Genocide and War

The relief on the Louvre stele. Photograph Source: Mbzt – CC BY 3.0

In the heady days of the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War, and larger wars in Southeast Asia, including Cambodia and Laos, millions of people took part in the great push against war on the streets around the entire globe. Here in the US, hundreds of thousands of men and women resisted war in groups and as individuals. We were on the streets and and in the jails, sitting in, teaching in, and in many other significant places. Hundreds of thousands of men and women directly pushed back against the military draft and the military in one of the largest examples of resistance in history. By 1973, when direct military operations ended for the US, followed by the reunification of Vietnam and the end of the war in 1975, it became almost impossible for the government here to stop the hemorrhaging of troops because of their refusal to obey orders in the field seen as useless. Acts of violence were committed against those in command who were viewed by troops as giving ill-advised orders to fight. Many soldiers simply walked away.

The majority of those involved in whatever form of protest they championed knew that killing innocent civilians was wrong decades before the euphemism of collateral damage was invented. We knew those wars had nothing to do with the interests of the US, or safety. Anti-communism and the projection of power half a world away were drivers of the war, and masses of atrocities took place that extended far beyond the hamlet of My Lai. 

Time passed and even as early as 1975 an antiwar organizer in Providence, Rhode Island lamented that the tiger cages (small cages designed to limit movement and torture victims used by the government of South Vietnam) he set up were not drawing the level of ire that earlier protests had. Many protesters were tired after years of resistance and the end of the military draft brought self-interest into the debate of the wrongheadedness of war.

Then Ronald Reagan ushered in a period of low-intensity warfare, mainly in Central American nations, that was soon eclipsed by George H.W. Bush and his intention of eradicating the Vietnam Syndrome, which was the hesitancy of people in the US to back foreign entanglements. Historical memory is short in the US. September 11, 2001 unleashed the unparalleled military might across the globe that reverberates today in places like Ukraine and in the attempts to eradicate the people of Palestine by our client state Israel. Could the US government, with the aid of the mass media, be underwriting genocide? The UN’s International Court of Justice has ruled that Israel’s war against the Palestinian people is genocidal.

What does history say about the limits of war in a world where the insanity of endless wars are visited against the innocent?

The Code of Hammurabi (1750 B.C.) holds “the strong do not oppress the weak” in war. In ancient India, the Mahabharata “urged mercy on unarmed or wounded enemies.”  The Bible and the Quran “contain rules of respect for the adversary…” “It is always a matter of establishing rules that protect civilians and the defeated.” The latter has become a footnote lost on the so-called leaders, governments, and militaries today.

Ancient sources seeking to limit war point to efforts for protecting the environment, protecting women, including from sexual assault, and protecting livestock. The major objective of war pointed to “acceptable behavior on the battlefield…” War was waged for the “sake of conquest…” “One should not be enraged toward an enemy who is not trying to kill him.” A Muslim caliph held that noncombatants need protection during war, a position that would come as foreign to many in today’s wars, both among leaders and soldiers on the ground.

The just war theory, a just cause for war and a just war, is based on the thinking of war from as far back as two millennia. Christianity produced criteria under which war could be justified. The thinking was that a grave wrong “could be stopped by only violence,” Augustine of Hippo wrote in The City of God. “No war is undertaken by a good state except on behalf of good faith or for safety.” But Augustine did not outline the criteria under which a just war could be conducted. Some observers see the melding of the state and religion in the creation of the rules of war. 

In the Catholic Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas was the major theologian in the 13th century to address war. Aquinas believed that a just war had three elements. War had to be fought by order of a rightful sovereign. There must be a just cause to wage war, a wrong that needed to be righted. Soldiers must operate under right intent by promoting good as opposed to evil. Aquinas held that a just war could be offensive, needed to be proportional, violence in battle was limited to what was necessary, and noncombatants required protection during war.

Contemporary Catholic doctrine holds that: “The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain. All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective. There must be serious prospects of success. The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.” Contemporary warfare makes a lethal joke out of those doctrines gleaned from Catholic theology. Contemporary warfare is a free-for-all of violence and the economic greed reaped from war.

Following World War I, the League of Nations (1919) was a failed attempt to protect member nations from aggression and a means to retaliate against aggressor nations. The US was not a member, and the League’s intent was buried in the ground by aggression driven by militarism and fascism two decades later. The United Nations Charter (1945) attempted to ban the “threat of the use of force…” Perhaps most recognizable is the UN’s Genocide Convention (1948). Although there have been many genocides before and after the Convention, the Israel/Hamas war and the International Court of Justice opinion on genocide against Israel in that war has been the most contemporary iteration on that atrocity. US support of Israel in that war, including a copious amount of weaponry, puts the US in a position of supporting a war leading to genocide (Guardian, January 27, 2024). The same could be said of the Cambodian genocide. Enforcement of breaches of the peace were to be met, according to the UN Charter, by an international force to maintain the peace (The Laws of War: A Comprehensive Collection of Primary Documents on International Laws Governing Armed Conflict, Michael Reisman and Chris Antoniou, 1994). 

The Hague Convention(s) of 1899 and 1907 held,”The right of belligerents to adopt a means of injuring the enemy is not unlimited.”  

“The Geneva Conventions are international humanitarian laws consisting of four treaties and three additional protocols that establish[ed] international legal standards for humanitarian behavior in war. The singular term Geneva Convention usually denotes the agreements of 1949, negotiated in the aftermath of the Second World War (1939–1945), which updated the terms of the two 1929 treaties and added two new conventions. The Geneva Conventions extensively define the basic rights of wartime prisoners, civilians, and military personnel; establish protections for the wounded and sick; and provide protections for the civilians in and around a war-zone.”

My friends and I unrolled out our sleeping bags in West Potomac Park in Washington, DC, getting ready for the May Day demonstrations of 1971. “If the government won’t stop the war, then we’ll stop the government,” was the motto of our protest. It was pure mayhem as the DC police chased us everywhere around the city with the National Guard there as a backup. In May 1971, we were not interested in any kind of insurrection. Our goal was simple: to stop the war in Southeast Asia. Although the demonstration scared Richard Nixon, it did not stop him from continuing the war and with vicious consequences for the people of Southeast Asia. The Cambodian genocide (1975-1979), with between 1.5 and 2 million dead, was not far over the horizon. The Rwandan genocide (1994), with one million dead, was farther away. Now, in front of our eyes unfolds the genocide in Gaza with the number of dead still piling up. There have also been other examples of mass murder across the globe, but not amounting to genocide. This species has not stopped since the fascist and militaristic mass murder of 60 million during World War II, which included the Holocaust, killing Jews, gays, political prisoners, and Roma. The better angels are nowhere in sight. The human species, or at least a part of it, got “better” at applying technology to war, including doomsday nuclear weapons’ technology, and gaining profit from those efforts.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).