‘Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at that time… I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal…. Every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing. But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you’re not a good soldier.’
Today is probably the last gasp of one of those freak el Nino warm days of this winter on the East Coast of North America. I made sure to enjoy it as fully as possible by taking a long hike in the woods. As I made it to a high point overlooking a valley and a river I suddenly heard the cawwing of crows all around me. Looking up, I saw that at least five crows were circling directly overhead. Were I the superstitious type, I would have probably taken this as some sort of omen. Though, considering my disposition, almost certainly I would be more likely to view it as positive than negative. As it was, a downpour ensued and I made my way back home, where I am now. It is still warm, and I plan on using the BBQ for dinner. January in a sweatshirt sure is something. Needless to say, updating this blog was the furthest thing from my mind today. Until a certain confluence of events brought it together.
What was on my mind, as I made my way home through a density of trees, was actually the most interesting and unique bird-related memory I have. A year and some change ago I was on the final week before my viva, or oral examination, to determine if I was to be awarded a doctorate or not. I was in my apartment then, which overlooked a small car park tucked between two old narrow strips of buildings in center city Edinburgh. I was cooking and listening to Agalloch (a band I associate both with rainy weather and cooking, for some reason, so a common thing to have on when at home in Scotland) when suddenly I became aware of a a growing cacophony of bird life in the single tree right outside my window.
Going for a look, I saw magpies by the dozens, all perched in the tree and in the buildings all around, cawwing in unison in apparent mourning (or as I would learn later, perhaps after having committed a mob-kill which sometimes happens in that species) for one of their companions who was dead on the ground below.
Suddenly, a raven descended into the middle of this crowd. Ravens are my favorite bird, and while they, unlike their crow brethren, tend to shun cities, you could always find them in Edinburgh. Probably because of the nearby Holyrood Park and green belt around the city. There was at least one that was particularly common in my neighborhood and it enjoyed perching itself above ATMs and making rattling noises at people withdrawing cash as if it was the true owner of the bills inside. I do not know if the raven in this particular instance was that one, but it could have been.
The raven gave the assembled magpies a curious look and then proceeded to approach the corpse of the dead magpie. Quickly, so quickly in fact that one had to do a double-take to even process it, it severed the corpse’s head. Then it proceeded to dance mockingly about the magpie circle until it flew off-with the head still in its beak-to be pursued by the magpies.
I remembered thinking at that time, ‘I wish I was superstitious at times like these, because considering the nature of what I study I would not take that as a bad omen, but a good one.’ This memory, triggered by the circling crows I found myself under just today, was all that was mind as I got home and started to prep my cooking for the evening. Then I turned on the TV and there was Fareed Zakaria interviewing Nial Ferguson about Henry Kissinger’s legacy and his new biography about the former Secretary of State. And that got me thinking about the Celtic legendary figure/goddess The Morrigan, that battlefield wanderer who walks with the crows and ravens. Because as far as I can see it, to traffic in strategy is to risk conflict, and anyone who flirts with conflict flirts with the forces The Morrigan symbolizes. It is no accident that this dark mythological figure represents both sovereignty and death. Those are two forces in a close relationship to each other. Sovereignty is upheld through death, but death perhaps would spiral out of control without sovereignty.
This is a strange segway for sure. But Ferguson made a point I often made myself which I was happy to see on a major news network. War criminals are always a matter of perspective. The Nixon Administration gets unfairly singled out because of the turning over of the white house tapes the ageing hippies being unwilling to acknowledge the realities of the system that enables them to even exist in the first place. Or of leftists who think regime-toppling is something only done by Americans against poor wubbie socialists (though many today are fine with Sissi replacing the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, funny that). Ferguson made a very telling point that when it came to ‘illegal’ regime changes and direct military action it was the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who played much nastier, not to mention the later comings of Reagan and Dubya. And that all great powers engage in this behavior against weaker targets (the Soviets certainly did on many occasions). So on something so contextual, how could anyone use a term with universal implications like ‘war criminal?’ What authority are you appealing to which sets these laws and upholds them for all?
Kissinger, as a prime target for the basic leftists and baby boomers alike is often the first living person to be called a ‘war criminal’. Its a bizarre assumption on many levels. And considering the hyper-reactionary pearl clutching political culture that exists in internet politics, I am expecting clickbait lists to start appearing talking about how historical figures from all kinds of eras were actually ‘war criminals’, probably in some misguided attempt to apply humanist morality to an era where it did not even exist. Though I would say it does not even apply to this era or any in realms of strategy and foreign policy making. They are the Realms of The Morrigan.
If I was writing an academic paper I would here cite a long list of actions which have been popularly labeled as war crimes, along side with the political views of the writers in order to point out people others could claim as ‘war criminals’ in turn to argue with them about. The fact is, there is only one tried-and-true method of determining who is a war criminal and who is not:
Losing a war/needing a deal so bad you get your dudes captured and put on trial.
That is it. Victor’s justice is war crime justice. Now, this does not mean that there are people who did heinous things who got away with it who aren’t terrible awful no good very bad people. But really, if you are going to use a legal terminology you have to have the trial. And you are only getting the trial if you have crushed the other side into giving up their military and foreign policy leaders for your justice system.
Personally, I am happy to put people on trial to make examples of them for a variety of reasons. Your own government is removed in a revolution and there are scores to settle, or you defeat someone who was waging genocide and you want to clean house of such odious people. Part of a peace treaty is reparations and that includes turning over people from a former occupation. Of course, if we admit this is what we want to do the trial’s outcomes are predetermined, so once again, why so much emphasis on this faux-legal term.
No country in the twentieth century suffered as much at the hands of the United States than Vietnam. Yet it is telling in the Vietnam of today, a country where most people were born long after the war, the cultural zeitgeist is less hung up about US actions there than the American one is. One thing I was struck by when visiting the War Museum in Saigon (yes, most locals still call it that) was that while there were some older people who understandably gave us the evil eye, the kids and young adults were mostly just curious and interested in us Americans, even happy that we where there to see their side of the story. I cannot imagine Americans of any ideological persuasion acting with such magnanimity even though we were never occupied or our cities bombed. People with little perspective only get worse with age. Wisdom, apparently, is only something which can grow with time if you had it in the first place. Naturally a part of this attitude is that hostilities with China broke out shortly after America left, and ever since then for obvious geographic reasons, China has been viewed as Vietnam’s primary security threat, so they can’t really afford to dwell. So it was before their various revolutions, and so it is again. Vo Nguyen Giap himself implied it to Americans after the war when he asked them incredulously if they really believed the war was about communism, and stated that of course he knew they could win, they had outlasted the Chinese for thousands of years, what more would 10 years of Americans be?
But in an America pillaged from the inside from a demographic with a total power-lock, the past is something to provide moral instruction, rather than strategic instruction. And this is a problem. Because there is no morality play going on in history. Even the winners and losers, the closest one can come to setting ‘norms’ are but temporary arrangements. To learn from history is a strategic and/or self-improvement exercise. It is not a narrative of linear progress or universal rights. And thus, there are no war criminals. There are certainly villains, but the only way to hold them to account is to be villainous in turn to them and their supporters. And even the worst villains aren’t villains to everyone. They couldn’t have gotten far enough in life to be a threat if they were since they would have no support base. And since humanity has (thankfully) never had a single culture or political system, there will never be total consensus on what a villain makes. It is a cryptozoological entity, something rumored to exist but which can never be proven. Like Bigfoot, or the Flatwoods Monster. Maybe there is some reality to the claim, but probably not.
So what we have left is the contexts of our conflicts. If someone fighting Daesh did something even beyond Daesh’s level of brutality but it hastened the end of the war and the destruction of Daesh I would be in support of it. This is a problem we often get with American and European coverage of the Syrian Civil War. We have long since crossed the point of even being able to pretend there is a ‘moderate opposition’, and yet CNN and their ilk pearl clutch about barrel bombs while conveniently ignoring that they cause the same effect of many pricey munitions in NATO arsenals.
I have made a point previously to really excoriate the naive nature of much western European criticism of America, as they are if anything even more delusional on how foreign policy works and where their nice societies actually come from. But when it comes to inserting universal morality into conflict, America becomes the worse of the two. There is a tendency, reinforced by the public education system and popular entertainment, to view conflict as a chance for reenact good vs evil, Hollywood style. Just look at how certain people deal with the legacy of one America’s greatest generals, William Tecumseh Sherman.
In the rest of the world, civil wars are known to be the worst kinds of wars. People are more passionate, the front line is always in the home country, the stakes are viewed by most as higher. Internal norms break down. This leads to the weary acceptance that civil wars will be in fact more brutal than foreign wars, rather than less.
In the United States, and with neoconfederate apologists in particular, this is not the case. Instead there is some kind of expectation of gentlemanly behavior. That as a common people, there were rules about how to fight the family feud. It is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Sherman understood that war is always won or lost through logistics, and also that in an era of increasing industry, war must target the heart of society itself. It must attack the civilian population to break the lines of supply that enable the enemy front to stay in the field.
His masterful invasion of first Georgia, and then the Carolinas, brought America’s deadliest war to its conclusion faster, and therefore probably with less bloodshed overall. He strengthened himself while weakening the enemy as he lived off the land. The terror he sowed caused desertion in the armies in the field and panic throughout states previously barely touched by conflict. He was, by a modern liberal’s definition, a war criminal.
And this brings us to the most dangerous aspect of fetishizing legal language when talking about conflict, or bemoaning double standards between victors and vanquished (this is the point of war on some level, to establish a double standard between nations, or to prevent such an establishment on oneself) and that is that losers of all kinds of varieties are attracted to the game of ‘calling out’ war criminals.
As with all simplistic ideas pioneered on the left, its adoption by the far right is now an inevitability. The European far right equates ‘Bomber’ Harris with Heinrich Himmler, American reactionaries see Sherman and Sheridan as a North American form of oppression. This is just whining of course, and if one is sympathetic to those regimes it is predictable behavior- but its whining that bounces back and resonates with the very liberal simpletons who first decided to make ‘war criminal’ a common phrase they used against anyone they didn’t like. Since war presupposes multiple sides, and multiple sides have different objectives, I maintain that there is no common law system which makes one more criminal than the other. The only way to change this is to win a victory so decisive that one can absorb another into their laws. So, it is victor’s justice after all. For the most part, such lopsided victories do not happen in large proportion.
If that gives you pause …it should. It means if the odds are against you but the enemy is odious you should fight on anyway. If the enemy is strong but not odious, perhaps its not worth fighting. It also means if you can, you should avoid war whenever possible. Though of course, the avoidance of war also means the increasing of espionage in diplomacy. Nobody is a hero in this trap. But we don’t need heroes, we need strategists with long term views. And the better diplomatic strategy is, the less major wars there should be.
But of course, there are still plenty of people who benefit from war all around, for economic or psychological reasons. So once again, there is no universal standard. So please, for the sake of honest and frank policy and historical discussions everywhere, let us scrap the term ‘war criminal’. I prefer ‘Villain’ as it admits up front the subjectivity of the topic. And of course, many people’s villains are other’s heroes. Sometimes you care in neither direction but are fascinated by ruthless strategy, either its execution or its failure. Either way, in an anarchic international world, all ‘criminals’ are is strategists you don’t like. The real discussion is about if they were good at it or not. And that not a topic of morality.
When I saw that raven troll those magpies, I laughed. It was funny. I prefer ravens to magpies. They are smarter and their mythological connotations are cooler. These arbitrary factors which did nothing to change the fact that by typical human logic the raven was being mean, the magpies, perhaps victims. And yet, what if the magpies did a mob-kill as they sometimes do? What if that flock of magpies had once stolen something from the raven or even assaulted it and I was witnessing revenge? Even in the avian life of the city of Edinburgh, it gets hard to cast a judgement on a vicious action. Now the more information you have, the easier it becomes to do so, but someone else still might well reach a different conclusion. I am sure somewhere out there is a person who just loves magpies, and now sees me as a proxy foe. Well, there you have it. To have a mature discussion of foreign policy or war we must all traffic with The Morrigan on some level.
‘Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing. Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions. He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.’
Nothing about legalism or morality in that, is there? And yet it remains a true quote to this day. Anyway, this seems fitting: