War Crimes, Genocide, and the Law: A Guide to the Issues

By Arnold Krammer | Go to book overview

strategically unimportant German city of Dresden, waves of bombers circling overhead around the clock and killing some 70,000 civilian inhabitants.

War crimes can occur years after the war itself is over. Long considered an integral defense weapon, mines are inexpensive to manufacture and impervious to weather, and they remain deadly for decades after the smoke of battle disappears. Consider the huge number of landmines that have been scattered in desert battlefields and tropical jungles across the globe. Millions of forgotten deadly mines lurk beneath the surface from Afghanistan to Angola, from Congo to Cambodia, from North Africa to South Africa—wherever civil strife has raged over the past half-century. Farmers working in their fields, children playing, and women searching for firewood regularly step on landmines and lose their legs or their lives. According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines’ Landmine Monitor Report 2000 (p. 23), there were new landmine and unexploded ordnance victims in 71 countries in the 14-month period from March 1999 to May 2000!3 Surely these acts of war can’t be fair.

The fact is that, since the beginning of time, conflicts have evoked acts of inhumanity that shocked even hardened soldiers. Such conflicts and their atrocities have littered the landscape of history as tribes, religious groups, and kingdoms have fought for economic, religious, or territorial dominance. Violent acts against noncombatants, women, children, the wounded, or prisoners, as well as the burning of crops and the senseless slaughter of livestock, have been viewed as a part of war. Worse still, these atrocities nearly always fail to influence the flow of events in the slightest.

The murder of prisoners after battles is perhaps more common than any other war atrocity. Turning back the clock to biblical times, the Assyrian Ashur-nasir-pal wrote after one engagement:

3000 of their combat troops I felled with weapons…. Many of the cap-
tives taken from them I burned in a fire. Many I took alive; from some of
these I cut off their hands to the wrist, from others I cut off their noses,
ears and fingers; I put out the eyes of many of the soldiers…. I burnt
their young men and women to death.4

Even the Greeks, with their historic contributions to the philosophy of democracy, generally killed captives who were of no immediate use. One of the Greek world’s greatest philosophers, Aristotle, dismissed the fate of Greece’s war prisoners with the simple dictum “Those vanquished in war are held to belong to the victor.”5 Aristotle’s student, the great philosopher Plato (427–347 B.C.), warned the soldiers of Greece that if any of them fall alive into the hands of their enemies, they could expect neither mercy nor concern.6

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