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  • Reverend James Squire

War Crimes

It is important to know about war crimes as they have been mentioned frequently in the news. The United States will request that Russia should be held accountable for war crimes so it is important for everyone to understand what constitutes a war crime, and how we could end the war rather quickly. It is a complex subject. Here are the reasons that a person or country can be guilty of this offense. Sometimes it is both such as Hitler and Germany.

War crimes are subject to the following guidelines: killing of civilians, the unnecessary destruction of property, if there is unnecessary suffering, whether there is proportionality in fighting the war such as the duty of a country not to have a “scorched earth policy”, and the deportation of a country’s civilians. There are more examples, but it is evident that Russia has checked all the boxes that I have just mentioned.

The Geneva Convention has determined what is acceptable human behavior on the international stage. The International Criminal Court based in the Hague in the Netherlands provides a vehicle for determining war crimes and punishment.

One of the most widely known trials related to war crimes is the trial that determined the guilt of the Nazis for their behavior in conducting the Second World War particularly regarding the Holocaust. I want to cite two ethical cases which caused great debate which was one of the reasons that bioethics came into existence for the Nuremberg Trial introduced the ethical issue referred to as the Nuremberg Defense. The second example occurred during the Vietnam War. It was the My Lai Massacre and the trial of Lieutenant William Calley.

The Nuremberg Defense basically did not hold up in court as the Nazi officers who were indicted said that “they were just following orders.” Given the guidelines for war, you couldn’t take that position. The soldier or officer had a duty not to act on orders that he knew were wrong.

Consider this. There are many news reports that indicate that the Russian military feels that what they are doing is wrong and have expressed that. Notice that Putin keeps using the term “Special Military Mission.” I don’t believe that the people who bombed hospitals and schools would be quick to do those actions if they knew that one day that they would be accountable for them. I don’t think that the average Russian soldier knows that.The Nuremberg Defense is no defense at all particularly for the officers or decision makers.

In addition, there is the case of the My Lai Massacre during which some 500 people who inhabited a village were slaughtered by Lieutenant Calley and his men. Young girls and women were raped before they were killed. In addition to this crime against humanity, the American public didn’t know about it for 20 months. When it was discovered, American citizens were angry at the lack of transparency and lost more trust in the government.

When we studied the My Lai Massacre in my ethics class, the students were a bit torn as we described the issues on both sides of the tragedy. Calley’s lawyers outlined several facts. The Vietnam War was not fought in a conventional way which meant that it didn’t fit the criteria of a just war. Calley’s defense was that he and his troops had seen their comrades butchered by the opposition. They learned that the people in the village behaved as common citizens during the day, but they were killing his troops after dark. He snapped. On the other side of the ethical argument is the reasonable person standard. If twelve ordinary citizens viewed this action, what would they think? They did not side with Calley. He was found guilty of a war crime, court marshalled, and was required to live for three years under house arrest until he was released. A dozen servicemen were charged but only Calley was convicted.

The outcome divided the nation.

I would like to suggest that we figure out a way to drop flyers onto the Russian troops that describes war crimes and their role in perpetuating these crimes against humanity and their liability for their actions. However, the soldier is caught between a rock and a hard place as they must obey their commanding officers or else. They can’t use the excuse that somebody told me to do it. What tilts the argument against the soldier is that most people can tell what a extreme crime looks like. The soldiers are seeing more examples than they need to make a decision.

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