To be a War Criminal Presupposes a War

We've committed many war crimes in Vietnam - but I'll tell you something interesting about that. We were committing war crimes in World War II, before the Nuremberg trials were held and the principle of war crimes was stated - George Wald

In the wake of the decision by Martin McGuinness to enter the race for the Irish Presidency it is interesting to note a change of inflexion in some areas of media discourse. The Irish Mail on Sunday perhaps provided the best example last week in its definition of the decades-long armed Irish conflict as ‘our own most recent war.’ It was not committed to print in an unguarded moment; the term ‘war’ dosed the entire editorial.  This seems to be a purpose built innovation, constructed solely for the ease with which it will permit allegations of war criminality to be levelled against the Sinn Fein presidential candidate.

The terminology employed would have been less shallow had the war designation been made while the armed conflict was in progress, rather than merely ‘troubles’, a term the Irish Mail On Sunday professedly derides.  Irish society might have been spared the trauma of the hunger strikes and perhaps much more had armed republicanism not been given a booster charge by the events of 1981. Ireland might not today be staring at a situation where somebody from Sinn Fein, which got its first big electoral leg up from the hunger strikes, would be running for the presidency.

Those excruciating and fatal definition-contested days saw both the IRA and INLA denied the status of official belligerents so that the British state could absolve itself of any political culpability for ‘John Bull’s political slum.’ The problem after all, as far as the British were concerned, was a crime wave for which criminals not political circumstances were responsible. Ten men starved to death insisting that they were involved in a war to the monotonous but harsh drone of British officialdom, a compliant media in train, that ‘crime is crime is crime.’ Now it seems war is war is war and those who breach the rules of war should be considered war criminals, but only some of them, those on the republican side. All too convenient. Despite appearances, it is not just Sinn Fein who wants history shaped by the needs of the present. The media too is doing its bit.

‘War crime’ is a very emotive term that emits a stench. It is corrosive of the legitimacy war wagers seek to accumulate and conjures up potent images of depravity. It places the accuser on the moral high ground, frequently undeservedly. The power to define invariably rests with the victor. Meanwhile the vanquished ends up in the dock. Nor is it that the victor is wrong in describing some actions of the vanquished as war crimes, just that the victor all too frequently ignores its own war crimes. This echoes the old Czech proverb that ‘the big thieves hang the little ones.’

Much of the public attitude to war crimes seems to be informed by a ‘whose ox is gored’ mentality. There appears to be a marked reluctance to view actions carried out by our own team as a war crime yet ever so easy to see it as such when the side we oppose is responsible: an ‘our bomb good, your bomb bad’ mentality.

There are no compelling ethical reasons, only tactical ones, for those hostile to wars of aggression or imperial plunder to mount opposition to the category war crimes. That it is a concept currently applied asymmetrically is no reason to invalidate it. The transgression lies in the application not the idea. On the contrary as an idea it should be applied much more widely and fairly.

People have rights which all belligerents should be compelled to respect. To suggest the abolition of a war crimes category on the grounds that all the war criminals cannot be caught - and where they can the West-friendly will be pardoned - is to abandon many whose rights have been violated in the most ethically grotesque of manners. The logic, extended to domestic affairs, would urge the abolition of courts in Western society because they do not convict the greedy banker or the big thief, that they service a system that beats to death Kelly Thomas, a homeless man in Fullerton, outside Los Angeles, but allows Dominique Strauss-Kahn who sojourns in $3000 a night suites at New York’s Soffel Hotel, to walk free.

In challenging the hypocrisy of the Western political elites is it necessary to join them by abandoning the human rights of brutalised millions, by redefining their status as something other than people subjected to war crimes, and by embracing an insidious racism which holds that some people in the world are ‘pseudo human’ in that they do not merit human rights?

If it is necessary, then while it may allow our friends to avoid being tagged war criminal, it merely creates an unspoken understanding between us and our enemies to the detriment of our mutual victims – the true wretched of the earth.


  1. Food for thought Anthony,good post, I agree Mc Guinness a war crminal,Thatcher ,Blair peace makers its a f##kin joke.

  2. Is the soldier who disregards morality deluding himself and should he be held accountable for the war crimes he commits? Or is the soldier who acts within moral bounds deluding himself because in war he has committed to something more powerful than any moral argument?
    I feel you’ve made the opposite argument - that war should be subject to moral law - as the fictional character referred to here:
    This other argument takes the moral ambiguity displayed by most people regards war to its extreme. Here the moral aspect is so devalued as to be removed or exposed as never more than anything other than a flimsy cover and what is left prominent is war and winning the war at whatever the cost.
    It’s terrifying, but a dark, powerful logic and I wonder if it is at the real heart of war with any moral aspect no more than a fig leaf.

  3. Don't lose the war. Don't engage in war in a white suit seeking respectability.

    McGuinness now saying IRA attrocities were shameful and murder. He is already in the same boat as Thatcher+Bliar. Before long this Presidential race will have him like Mayers, on the total opposite end of the spectrum from his starting point.

    Noose in one hand ballot box in the other.

  4. The media has never been independent.

  5. AM-It wasn't the system that got that creep DSK off. The hotel maid lied on her application of asylum about being raped in Guinea. She lied about being persecuted and having her home destroyed there. She lied about her activities after the alleged rape. She was caught on the phone telling some guy that DSK was rich and she knew what she was doing. His accuser who was so talented at lying she should be recruited to run for Sinn Fein. Rumor has it even Gerry Adams was appalled at her lying. No one knows what happened in that hotel room but there was no way they could have proven rape beyond a reasonable doubt with all those discrepancies.

  6. AM,

    … or why throw the baby out with the bath water?

    I come back to Robert McNamara and ask myself why I do not think of him as a war criminal in league with the great monsters of the 20th century?

    Here’s a man who was instrumental in working out the logistics of a massive Allied bombing campaign against the war-making capacity of Imperial Japan that also deliberately targeted Japanese civilians, even prior to Hiroshima/Nagasaki, for the psychological effect upon the population (which is “terrorism,” by any definition) killing many hundreds of thousands. [And as secretary of defense he was later responsible, in part, for escalating the war in Vietnam, in which we don’t even know how many thousands of civilians were killed: possibly millions over the course of the entire conflict.]

    Was he a war criminal? By his own admission, yes—as he says, because the civilian destruction caused by “strategic bombing” during WWII was out of all proportion to what was necessary to achieve the outcome. “Proportionality,” not easily defined—and not objective or legally binding as far as I know—is then one limited means of evaluating “war criminality.”

    I say “limited” because McNamara’s self-condemnation was a personal, moral one between himself and his conscience. With such notoriously slippery concepts we’re left to the individual morality of powerful (usually, western) leaders who will never come before the International Criminal Court. Gaddafi might, but is he more of a war criminal than McNamara? Or Bush? Or Obama?

    I’m not sure that he is; but what may mitigate McNamara’s and the criminality of so many other western leaders is that however imperfect our democracies they act--to some extent, at least--upon the mandate of those that elect or otherwise put them into power, which must cause us to look to ourselves if we’re honest in assigning final responsibility in such matters.

  7. Frank,

    Very interesting observations and problem posing questions.

    If Clauswitz is accepted then war being the extension of politics/policy by other means would suggest much room for the rational decision maker. That process need not necessarily be moral insofar as all moral considerations could be thrown to the wind but it does not have to be such. War increases the ardour and ups the stakes but it does not by necessity (because it is politics) preclude moral decision making. Nor does it go into automatic pilot over which the participants have lost all control and become driven rather than drivers.

    I do feel war should be subject to moral law otherwise there is no point in being horrified at the final solutions that Hitler or Bagosora came up with; they would be just one more thing that people do in the course of war and morality can have no place in judging it.

    This ( seems to be a horror story like Thirty Days of Night, only stripped of the supernatural. There is no protection against the vampirism of war. The narrative is pushed to the extreme in a bid to assess human society through a wholly amoral prism. Does it work? I don’t think so? Have all wars been waged in such a manner? I doubt it.

  8. Ryan,

    There is much to be said for this. But had DSK been a Harlem black would he be free?

  9. Metamoralia,

    ‘I come back to Robert McNamara and ask myself why I do not think of him as a war criminal in league with the great monsters of the 20th century?’

    Is it because we all have our own preferred monsters? Because he regarded himself as a war criminal does not necessarily make him one. His conscience might have troubled him terribly. But his logic seems tight – the wholesale slaughter of civilians was a war crime even if it is accepted that a it was necessary to kill civilians. It was out of all proportion to what was needed to win the war.

    I don’t think Gadaffi is more of a war criminal than the US people you point to. But I have not done any analysis of it. I don’t think because we elect them it somehow absolves them of responsibility. Kissinger for example was part of an elected administration but he fits the war criminal bill much easier than many other US politicians. Quite often they conceal what they are doing from their electorate.

    I think war crimes are a type of action that people have a right to be protected from. And if they are not then they are the victims of war crimes regardless of who the perpetrator is. It is no less a war crime to be disappeared by Castro rather than Pinochet.

    Overall it is a very challenging issue and we are scratching the surface of it here