“War Crimes” a Concept with a False Dignity

The subject of war crimes has been on my mind lately. The concept of “war crimes” seems to me to have a false dignity. For one thing, because war crimes prosecutions are typically visited only on the losing party of a war — making them more like a theatrical extension of the triumph of the winners (like a victory dance or a taking of scalps) than an impartial judicial proceeding. And secondly because so little of the deliberate and premeditated cruelty and evil of war falls under its statutes.

If you drop a bomb from an airplane that burns a young boy, rips his arms off and leaves him bleeding and screaming in the rubble, you’re infinitely more likely to be awarded a medal than to be indicted for your actions. If you were to surgically remove his arms one-by-one in order to coerce his father into revealing state secrets, but you lose the war anyway, you might very well be brought up on charges.

The boy is no better off in either case, and the intentions of the perpetrator are not as different as they may appear. We’re constantly being told that civilian casualties are an unavoidable consequence of aerial bombardment — usually by people who think that this constitutes a good reason not to raise a fuss when it happens — but to me this is evidence of premeditation and intent.

If you know that aerial bombardment is going to result in civilian casualties and you do it anyway, then you have intended to kill civilians. You may believe that the cost in innocent lives was worth the results of this approach, but just to automatically declare this as if no evidence or argument were necessary doesn’t represent a defense.

I’ve heard the following sort of statement many times: “Of course we did not deliberately target civilians when we bombed the city. Civilian casualties are inevitable in any campaign of this sort.” The two phrases are in logical contradiction.

On the U.S. bomber Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan in an attack that, if successful, could not have had any result that did not include thousands and thousands of civilian casualties. Everyone who took part in that mission who cared to consider its results knew that they were going to be burning children alive, for instance.

Utilitarian debates continue over whether burning children alive is ever an appropriate thing to do, and if so under what circumstances, and whether the circumstances faced by the people who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima were among these. Along with these debates is a good deal of convenient forgetting and denial of reality. the Enola Gay is being exhibited by the Smithsonian:

[A] group of scholars, writers, activists and others have signed a petition criticizing the exhibit for labeling the Enola Gay as “the largest and most technologically advanced airplane for its time” without mentioning that the Boeing B-29 dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.…

The Enola Gay is exhibited at the Steven Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport in Virginia, with other vintage warplanes. Its explanatory placard is two paragraphs long and includes the restored airplane’s dimensions and the information that, while it was originally built to be used in the European fighting theater, it found “its niche on the other side of the globe.”

Update: A press release from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum denies that the Enola Gay exhibit doesn’t mention the Hiroshima bombing. The complete text of the exhibit display is included in the press release and explicitly mentions the Enola Gay’s role in both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

I don’t know whether to consider it a good sign or a bad sign that America is blocking out its memory in this way. Is it bad, because in continuing to deny these awful facts it may behave as though they never happened — or is it good, because in trying to hide from this it exposes that there is still a conscience that can be upset? (The denial of reality started early: President Truman, , called the city of Hiroshima “a military base” that was chosen “because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.”)

Several weeks after Hiroshima was bombed, the Nuremberg war crimes trials began. I’ve spent some time in recent days reviewing some of the history and the transcripts from these trials, and also that of Adolf Eichmann which happened many years later in Israel.

Eichmann, who as the head of the Jewish Office of the Gestapo was instrumental in implementing its mass-extermination policy, did not in retrospect think of himself as a war criminal, a murderer, or even particularly hostile to Jewish people. He was merely carrying out policies which represented the enthusiasms of people higher than him in the chain of command, over whom he had little influence. In a closing statement in his defense, he said: “My life’s principle, which I was taught very early on, was to desire and to strive to achieve ethical values. From a particular moment on, however, I was prevented by the State from living according to this principle.”

To me, this is a good summing up of our problem. I’m tempted to make more of it than I should. But after all, here’s Eichmann, head of operations for the Final Solution, on trial in Israel. He’s been confronted with so much evidence and testimony that there aren’t enough lampposts to hang him on as many times as he clearly deserves, and he’s asked: “what’s your side of the story?”

It’s no surprise that his defense is pathetic. On the other hand, I get this weird, perverse wish reading his testimony that he’d put forth something more vigorous. He’s played a crucial role in the cold-blooded murder of millions of people — how could you do that without a passionate need, an urgent mission that you could now try to convey?

Instead, his testimony is day after day of “I was just passing on the policies of my superiors” and “the responsibility for what happened to the Jews once they got to the camps was in somebody else’s department” and “I can’t be blamed for that — the choice was never mine to make” and so forth.

You get the impression of someone who never really wanted to butcher millions of Jews, but just happened to have been transferred into a department where such work was, he would say, an unavoidable part of the job. Why would a guy like me have wanted to commit such a ghastly crime? No, that was someone else’s idea.

To some extent, this defense is just plain unbelievable. There’s plenty of evidence that Eichmann not only knew what he was doing, but approved of it, and applied his expertise enthusiastically to making the butchery more efficient. But the very fact that he clings so completely and pathetically to these excuses as the trial goes on is enough to make me believe that at some level he’s telling the truth about his motives or absence of motives. He was willing to commit these acts of evil not because he thought they weren’t evil, and not because he was intentionally being evil, but because the protocol of his position did not allow for a consultation of his conscience to be part of his decision-making process and that was good enough for him.