Friday, December 7, 2007

Genocide and the Crime of War...

The doomed are transported in rickety boxcars. Though they must know in their minds what awaits them at the end, they do not rebel against the small cadre of grim-faced officers armed with pistols who oversee them. The trains arrive; the walking dead are disembarked, formed in to orderly groups, and marched off. It is still night; by the time the dawn breaks, they are arrayed in neat lines in front of the machineguns. The graves that many will occupy have already been dug in the muddy ground. The order is given. A whistle blows. The first rank clambers onto the killing field. At first they maintain their order, walking slowly. The machineguns begin to cut men down with short, ordered bursts. The rest begin to run. The machineguns fire faster. Over 5000 will die here today; but tomorrow is another day, and one can only bury so many bodies in one place.

Genocide scholars (and I shall deal with this lot in a later post) spend a great deal of time focused on the 5 million European Jews that died at the hands of the Nazis. What one never hears discussed is the OTHER 5 million German citizens who were sent to their deaths by the German government.

I speak, of course, of the German army; conscripted, forced by their own government to endure conditions that, imposed in any other setting than war, would be considered the height of cruelty- Starvation, exposure to extreme heat and cold, the mental torment of repeated bombardments; the mercy of death, when it came (as it did to 30% of these unfortunates) tended not to be surgical or methodical in nature. A bullet in the back of the head or a dose of VX sounds like a walk in the park compared to being shot in the guts and left to writhe for a few hours, being crushed to death by the tank treads, burned alive by a flamethrower, or being literally dismembered by a high-explosive artillery shell.

Of course, Germany was not alone, in World War II, or throughout history, in sending its citizens to a certain (and certainly horrific) death. Consider the spectacle described in the begininng of this piece; that was the British 8th Division on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

As Leon Trotsky wrote: "An army cannot be built without reprisals. Masses of men cannot be led to death unless the command has the death penalty in its arsenal. So long as those malicious tailless apes that are so proud of their technical achievements — the animals that we call men — will build armies and wage wars, the command will always be obliged to place the soldiers between the possible death in the front and the inevitable one in the rear."

One can make no excuses for the "volunteer" armies of today, except to say that to call them "mercenary armies" may be more accurate; a $40,000 bonus for 4 years of work is a prettier penny than Rome paid her barbarian mercenaries before the Fall of the Empire.

But most countries still maintain it is their sovereign right to impress men into service (the dubious service of killing and being killed) at their whim; I should propose that the root of all war crimes, and in fact the crime against humanity that is war itself is the notion that any State has the sovereign right to make war, either against it's own citizens, or the citizens of other States.

As long as the world at large accepts this foolishness, it's no use decrying the cruel depradations of war and all that goes along with it (including the narrowly-defined genocide term over which so many likes to wail and gnash their teeth, but so few are willing to act).

Anyone foolish enough to live in a State which they have acknowledged has the right to imprison or kill its own citizens (we call this Law) or the citizens of other States, (we call this War) deserves what they get, and would be well advise to situate themselves in a position of wealth, power, and authority, so that when the time comes for the strong to do what they will, and the weak to suffer what they must, they can hand out the medicine rather than take it.


Diodotus said...


You make a valid point about conscription.

But I think your Shermanesque comments about war in general are unduly pessimistic. Of course it is "of use" to place limits on war, and for two good reasons.

One, the limits actually do save lives when followed, and they are followed more often than you might think. (Even Al-Qaeda draws the line at things like cannibalism.)

And two, aren't there times when refusing to fight a just war may be the worst of two evils? The Holocaust is probably a case in point.

Cleitus the Black said...

My dear doctor... I shall begin by answering your last question first. Jus ad bellum? What nonsense. The justice of a particular war is a stamp applied by the victors. Let us suppose that Hitler had been left unopposed and wiped out, at his leisure, and by right of conquest, all 8.7 million European Jews. The death toll, and the concurrent destruction of property would have been far less than the toll of death and destruction levied on the world's population by the Allied prosecution of a "just" war (often by unjust means).

To determine the lesser of two evils, one must have a yardstick to measure them by; your yardstick seems to ascribe the life of an 18-year Jew who died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz has some greater value than the life of an 18-year soldier on the beaches of Normandy or the banks of the Volga. How is it just that one should die so that another may live? The current system of international governance supposes that it's one or the other. The reality is that generally, both young men die, and the historians bemoan it all at a later date. One should think we might endeavor to create a system of norms where all our theoretical young men might live out their lives to some happier conclusion than state-sponsored execution at the hands of their own citizens, or the denizens of some other land against whose shores they are cast to die.

In answer to your first observation, that "rules" in war are a good thing, I would counter by saying that these rules are best observed by and most benefit the stronger state. In the case of non-state actors who never had a say in writing the rulebook, and states who find themselves in a position of weakness, the rules tend to go out the window. This is natural, as they were designed to benefit the strong and protect the status quo. Of course it is annoying when your opponent does not simply fire artillery shells from a cannon that may be easily observed and destroyed by one's superior air power, and instead hides those shells in the carcass of a dead goat by the roadside and detonates it as a supply convoy passes. Most troubling, indeed, tut-tut, the scoundrels... Hasn't anyone told them that's quite uncivilized? Well, that's why we're there of course, white man's burden, and all that, must teach the Arab the proper way to fight a war...

Finally, as for cannibalism, I have it on good authority that people taste remarkably like pork, and any aversion to the consumption of one's fellow human is quite a matter of personal and societal morals, and has no biological basis... Al Qaeda draws the line at eating people? Bully for them! They're one up on the highlanders of Papua New Guinea, sailors adrift on the high seas, and marooned rugby teams in Chile. Maybe there is hope for them after all...

irprof said...

Your post says a lot which is true. Read Walzer on Just Wars: he mentions how soldiers are "put to it" by being sent to war, and makes the interesting point that this is why former enemies are often able to meet as friends years later: they recognize that soldiers on the other side were largely pawns, as they themselves were.

Yet I take strong exception to your suggestion that there is no moral difference between the Jew (or Gypsie or homosexual) killed in a gas chamber, and a German soldier sent to war. First, of course, plenty of German soldiers were supporters of the Nazi regime: conscripted or not, they had a hand in their own fate by supporting Hitler and his policies. As Walzer says, the put themselves apart when the put on the uniform; and at least they have some chance to defend themselves. Your point is of course valid that states sending soldiers to be slaughtered is murder in its own right, but this sort of moral equivalence without some recognition of Nazi evil (I mean, honestly, do you want to imply that the Jews at Belsen were the lucky ones?) does you no favors.

Diodotus said...

You wrote: “Jus ad bellum? What nonsense. The justice of a particular war is a stamp applied by the victors.”

No. It’s an abstract ethical standard applied by philosophers and, under the UN Charter regime, international lawyers. There are ethical differences between wars – even if you assume that no war meets the pure standard of justice, you can distinguish between shades of gray. War may be inevitable, but it may be fought for good or bad reasons and through acceptable or unacceptable means, and you can tell the difference. (BTW, the two, reasons and means, should not be confused. True, the West also committed war crimes during World War II, but this doesn’t mean that the war against the Nazis itself wasn’t fought for good reasons.)

On that point, you write: “Let us suppose that Hitler had been left unopposed and wiped out, at his leisure, and by right of conquest, all 8.7 million European Jews. The death toll, and the concurrent destruction of property would have been far less than the toll of death and destruction levied on the world's population by the Allied prosecution of a "just" war (often by unjust means).”

You are making a just war argument – that perhaps the Allied resistance was disproportionate to the evil that it stemmed. And this is a very interesting line of argument, but I doubt this is true. Bear in mind that Hitler was not after Jews or German minorities alone; and you are not factoring in the additional post-“war” atrocities that would have resulted from the consolidation of Nazism across continental Europe, nor a likely much bloodier war down the line between Nazi Europe and either the USSR or the US, once Nazi Germany had nuclear weapons.

It's worth noting that democracies do kill fewer people than authoritarian systems: for proof see the website of RJ Rummel, a political scientist who specializes in counting corpses.

You wrote: “One should think we might endeavor to create a system of norms where all our theoretical young men might live out their lives to some happier conclusion than state-sponsored execution at the hands of their own citizens, or the denizens of some other land against whose shores they are cast to die.”

It’s a nice thought – what are your ideas for getting there?

But in practice wouldn’t such a system make sense only in a world in which war were abolished entirely and that abolishment enforced – once again – by armed men and women, presumably now operating under some world state. Such a rule would otherwise be foolhardy as it would doom those who followed the new rule to submission under those who broke it.

Precisely your point, I think, when you wrote: “Rules are best observed by and most benefit the stronger state.”

Athough, US policy in the GWOT would seem to disprove this point. So perhaps we're both wrong.

Also, you wrote: “Al Qaeda draws the line at eating people? They're one up on the highlanders of Papua New Guinea, sailors adrift on the high seas, and marooned rugby teams in Chile.”

To say nothing of the inhabitants of the Nazi ghetto, who in the end developed a taste for baby buttocks… it’s amazing what people will resort to when they are being starved… whatever depredations conscripts face in war, relative to the civilian population they do generally get enough to eat.

And this brings me back to your original comments on armies. It’s one thing to oppose forced conscription, but in an anarchical world, aren’t professional armies dedicated to some basic code of warrior ethics a standard requirement for order and stability?

Key words in the phrase being “warrior ethics.” You seem to believe this is a contradiction in terms, but I say, just war theory stands between the na├»ve world of pacifists to which you seem to subscribe on the one hand (perhaps simply for reasons of polemicism) and the defeatist, Machiavellan world of your original post.

Cleitus the Black said...

My dear Doctor, Professor, et al;

(oh, the illustriousness of my literary opposition is well-nigh blinding to this foolish old barbarian!)

Let us not labor further under (nor lead others into) the delusion that the Allied Powers entered into the war because they knew that Hitler was "evil" - (another subjective label which the naked ape likes to apply to others of their species whose religion, race, social engineering agendas, etc, do not agree with their own).

Great Britain entered into the War due to treaties with Poland, not due to any desire to stamp out Nazism; France entered the War for the same reason, but promptly caved upon invasion and became a collaborateur with the Nazis; whose government and the majority of the population allied themselves with the "evil" Germans while a minority turned to an insurgency. The Soviets, that other noble Allied Power, were party to the invasion of Poland, and on their own disposed of Finland by force, and annexed much of the Romania, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.

The United States didn't enter the War until a year later, and again, "rescue of the Jews and Gypsies" was hardly the agenda; it is worth noting that a 1939 poll showed that only 39% of Americans felt that Jews were the same as other people; 53% actually believed they were different, and should be restricted, and 10% thought they should actually be deported.

By the time the Allied forces finally opened a Western Front to push into Europe, it was in large part done to prevent the Bolshevik Army (slowly establishing dominance on the Eastern Front) from routing the Germans unassisted and then carrying on to conquer Europe. Stalin believed (and rightly so, from a real-politik standpoint) that the US and Great Britain delayed the entry of their ground forces in an effort to allow the Russian and German armies to bleed each other significantly.

So, you'll have to try harder to convince me that some great bonhomie for our fellow man (Jew, Gypsy, etc) was the jus for our bellum when it comes to WWII.

Why, the notion is as ridiculous and unfounded as the oft-hawked fable that the American Civil War was "fought to free the slaves."

Which was the greater threat to the future of Europe, Nazism or Bolshevism? 680,000 dead Russians in a single year (June 1937- October 1938) and another 400,000 sent to labor camps; the Red Terror of 1918 claimed tens of thousands, but that was at least 9 million too few, according to Grigory Zinoviev - a Party leader, "To dispose of our enemies, we will have to create our own socialist terror. For this we will have to train 90 million of the 100 million of Russians and have them all on our side. We have nothing to say to the other 10 million; we will have to get rid of them."

So, then, was Hitler's war in Russia "just" because it opposed an enemy not only larger, but clearly as ruthless or more so than himself, with a social engineering and economic agenda as destructive as his own?

We will never know, but it is hardly likely that a Bolshevik Europe would have been a kinder or gentler place than a Nazi Europe.

This reply has gone on long enough, so I shall address warrior ethics in a new post and the foundations of a world state (capital ideas both, I assure you); but I shall take a moment to remind you that there is a difference between warriors (individuals who revel in combat) and soldiers, whose for whom the armed forces are a job, and will further note that again, rules, be they personal or international, are well and good UNTIL it is YOUR country that is occupied, YOUR family that is murdered. Then today's rule-bound soldier becomes tomorrow's insurrectionist, seeking personal revenge or a restoration of what they perceive as the rightful state.

We have had the luxury of over 200 years free from occupation (at least in the Northern States) - although the Redskin, that noble savage might disagree - but do not forget that we are a country founded by traitors to the Crown of England, bold insurrectionists who gambled big and won.

We have not since been tested to discover whether, if our standing army was bested in a "fair fight" - if we as a nation would cheerfully lay down our arms, accept the terms laid upon us by a victorious adversary, and see our national identity quietly transformed.

As always, I look forward to seeing how you respond to these pearls of wisdom for which I have forsaken my nightly nuncheon that I might lay at your feet.

Diodotus said...


I take no issue with your interpretation of history. You are however drawing from it an erroneous point. Just war theory has many tenets, of which "right intention" is only one. But "just cause" - the defense of oneself or others - is a different tenet.

Your argument against World War II being just rests on the claim that the war was not fought for those right intentions and you're no doutb correct. But that does mean there was no just cause or that the Holocaust should not have been stopped, by someone with the right intentions and using just means (which again, would no doubt have curtailed the likes of Dresden and Hamburg to say nothing of the first use of nuclear weapons).

Your original argument is that war by definition is a crime and that it is unethical to train and use young people in the pursuit of war. While I can agree that many wars involve criminal acts, and some may be criminal, to outlaw war itself would also be to outlaw just wars, and I fear a world in which no one may come to the rescue of the defenseless.

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