Monday, June 23, 2008


The Haditha killings, in which U.S. Marines retaliated against unarmed Iraqi civilians for the death of a comrade, has been in the news on and off for the past couple of years. This has led me to look at battlefield atrocities as they relate to different types of wars. To begin with however, it must be said that there has never been a war in which soldiers have not committed atrocities of one sort or another.

As I see it, there are three types of wars. There are those with the defined battlefield lines of WWI, WWII and the Korean War, in which each side had identifiable standing armies. Then there are those with ill-defined battlefield lines, like in the Vietnam War, where one side may be difficult to identify because it tends to blend in and out of the civilian population at will. Finally, there are those without defined battlefield lines, like in Iraq, in which an insurgent force can pop up here and there, and is hard to distinguish from the civilian population. Each type lends itself to the commission of atrocities.

The Japanese were guilty of the most atrocious atrocities in modern history. There was the "Rape of Nanking" in 1937 and the atrocities committed in the Philippines (Bataan), Indochina and Burma during WWII. Right up there with the Japanese were the atrocities committed by the Nazi armies in WWII against Russian prisoners of war on the eastern front and against allied POWs in the west. Likewise, the Russians killed countless German POWs during WWII. In Vietnam and in Iraq, American troops have also committed atrocities, although on a much lower scale than those committed by the Japanese and Nazis.

Japanese atrocities can be attributed to Japan's long history as a warrior nation with a strategy of terrorizing both enemy soldiers and civilians. German atrocities were motivated by events on the ground. When Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler's highest ranking SS leader, died in 1942 after being wounded in Prague during an assassination attempt, retribution was swift and brutal. About 13,000 Czechs were arrested, deported, imprisoned or killed. To teach the Czechs a lesson, all males over the age of 16 in the villages of Lidice and Lezaky were murdered and both towns were torched and plowed under.

To discourage escapes from Allied prisoner of war camps, the Germans would execute recaptured escapees. In one instance, they not only killed the escapees, but they also executed an additional 50 POWs at the camp from which their comrades had escaped. During the Battle of the Bulge, Waffen SS Panzer troops killed 362 Allied soldiers after they were captured. Near the Belgian town of Malmedy, the Germans lined up 113 American soldiers right after they had surrenderd and shot them down in cold blood. It is thought the Panzer strike force had neither the time or personnel to guard and take care of POWs, nor did they have any place to hold them.

In the Vietnam War, American forces faced two different armies: The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF), more commonly known to Americans as the Viet Cong (VC). The NVA was the regular standing army of North Vietnam which, while using some unconventional tactics, usually fought behind conventional battle lines.

The VC was an insurgent force fighting a guerilla war. Because the VC had a lot of support among South Vietnamese villagers, it could attamck American troops, then quickly dissapear into the civilian population. When guerilla fighters blend into the civilian population at will it is difficult to distinguish friend from foe, leading some soldiers on the other side to commit atrocities.

While the NVA and the VC were guilty of numerous war crimes, American troops committed their share of atrocities. The My Lai Massacre of 1968, in which up to 504 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians were deliberately brutalized and killed by the U.S. Army, was the worst atrocity committed by the Americans during the Viet Nam War. The residents of the hamlets My Lai and My Khe of Son My village were murdered because they were suspected of harboring VC fighters who had killed five U.S. soldiers and wounded many more. The anti-war movement in the U.S. gained a big boost beecause most of those killed in the My Lai Massacre were women, children and the elderly.

On November 19, 2005, in Haditha, Iraq, a U.S. Marine was killed and a couple of others wounded when a roadside bomb exploded as their convoy passed by. The Marines retaliated by stopping a taxi and gunning its five innocent civilian occupants down in the street. They followed up those killings by attacking three nearby houses, shooting dead 19 more unarmed civilians, including women and children.

No matter what led up to the My Lai Massacre or the Haditha killings, there can be no justification for such atrocities. But, I undetrstand why they occurred. As a former cop, I have experienced the strong bond that exists among the brotherhood of police officers. An attack on one is seen as an attack on all and the loss of a fellow officer is the same as the loss of a beloved family member. It makes you want to rip apart any cop killer.

Having served in the Pacific during WWII, I also know how strong that bond is among the brotherhood of soldiers in combat. Despite racial, ethnic or religious differences, and inspite of any personal animosities, those engaged in combat consider themselves family, look out for each other, and on occasion give their lives to save the lives of their comrades. The camaraderie among soldiers is the strongest bond there is and cries out for revenge when one of their own is killed. Those who have never served in combat will not understand this. That would be 99.99 percent of all Americans.

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