War Crime and Other Redundancies

Image of World War II bombing of a city.

Image by Museums Victoria.

“Show me anything in war that is moral.”

–Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, commander of the British Air Force in World War II

If you visit the British War Museum you can still hear the voice of Bomber Harris defending his decisions to order the carpet bombing of Dresden, Hamburg, Cologne, and other German cities.

Cities. Not military bases. Cities full of war widows, children, elderly women and men, and people with disabilities. Even underground shelters were deathtraps because all oxygen was consumed by firestorms.

More than 35 years earlier, in 1907, the Hague IV Accords became international law, stating (amongst other things):

Article 25: The attack or bombardment, by whatever means, of towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings which are undefended is prohibited.

Article 26: The officer in command of an attacking force must, before commencing a bombardment, except in cases of assault, do all in his power to warn the authorities.

Article 27: In sieges and bombardments all necessary steps must be taken to spare, as far as possible, buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not being used at the time for military purposes.

Nobody except the Japanese followed these rules of war–they spared both the hospital ship and barracks in their attack on Pearl Harbor–but of course they broke many others, obviously including attacking another country’s military first and without warning.

Now we find Russia bombing cities, targeting civilians, while denying it. They claim to be only aiming at military targets and the world knows it’s a buck-naked lie.

In response, forfeiting all moral advantage, Volodymyr Zelensky is justifying the use of American drones to target Russian civilians in Moscow. He claims, wrongly and illegally, “It’s fair.” He says he wants Russians to know what his people are suffering by making them suffer too.

This not merely poor strategy (bombing civilians tends to harden resolve to fight on, as noted by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and other researchers).

It is illegal, and has been for well over a century.

And now, equally tragically, Ukraine is becoming even more of a war criminal nation, thanks to the generosity of the US taxpayer and the Biden administration. Giving Ukraine cluster bombs is giving them a war crime wrapped in a bow. The peace movement has been resisting cluster munitions since they were used to indiscriminately kill farm wives, children, goats, dogs, and even water buffalo in the villages and rice paddies of Vietnam.

This was our focus in my hometown, which was home also to world headquarters of Honeywell, manufacturer of cluster bombs. They are dropped as a “mother bomb” with “daughter bombs” that are released on impact, killing pretty much anything in a wide circumference, first used by the Soviets in 1943. Again with the civilian deaths…

So we’ve enabled Ukraine to become what they say they hate, a power that is fine with slaughtering civilians. What a proud moment for America. At least it’s bipartisan.

This is not my rationalization for anything Putin does. He’s a despotic war criminal orders of magnitude worse than Ukraine.

Nor is this any aspersion on Zelensky’s character. In any conflict, when an atrocity is inflicted on one party, the normal human emotion is to respond by any means necessary. But in the nuclear age, that cannot continue. We are flirting with an atrocity so completely catastrophic that leaders need to begin to learn how to rise above normal human emotional responses.

Instead, this is noting that, as with so many well-intentioned war efforts, it quickly become a criminal enterprise, growing with no good end in sight.

Tom H. Hastings is core faculty in the Conflict Resolution Department at Portland State University and founding director of PeaceVoice