Saturday, August 7, 2010

What is a War Crime?

What is a "War Crime", anyway? "War Crimes" can only be prosecuted by the victors, who are themselves immune from prosecution. That is not a system of justice... that's a system of "Might makes Right". I am unwilling to spend time on the strategy alternatives that led the Truman administration to the decision to use nuclear weapons on civilian targets, AKA cities. It is my belief that the propaganda offensive convincing the American people of their exceptionalism has worked splendidly, and today the vast majority see the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as justified.

The very idea that there can even be such a thing as a "War Crime" should give one a powerful clue that as the Hague Agreement, to which the U.S. was a signatory (more on this latter in the post), stated: “The right of belligerents to adopt means of injuring the enemy is not unlimited.” I think that particular prohibition would cover dropping atomic bombs on inhabited cities. In having the concept of "War Crimes" and agreements such as "The Hague" means that the world's nation-states have accepted the idea that in terms of "men versus the mission", there are some acts which are simply unacceptable no matter how convenient or how many of the committing combatants lives will be "saved" (I put that in quotations because we all know about government projections... and people throw around some crazy and unrealistic numbers). If you are one of those that believes nuclear attacks on ANY CITY is acceptable, Please, please, please!!!... read that previous passage again.

My suggestion is that Americans that believed these bombings were justified are misinformed or uninformed or unversed in the theory of unintended consequences and absolutely do not play chess. WWII may be over, but the "Chess Game" is not. It is my fear that in using nuclear weapons on inhabited cities the U.S. has lost all moral standing in the future nuclear war. If you think welfare or bank bailouts has a slippery moral slope to them... they pale when compared to this.

As an American schoolboy learning history in the late 1960’s early 70's, my education on the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki consisted of several sterile pictures of the “mushroom cloud” that resulted from the explosion followed by some short copy about retaliating for Pearl Harbor and the subsequent surrender of Japan. That was it. No mention of people leaping into rivers to escape the fires and to ease the awful pain of their terrible burns; no mention of children’s skin melting from their bodies, suffering for what must have seemed and eternity only to die days later of radiation poisoning or kidney failure; no mention of thousands of “Hiroshima Orphans”, children who were sent to the country side to avoid conventional bombs only to lose both parents in the atomic attacks; no mention of the disfigurement of the survivors, or of the genetic diseases of their descendents. As a matter of fact, the United States prevented film footage and descriptions of the destruction and suffering from reaching the outside world, especially American citizens, until the occupation ended in 1955 (or so).

To be sure, the United States and its allies were at war with an enemy culturally incapable of surrender, that had attacked the U.S. without warning, and that had inflicted tens of thousands of casualties on Americans. The U.S. was facing the prospect of tens thousands of additional American casualties should an invasion of the Japanese Archipelago prove necessary. Would it have proven necessary? Was there a diplomatic solution? Were their other U.S. motivations for the use of Atomic weapons? Had the use of Atomic weapons against Japan had any effect on the “paranoia” of the Soviets during the Cold War? Did the use of The Bomb affect our standing with other nations? How did we get to this point, and why was it that the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had to pay with their lives for the aggression of the Japanese Government and Military?

Japanese history did not begin on December 7, 1941 and end on August 15, 1945. What were the events that lead these cities to their doom, and subsequent rebirth, and what unintended consequences might be visited on the U.S. in the future as a result of the bombings?

The Japanese Attack at Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941

In speaking with the “man on the street” (or woman, as it were) in America about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the immediate response for the most part seems to be summed up something like this: “Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and in retaliation the U.S. bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki”.

There is certainly a great deal of anger still lingering over the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and I must confess to sharing in that anger (no doubt an indelible mark left on me by my father, a member of the U.S Navy during WWII), particularly when I consider the fate of the servicemen of USS Arizona, the final resting place for 1,102 souls.

War is governed by international law, bizarre as that may sound, and anger has no place in the prosecution of War, lest we all become genocidal maniacs with no regard as to the purpose of hostilities in the first place, and only a desire for revenge through the death and destruction of any and all people associated with our enemy. Look no further than our current adversary, Al Quida and the attacks of September 11, 2001 to gain a picture of where that leads.

According to the to USS Arizona Memorial, the following is the damage assessment and casualty count as a result of the attack by Japan, December 7, 1941.
Navy 2001
Marine Corps 109
Army 231
Civilian 54
Total 2395

Navy 710
Marine Corps 69
Army 364
Civilian 35
Total 1178

Sunk or beached 12
Damaged 9

Destroyed 164
Damaged 159

The attack at Pearl Harbor, was disgusting, ugly, and unconscionable – but most likely legal as covered by the:

Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague, II), July 29, 1899


The Hague, July 29, 1899 [Ratified by the U.S. Senate on March 14, 1902] ARTICLE XXV

"The attack or bombardment of towns, villages, habitations or buildings which are not defended, is prohibited."

This would seem to say that an attack on installations which are defended is legal. (I did not say right, fair, ethical, acceptable, etc..) although the Hague Convention also stated:


“The right of belligerents to adopt means of injuring the enemy is not unlimited.”

I think that that is relatively self-explanatory. Is the right of one of the belligerents to use an Atomic Weapon on city filled with non-combatants limited or not limited? If not, what limitations were the convention participants referring to? Is there something worse? Let’s move on to:


“Besides the prohibitions provided by special Conventions, it is especially prohibited:”
a. “To employ poison or poisoned arms;”
b. “To kill or wound treacherously (emphasis added) individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army;”
c. “To kill or wound an enemy who, having laid down arms, or having no longer means of defence, has surrendered at discretion;”
d. “To employ arms, projectiles, or material of a nature to cause superfluous injury;”

Please note section b. of Article XXIII the word “treacherously”. Is the attack at Pearl Harbor “treacherous”, and, if so, does it constitute a prohibited war crime? If so, does that relinquish the United States of its responsibilities, legal, moral, and ethical, in its prosecution of the War? What about future wars?

Let us examine, once again:


“The attack or bombardment of towns, villages, habitations or buildings which are not defended, is prohibited.”

Was Hiroshima or Nagasaki defended as of early August 1945? We will discuss Japan’s ability to defend itself in August of 1945 in greater detail shortly.

How many Americans are familiar with the Hague Conventions? How many Americans are concerned with whether or not we have conformed to the standards set forth in the conventions as ratified by the U.S. Senate? Does anybody in our government see any similarities between the killing of non-combatants (civilians) by terrorist political organizations and the killing of non-combatants (civilians) by the U.S. Military?

More to come


I look forward to a spirited yet courteous debate with my fellow thinking persons commenting here.


PioneerPreppy said...

I will take a quick stab at this. The early to mid 20th century is not something I have studied much so maybe I am way off base but...

1. Weren't those early treaties only pertinent when both countries had ratified and were members of the league of Nations?

2. Didn't the US give advanced warning for not only the nuclear drops but a multitude of drops which might hit civilians who were close to military targets? Sometimes these targets were purposely placed like that as well?

3. I don't know about the rest of the world and I assume most of them hold the nuclear drops against us but I know China does not. I have a few Chinese friends one who I have known for years and her opinion is that the Japanese deserve anything and everything they got regardless of civilized rules because they didn't live by them at all.

4. Back to number 1. When did we as a people begin to think it was the standard to apply rights, laws etc designed for citizens of the US to the world?

Personally I don't see how the two (terrorist to military bombings) compare. One is an act done by a group made up of various persons from scattered areas without prior warning on targets of no military value. It is done in secret against an unsuspecting target. The other while typically done in secret is against a target that should be prepared because of prior war declaration.

Sometimes terrorist are called freedom fighters if they are all of the same ethnic group. Sometimes it really boils down to how popular the underlying reasons are and how large the group is which will hide the terrorist.

Have a nice discussion guys gonna be gone all weekend for the GF's birthday. I will catch up Sunday evening.

tweell said...

So, you want to talk about the laws of war, eh? I am not an expert on that subject, but have chatted with those that are.
First, those that flout the laws of war are no longer protected by them. The opposing country no longer has to honor those laws (we generally still do, but do not have to do so). After all, a contract once violated by one side is no longer binding on the other, and the abrogation of those laws of war is the only punishment available (unless there is an all-powerful group that can enforce these international agreements that I'm not aware of).
Allied countries are bound to their fellow nation's conduct. England was no longer held to abide by the laws of war once Poland's cities were bombed by Germany, although they kept to them until London was bombed. Once the United States allied with Great Britain, we were held to the same constraints (or lack of constraints) as they had.
Japan attacked the US without a formal notification of war. They planned to present the declaration of war simultaneously with the attack, but didn't get the translation done in time. Yes, it was an attack on the military only, but since there was no formal declaration of war, it was a sneak attack and broke the laws of war. From then on, we were not bound by the laws of war - our attacker had abrogated them. This became more so (if possible) when we formally allied with Britain and China, both of those nations had suffered attacks on civilian cities.
Yes, in the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden, the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we returned the damages of Nanking, Singapore and London a thousandfold. So what? The Axis could not hide behind the laws of war that they had broken first, any more than a person who does not pay you for the stock they ordered can complain that you did not deliver that stock to him. Also, this is not about a maximum of triple damages ordered by a court, this is about making the consequences of breaking those laws so severe that no country will do so.
Understand the totality of the laws of war. If combatants do not mark themselves as such, they can be shot out of hand as spies. This is to keep forces from doing such. Religious buildings are out of bounds, but if they are used by one side, the other side no longer has to obey that prohibition. If combatants are hiding behind civilians, we are no longer responsible for those civilians, any injuries or deaths that occur are due to the opposition. It is harsh, but kind in the long run - it's the only way to keep them from using that ploy. Yes, we're too nice, and it costs us in casualties. The United States could shoot every person currently held in Guantanamo as an illegal combatant, this would be perfectly legal and correct by the Hague convention.
Mr. Jeffers, you are wrong here, the US had the legal and moral justification to do as it did.

bureaucrat said...

Screw courtesy. :)

For a Libertarian, you sure have a weird way of injecting government-style bureaucratic regulations (which is completely anti-Libertarian) into your recent posts. It's a little bewildering.

There are thousands more pages of laws and regulations regarding the trafficking of drugs, and they are just as ignored as any international laws governing "how to play fair when you are having a war."

If we really do have another world war, the primary combatants will be the U.S. and China, and in 10-20 years, they may just bring us to our knees, maybe without even firing a shot.

We can scream for them to follow the rules and be nice to us defeated Americans. But with no real overall governing authority at that point (no "referee"), it's all going to be very "Libertarian." No referee is going to step in and wave their finger at the conquerers and tell them to "take it easy."

The Chinese know very well how to make people miserable. That's why we need to rethink this whole "offshoring" of our country .. ASAP.

Greg T. Jeffers said...

Tweel and Bur:

I am going someplace with this...

you don't have to agree with me conclusions and assertions... certainly not right away... I find this topic usually been burned onto peoples brains and is hard to replace irrespective of how much sense I might or might not make.

In my previous post I laid out the moral objection to nuclear attacks against unarmed civilian population centers... in this post I laid out the history of acceptable behavior of combatants both in international law and by nation-state governance.

Next, I intend to expound on why the bombings were such contravention to our national interests and security that Truman should have been hanged by the U.S. as well as by the Hague.

Truman's boomerang may be on its way back to us even as I write this.

May he rot in hell... but what can you expect from a Leftist administration?

Greg T. Jeffers said...


I am not wrong about the nuclear exterminations. They were out of bounds - waaaaaaayyyy out of bounds. Perhaps after the next nuclear explosion you will see it my way...

But give me a couple of days... I am busy writing the 3rd installment but still have my family obligations which must be attended to first.

tweell said...

Perhaps it is so, but as far as I can see you have not refuted any of my points.
The gentleman who provided much of my education on the laws of war is Col. Thomas Kratman (ret.), his website is He's a full time science fiction writer now, and often can be found on the Baen's Bar forum. He is much more knowledgeable than I am.

Greg T. Jeffers said...


Libertarians reject genocide.

bureaucrat said...

Libertarians are "cognitively dissonant" by definition. :) They deny or ignore 234 years (so far) of American government involvement in VAST swaths of human existence (from clean water to safe drugs to destroying "Hitlers"), and how those humans, for all their self-serving bellyaching, absolutely DEMAND government involvement in their lives (which does cost) ...

... except for a few "free-thinking" individuals, usually the types that have to be saved after the hurricane comes thru. :)

Continue your series, please.

Greg T. Jeffers said...


I would very much like to continue without you futilely attempting to connect libertarianism with anarchy.

Why don't you just stop so we can get on with it?

Greg T. Jeffers said...


I am laying out MY case. I am sure I can find a gazillion different opinions from experts on the matter - for every expert there is, after all, an equal and opposite expert.

I also do not wish to refute your points because your points refute mine - and I don't find it necessary to repeat myself. We have both had our say.

I have one more post on the subject.

John said...

When the state needs a treaty it will use a treaty. When a treaty gets in the way of the states objective it becomes meaningless. This is Machiavelian politics. There are no niceties. Only what the state wants. There is also no right or wrong. The state is always right. Just because you live in the United States Of America doesnt mean the rule does not apply. All successful states operate under the same guidelines. Just remember, morality and truth are subjective(there is no morality and there is no truth). Else how could you explain someone being a democrat?

In regards to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the simplist explanation is the correct explanation, the U.S. wanted to end the war quickly because world events were getting out of control(Russians and Communist Chinese), and the Japanese were inflicting ungodly casualties on American soldiers. My fathers unit had two left alive after four Islands. The rest of the unit(36 men) were replacements.
It is estimated the total casualties on both sides, if a mainland invasion took place, would be in the multiple millions, and more importantly to me, I would never have been born.

bureaucrat said...

Simmons dead ...

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- Matthew R. Simmons, 67, founder of the Ocean Energy Research Institute and author of "Twilight in the Desert", died on Sunday, according to a statement. Simmons supported the theory that the world's oil supply is running out. He passed away suddenly on Sunday and is survived by his wife, Ellen, and their five daughters. Simmons was the former chairman of Simmons & Company International, an investment banking firm in Houston.

Publius said...

Beautifully put argument, Greg.
Since I agree with you, I shan't argue.

I suggest that anyone advocating unlimited war, even for a "just" cause, read Thucydides. It didn't end well for Athens. The parallels between Athens and the USA are amazingly apt.

I will add that there is a big disconnect between PioneerPreppy and other automatic justifiers for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Libertarians and even many non-libertarians believe that individuals have rights that are separate from the actions and crimes of their governments.

Did all the civilians and children in those two cities give up all of their natural rights simply by virtue of being Japanese?
If so, we're all screwed. This is pure Hobbes, and pure nihilism. It may, however, be true. But if only governments can create rights, then I suggest we all head for the hills now, rather than later.

Greg T. Jeffers said...


I was getting there... but folks keep stealing my thunder...

"Libertarians and even many non-libertarians believe that individuals have rights that are separate from the actions and crimes of their governments."

my verbage of that concept sounds weirdly similar to yours, but I like yours better and will use it with proper credit.

Fatkitten said...

The anti-Japanese sentiment which has existed in the US for the last 100 years and has abated only slightly in the last two decades is one of the most virulent racisms ever. Most of us in the age of 45 to 65 had parents who wouldn't even buy a Japanese car and were told that the entire country consisted of sadistic savages who worshiped the Emporer and treated women like slaves (well that much is true) until the US civilized the country by dropping an atomic bomb on them and then reshaping their civilization to more closely resemble our own. So if you ask most Americans about the bombins of Hiroshima you would probably get an answer like "the dirty little nips deserved it". Even now they are not really seen as our friends, they are seen as people without morals or ethics who steal our technologies and are trying to steal our jobs.

But then, the phrase "All is fair in love and war" was coined before the days of atomic bombs. If people actually saw what happened to the citizens after the bombing they might be inclined to empathize somewhat. It has been whitewashed.

I do however disagree that it was the fault of a "liberal" administration . The words "liberal" and "conservative" meant very different things 65 years ago.

And I would be interested in knowing what your alternative would have been had you been Commander in Cheif at the time of Truman.

Greg T. Jeffers said...


Sorry. The Truman admin was mostly the FDR admin... these were the socialist morons that rejected mathematics and enacted the silly social programs that will fail in the next decade or 2, these were the guys that rejected the founders wisdom in favor of legislating that life should be more "fair" (how's that working out?), these were the emperors that had no clothes...

What I would not have done is drop a nuclear bomb... the rest would only be a distraction.

BTW... the whole emperor as G-d in Japan? That was for the Shinto's... the Buddhist's, 35 - 40% of Japan, do not share that belief.

bureaucrat said...

Even under the worst economic predictions, there will STILL be payments from the Social Security system (at least 75% of current benefits). But since the Medicare/Medicaid programs are so stupidly run, and they are growing so fast, they will need big changes if they are to survive. And they will survive, in some form.

Greg T. Jeffers said...

Bur, as I have said a gazzilion times before, for the sake of brevity, I lump SS and Medicare together. And yes, medicare is 5X SS in unfunded liabilities.

bureaucrat said...

You will have to admit, Jeffers, that having the government pay every single Medicare bill that comes in immediately and not "checking" first is causing a HUGE ballooning of Medicare spending (it has more waste than probably any other Federal program), and that could be fixed immediately if Congress wanted it done. Every government program can be made better and spend less, if only .....

Defense/Gates was on the news yesterday saying it is going to start trimming its spending ... all it takes is will, and we do have that when the times require it.