Why good guys sometimes commit ‘war crimes.’
by Warren Kozak
[This first appeared as an Opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Dec 22 2009]
Five years ago a particularly gruesome image made its way to our television screens from the war in Iraq. Four U.S. civilian contractors working in Fallujah were ambushed and killed by al Qaeda. Their bodies were burned, then dragged through the streets. Two of the charred bodies were hung from the Euphrates Bridge and left dangling.
This barbaric act left an impression that our military did not forget: In a special operation earlier this year, Navy SEALs captured the mastermind of that attack, Ahmed Hashim Abed. But after he was taken into custody in September, Abed claimed he was punched by his captors. He showed a fat lip to prove it. Three of the SEALS are now awaiting a courts-martial on charges ranging from assault to dereliction of duty and making false statements.
This incident and its twisted irony takes me back to an oddly serene setting many years ago. When I was in college, I joined my parents on a trip to retrace my father’s wartime experience in Europe. We drove from France, through Holland and Belgium and on to Germany—the same route he had taken with the U.S. Army in 1944-45. At a field outside the Belgian town of Malmedy, we got out of our rented car where my father described something I had never heard before.
During the Battle of the Bulge, in the bleak December of 1944, the Germans had quickly overrun the American lines. They took thousands of prisoners as they pushed through in a last chance gamble to turn the war around. One unit, part of the First SS Panzer Division, had captured over a hundred GIs. They were moving fast, and they didn’t care to be burdened by prisoners. So the SS troops put the American soldiers in that field and mowed them down with machine guns.
Around 90 Americans were killed in that barrage. The Germans then walked through the tangle of bodies, shooting those who were still alive in the back of the head. The few that survived were brought to where my father was located in the nearby town of Liege where word of the massacre quickly spread.
My father was never a talker. And in spite of the fact that we were on a trip to look at his past, he didn’t open up much, or couldn’t. When I asked him what the reaction was among the U.S. troops, he answered without emotion: “We didn’t take prisoners for two weeks.” I immediately understood what he meant, and had the sense not to press the issue any further. I just looked out at the field, now green and peaceful on a beautiful summer day, and realized he was looking at the same field and seeing something quite different.
In the weeks following the Malmedy massacre, U.S. troops clearly broke the rules of the Geneva Conventions. Justified or not, they were technically guilty of war crimes.My guess is that the American correspondents imbedded with those troops knew all about this and chose not to report it. So did their officers. They understood the gravity of the war, as well as the absolute importance of its outcome. And they understood that disclosing this information might ultimately help the enemy. In other words, they used common sense. Was the U.S. a lesser country because these GIs weren’t arrested? Was the Constitution jeopardized? Somehow it survived.
You don’t have to dig too deep to understand that war brings out behavior in people that they would never demonstrate in normal life. In Paul Fussell’s moving memoir, “The Boys’ Crusade,” the former infantryman relates a story about the liberation of Dachau. There were about 120 SS guards who had been captured by the Americans. Even though the Germans were being held at gunpoint, they still had the arrogance—or epic stupidity—to continue to heap verbal abuse and threats on the inmates. Their American guards, thoroughly disgusted by what they had already witnessed in the camp, had seen enough and opened fire on the SS. Some of the remaining SS guards were handed over to the inmates who tore them limb from limb. Another war crime? No doubt. Justified? It depends on your point of view. But before you weigh in, realize that you didn’t walk through the camp. You didn’t smell it. You didn’t witness the obscene horror of the Nazis.
Rules of war are important. They are something to strive for as they separate us from our distant ancestors. But when only one side follows these rules, they no longer elevate us. They create a very unlevel field and more than a little frustration. It is equally bizarre for any of us to judge someone’s behavior in war by the rules we follow in our very peaceful universe. We sit in homes that are air-conditioned in the summer and warmed in the winter. We have more than enough food in our bellies and we get enough sleep. The stress in our lives won’t ever match the stress of battle. Can we honestly begin to decide if a soldier acted in compliance with rules that work perfectly well on Main Street but not, say, in Malmedy or Fallujah?
In his book, Mr. Fussell probably sums up the feelings of many soldiers when he quotes a British captain, John Tonkin, who experienced a great deal of the war. “I have always felt,” Capt. Tonkin said, “that the Geneva Convention is a dangerous piece of stupidity, because it leads people to believe that war can be civilized. It can’t.”
Warren Kozak is the author of LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay (Regnery, 2009)