The dark heart of war crimes
When I was a kid with my eyes glued to the silver screen, I wondered why Ingrid Bergmann and Humphrey Bogart were taking their sweet time in getting out of Paris. There they were with German tanks proceeding relentlessly toward them and the noise of artillery fire in the distance. But where was the Luftwaffe? Where were the Messerschmidts? Why weren’t they dropping bombs on Paris? A thoroughgoing bombardment might have crushed the French spirit and destroyed their will to resist.
Many years later I found the answer. It was indeed true that behind the scenes some of Hitler’s advisers and generals were urging him to bomb Paris and thereby bring the war against France to a speedy conclusion. It was Hitler alone who resisted. And it was definitely NOT because he was afraid of committing a war crime.
Hitler, the would-be architect and lover of Gothic buildings, knew that in a week or two all of Paris would belong to him. Why should he want to destroy his Cathedral of Notre Dame? Why should he want to topple his Eiffel Tower?
The Fuehrer was rediscovering what the ancient Hittites of Mesopotamia knew about wars. From their peace treaties preserved for us in clay tablets, we see their elaborate provisions for memorializing a truce by the use of war reparations and oaths not to resume fighting. The purpose of war, as Quincy Wright summarized with blinding clarity, is to win the subsequent peace. Most of the wars of the past millennium were army vs. army, and not army vs. civilians. It was General Sherman and General LeMay, as I argued in a recent post, who chose the latter. They reintroduced primitive and unspeakable barbarity into modern warfare.
We can think of the Lieber Code, the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, and the more recent Geneva Conventions, as laying down parameters for confining war to force vs. force and prohibiting force vs. value (value being civilians and non-military targets). The phrase “not justified by military necessity” is one way of characterizing the exclusion of “value” targets. War may still be hell but it is not pointless. (Even hell, as theologians envisage it, is not pointless).
So we come down to two competing mind-sets (as often is the case in theorizing about human action). The first is to win the war by destroying the enemy’s capacity to fight (force vs. force). The second is to win the war by destroying the enemy’s will to resist (force vs. value). The rationale of war crimes is to permit the first and prohibit the second.
And that brings us to the title of this blog, the dark heart of war crimes. Consider the case of General Curtis LeMay, who was the subject of one of my previous blogs. LeMay knew that his orders for napalming innocent women, children, and the elderly, constituted war crimes. He even boasted that if the Allies were to lose the war he would be prosecuted as a war criminal. These were macho words at the Officers’ Club after a half-dozen whiskeys. But it wasn’t braggadocio that convinced the brass back in Washington to let him go ahead with his napalming. Rather, it was a diabolic calculation. The reasoning was as follows: the one hope the Japanese can cling to in their peril is that we will obey the laws of war. But if we violate them deliberately and directly target innocent civilians, then we will destroy their will to resist.
In this way, the dark heart of war crimes is to violate them and break the enemy’s spirit. When the military command of the United States allowed LeMay to retrofit his planes with napalm bombs, pure lawless evil was unleashed on earth.