In criminological discourses the term “war crime” is a contested one, not because there are no atrocities committed at war, but because for some of us, war is a crime in its own right. There is an expectation that even in a war there are rules and therefore the violation of these rules could lead to war crimes. This very focused view on war is part of a wider critique of the discipline. Several criminologists including, Ruggiero, DiPietro, McGarry and Walklate, to name a few, have argued that there is less focus on war as a crime, instead war is seen more as part of a metaphor used in response to social situations.
As far back as the 1960s, US President Johnson in his state of the union address, announced “The administration today here and now declares unconditional war on poverty in America”. What followed in the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act, was seen as the encapsulation of that proclamation. In some ways this announcement was ironic considering that the Vietnam war was raging at the time, 4 years before the well documented My Lai massacre. A war crime that aroused the international community; despite the numbers of soldiers involved in the massacre, only the platoon leader was charged and given a life sentence, later commuted to three and a half years incarceration (after a presidential intervention). Anyone can draw their own conclusion if the murder of approximately 500 people and the rape of women and children is reflected in this sentence. The Vietnam war was an ideological war on communism, leaving the literal interpretation for the historians of the future. In a war on ideology the “massacre” was the “collateral damage” of the time.
After all for the administration of the time, the war on poverty was the one that they tried to fight against. Since then, successive politicians have declared additional wars, on issues namely drugs and terror. These wars are representations of struggles but not in a literal sense. In the case of drugs and terrorism criminology focused on trafficking, financing and organised crimes but not on war per se. The use of war as a metaphor is a potent one because it identifies a social foe that needs to be curtailed and the official State wages war against it. It offers a justification in case the State is accused being heavy handed. For those declaring war on issues serves by signalling their resolve but also (unwittingly or deliberately) it glorifies war as an cleansing act. War as a metaphor is both powerful and dangerous because it excuses State violence and human rights violations. What about the reality of war?
As early as 1936, W.A Bonger, recognised war as a scourge of humanity. This realisation becomes ever more potent considering in years to come the world will be enveloped in another world war. At the end of the war the international community set up the international criminal court to explore some of the crimes committed during the war, namely the use of concentration camps for the extermination of particular populations. in 1944 Raphael Lemkin, coined the term genocide to identify the systemic extermination of Jews, Roma, Slavic people, along with political dissidents and sexual deviants, namely homosexuals.
In the aftermath of the second world war, the Nuremberg trials in Europe and the Tokyo trials in Asia set out to investigate “war crimes”. This became the first time that aspects of warfare and attitudes to populations were scrutinised. The creation of the Nuremberg Charter and the outcomes of the trials formulated some of the baseline of human rights principles including the rejection of the usual, up to that point, principle of “I was only following orders”. It also resulted in the Nuremberg Code that set out clear principles on ethical research and human experimentation. Whilst all of these are worthwhile ideas and have influenced the original formation of the United Nations charter it did not address the bigger “elephant” in the room; war itself. It seemed that the trials and consequent legal discourses distanced themselves from the wider criminological ideas that could have theorised the nature of war but most importantly the effects of war onto people, communities, and future relations. War as an indiscriminate destructive force was simply neglected.
The absence of a focused criminological theory from one end and the legal representation as set in the original tribunals on the other led to a distinct absence of discussions on something that Alfred Einstein posed to Sigmund Freud in early 1930s, “Why war?”. Whilst the trials set up some interesting ideas, they were criticised as “victor’s justice”. Originally this claim was dismissed, but to this day, there has been not a single conviction in international courts and tribunals of those who were on the “victors’” side, regardless of their conduct. So somehow the focus changed, and the international community is now engaged in a conversation about the processes of international courts and justice, without having ever addressed the original criticism. Since the original international trials there have been some additional ones regarding conflicts in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The international community’s choice of countries to investigate and potentially, prosecute has brought additional criticism about the partiality of the process. In the meantime, international justice is only recognised by some countries whilst others choose not to engage. War, or rather, war crimes become a call whenever convenient to exert political pressure according to the geo-political relations of the time. This is not justice, it is an ad hoc arrangement that devalues the very principles that it professes to protect.
This is where criminology needs to step up. We have for a long time recognised and conceptually described different criminalities, across the spectrum of human deviance, but war has been left unaccounted for. In the visions of the 19th and 20th century social scientists, a world without war was conceptualised. The technological and social advancements permitted people to be optimistic of the role of international institutions sitting in arbitration to address international conflicts. It sounds unrealistic, but at the time when this is written, we are witness to another war, whilst there are numerous theatres of wars raging, leaving a trail of continuous destruction. Instead of choosing sides, splitting the good from the bad and trying to justify a just or an unjust war, maybe we should ask, “Why war”? In relation to youth crime, Rutherford famously pondered if we could let children just grow out of crime. Maybe, as an international community of people, we should do the same with war. Grow out of the crime of war. To do so we would need to stop the heroic drums, the idolisation of the glorious dead and instead, consider the frightened populations and the long stain of a violence which I have blogged about before: The crime of war