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What's the Difference Between War Crimes and Regular Old War?

Wikileaks' war logs show that international humanitarian law is less concerned with restraining military violence than licensing it.

| Mon Apr. 16, 2012 3:13 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Anyone who would like to witness a vivid example of modern warfare that adheres to the laws of war—that corpus of regulations developed painstakingly over centuries by jurists, humanitarians, and soldiers, a body of rules that is now an essential, institutionalized part of the US armed forces and indeed all modern militaries—should simply click here and watch the video.

Wait a minute: that's the WikiLeaks "Collateral Murder" video! The gunsight view of an Apache helicopter opening fire from half a mile high on a crowd of Iraqis—a few armed men, but mostly unarmed civilians, including a couple of Reuters employees—as they unsuspectingly walked the streets of a Baghdad suburb one July day in 2007.

Watch, if you can bear it, as the helicopter crew blows people away, killing at least a dozen of them, and taking good care to wipe out the wounded as they try to crawl to safety. (You can also hear the helicopter crew making wisecracks throughout.) When a van comes on the scene to tend to the survivors, the Apache gunship opens fire on it too, killing a few more and wounding two small children.

The slaughter captured in this short film, the most virally sensational of WikiLeaks' disclosures, was widely condemned as an atrocity worldwide, and many pundits quickly labeled it a "war crime" for good measure.

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But was this massacre really a "war crime"—or just plain-old regular war? The question is anything but a word-game. It is, in fact, far from clear that this act, though plainly atrocious and horrific, was a violation of the laws of war. Some have argued that the slaughter, if legal, was therefore justified and, though certainly unfortunate, no big deal. But it is possible to draw a starkly different conclusion: that the "legality" of this act is an indictment of the laws of war as we know them.

The reaction of professional humanitarians to the gun-sight video was muted, to say the least. The big three human rights organizations—Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, and Human Rights First—responded not with position papers and furious press releases but with silence. HRW omitted any mention of it in its report on human rights and war crimes in Iraq, published nearly a year after the video's release. Amnesty also kept mum. Gabor Rona, legal director of Human Rights First, told me there wasn't enough evidence to ascertain whether the laws of war had been violated, and that his organization had no Freedom of Information Act requests underway to uncover new evidence on the matter.

This collective non-response, it should be stressed, is not because these humanitarian groups, which do much valuable work, are cowardly or "sell-outs." The reason is: all three human rights groups, like human rights doctrine itself, are primarily concerned with questions of legality. And quite simply, as atrocious as the event was, there was no clear violation of the laws of war to provide a toehold for the professional humanitarians.

The human rights industry is hardly alone in finding the event disturbing but in conformance with the laws of war. As Professor Gary Solis, a leading expert and author of a standard text on those laws, told Scott Horton of Harper's Magazine, "I believe it unlikely that a neutral and detached investigator would conclude that the helicopter personnel violated the laws of armed conflict. Legal guilt does not always accompany innocent death." It bears noting that Gary Solis is no neocon ultra. A scholar who has taught at the London School of Economics and Georgetown, he is the author of a standard textbook on the subject, and was an unflinching critic of the Bush-Cheney administration.

 

War and International "Humanitarian" Law

"International humanitarian law," or IHL, is the trying-too-hard euphemism for the laws of war. And as it happens, IHL turns out to be less concerned with restraining military violence than licensing it. As applied to America's recent wars, this body of law turns out to be wonderfully accommodating when it comes to the prerogatives of an occupying army.

Here's another recent example of a wartime atrocity that is perfectly legal and not a war crime at all. Thanks to WikiLeaks' Iraq War Logs, we now know about the commonplace torture practices employed by Iraqi jailers and interrogators during our invasion and occupation of that country. We have clear US military documentation of sexual torture, of amputated fingers and limbs, of beatings so severe they regularly resulted in death.

Surely standing by and taking careful notes while the Iraqi people you have supposedly liberated from tyranny are getting tortured, sometimes to death, is a violation of the laws of war. After all, in 2005 General Peter Pace, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly contradicted his boss Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld by commenting into a live mike that it is "absolutely the responsibility of every American soldier to stop torture whenever and wherever they see it." (A young private working in Army Intelligence named Bradley Manning, learning that a group of Iraqi civilians handing out pamphlets alleging government corruption had been detained by the Iraqi federal police, raised his concern with his commanding officer about their possible torture. He was reportedly told him to shut up and get back to work helping the authorities find more detainees.)

As it turned out, General Pace's exhortation was at odds with both official policy and law: Fragmentary Order 242, issued by Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon, made it official policy for occupying US troops not to interfere with ongoing Iraqi torture. And this, according to some experts, is no violation of the laws of war either. Prolix on the limits imposed on the acts of non-state fighters who are not part of modern armies, the Geneva Conventions are remarkably reticent on the duties of occupying armies.

As Gary Solis pointed out to me, Common Article 1 of the Fourth Geneva Convention assigns only a vague obligation to "ensure respect" for prisoners handed over to a third party. On the ground in either Iraq or Afghanistan, this string of words would prove a less-than-meaningful constraint.

Part of the problem is that the laws of war that aspire to restrain deadly force are often weakly enforced and routinely violated. Ethan McCord, the American soldier who saved the two wounded children from that van in the helicopter video, remembers one set of instructions he received from his battalion commander: "Anytime your convoy gets hit by an IED, I want 360 degree rotational fire. You kill every [expletive] in the street!" ("That order," David Glazier, a jurist at the National Institute for Military Justice, told me, "is absolutely a war crime.") In other words, the rules of engagement that are supposed to constrain occupying troops in places like Afghanistan and Iraq are, according to many scholars and investigators, often belittled and ignored.

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