. I myself remembering not wishing to believe initial reports of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime because it seemed to vindicate Cold War American anticommunism; when Vietnam ousted Pol Pot and was shunned by the West for doing so it was easier to frame that regime within the "correct" ideological narrative.

    The end of the Cold War gave the opportunity develop a global ethic of human rights free from realpolitik, the enemy of my enemy being my friend and the need to "support our son of a bitch" imperatives. The ICC, RTP doctrine, successful interventions in Kosovo, East Timor and Sierra Leone and ad hoc courts to try crimes of genocide in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia represented progress in this area but then came Iraq and the War on Terror with Assad, Putin and Trump reaping the rewards.


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