Ian Bell on war criminals

Michael Keaney michael.keaney at mbs.fi
Mon Nov 25 07:19:16 MST 2002

If Churchill isn't a war criminal then who is?

Ian Bell
The Sunday Herald, 24 November 2002

I DON'T recall who first made the joke, but it never fails to get a laugh.
'Satire died,' the old quip goes, 'when they gave the Nobel Peace Prize to
Henry Kissinger.' Lots of innocent Cambodians died, too, in the
philosopher-statesman's secret and illegal bombing campaign in Indochina,
but that wasn't mentioned in the citation.

Kissinger was one of the lucky ones. He got a prize, plaudits and a
lucrative corporate afterlife despite losing a war. In general, you have to
be on the winning side to award yourself medals and the chance to write the
history books. Losers have the record written for them, as often as not in
the form of an indictment.

Slobodan Milosevic must ponder that truth on a daily basis as he struggles
to evade justice in the Hague. If only he had remained the West's favourite
Balkan strong man, he must think, no-one would be confusing his
administrative lapses with crimes against humanity. To be the last dictator
left standing when the music stops is rough justice indeed. Slobodan and
Saddam, once the favoured thugs in their respective regions -- 'stabilising
forces', if you prefer -- should compare notes.

But then, that's the tricky thing with war crimes. Everyone who is ever
involved in a conflict commits them, intentionally or not, yet the right to
prosecute -- and to define the crime -- is reserved for those who come out
on top. Were hundreds of Taliban prisoners just massacred in Afghanistan? Is
a case pending? Do you ever get tired of silly questions?

The issue is relevant now, of course, because the Pentagon's capacity for
precision-guided euphemism is about to be tested in a big way in the
precincts of Baghdad.

The moral relativism that pollutes what remain of the rules of war -- the
good guys never do bad things -- has entirely eradicated objective
judgement. Slaughter or collateral damage: it all depends, apparently, on
your point of view. And on your firepower.

The argument, to hear the White House and Downing Street tell it, runs like
this. Saddam is a monster; Saddam is probably a dangerous monster;
therefore, somehow, numerous Iraqi dead are the price 'we' must pay to see
him off. It's his fault, not ours, and we're really very sorry. But nothing
remotely resembling a crime could possibly be involved.

Much the same confidence could have been observed at Nuremberg in 1946.
Here, as never before, were 22 cast-iron cases, men whose crimes were
written in blood and the ashes of six million Jews, men who had flouted
every international treaty and convention, men who had industrialised
slaughter and cruelty with a clear, even proud, understanding of their
actions. The Nazis arraigned -- Goering, Hess, Streicher and the rest --
were lucky not to have been shot out of hand.

Nevertheless, there was a question never properly addressed in the 403 open
sessions of the Nuremberg tribunal: who had given the Allies the right to
stage these trials? What authority did they possess? The answer was that
Britain, America, France and the Soviet Union, with the agreement of 20
other states, had granted the right to themselves. They had devised a
charter, defined the unprecedented charges, and given themselves the
permission to prosecute.

So what? The evidence of crimes against humanity was stark. The willingness
of the victors to adhere to due process after so much suffering was
undoubtedly a step forward. You might have quibbled over the charge that the
Nazis had committed crimes against peace, since it might have been applied
to any state that had ever gone to battle, but genocide and war crimes
surely demanded justice. After Belsen, after the rape of Europe, the world
would have accepted no less. Besides, the trials were fair, by any standard,
in a manner fascists would never comprehend.

That was never really the problem. The problem could be seen, first, in the
person of Major General Jurisprudence IT Nikitchenko, the Soviet member of
the tribunal, he who objected strenuously to the acquittals of three Nazi
small-fry. This was the representative, after all, of Joseph Stalin, that
genocidal mass murderer who outdid Hitler both in the numbers he slaughtered
and in the fact that he died, peacefully, in his own bed.

No-one ever dared to try Stalin for his undoubted crimes against humanity;
no-one ever thought of making the attempt. His troops may have engaged in
mass rape and wholesale executions in the final battle for Berlin; hundreds
of thousands of German prisoners might have died in his camps; millions of
his own people might have been put to death.

But Stalin was a winner; he helped to create the Nuremberg charter and it
most assuredly did not apply to him.

Still, we know all about the Soviet nightmare, don't we? The crimes of our
temporary ally were none of our doing. But who handed thousands of Don
Cossacks over to the beast for certain execution at the war's end? Whose
scientists worked feverishly on the Manhattan project in order to immolate
the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? And who ordered the
terror bombing of German cities, a campaign that found its memorial in the
firestorms of Dresden, a town known throughout the war to be of no military
significance whatever?

Much to the indignation and disgust of the Daily Telegraph, a German -- of
all people -- has just had the temerity to ask the last of these questions.
While Britain indulges in the harmless, BBC-sponsored game of deciding who
was the very greatest Brit of them all, Jorg Friedrich, citizen of a country
that has spent half a century contemplating the enormity that is its Nazi
past, has mentioned Winston Churchill and war crimes.

So the atrocity auction begins. Former RAF air crew members write to the
Telegraph demanding remembrance for the 55,000 of their own who never
returned from the raids on Germany and insist that terror was never their

Commentators remind us that Churchill saved this country from those who
conceived and executed the Holocaust. The balance sheet of moral loss and
gain between freedom and totalitarianism is produced again. But the German
historian repeats his simple point: a war crime is a war crime is a war

He adds, for good measure, a simple question: 'Do you want to live in a
nation which does not know its own past?' That hits the mark. Germany has
not been spared knowledge of its vast crimes. Its past cannot be banished,
certainly not idealised.

But in Britain, where the official version of history is a totem and heroes,
Churchill above all, are beyond reproach, many certainties are at stake if
you even suggest that evil was once done in a good cause. The biggest
certainty of all is that such things, if they happened, could never happen

This is odd, for several reasons. Friedrich's book, Der Brand (The Fire:
Germany Under Bombard-ment 1940-45), might be causing great debate in the
historian's own country, but its thesis is scarcely new.

The horrific effect of the bombings of Dresden, Hamburg and other cities has
long been a matter of record. Their strategic purpose -- and the sacrifice
of all those air crew -- has long been questioned. And Churchill, in the
midst of war, did not attempt to conceal his intentions. After the levelling
of Coventry, after Clydebank and the Blitz, he said explicitly that Germany
would be repaid many times over, and exulted in the subsequent 'victories.'

Do we blame him for that? Probably not. But there is no question that the
bombing campaign breached the Hague and Geneva convention provisions
designed to protect civilians and that it was, win or lose, a war crime.

To argue otherwise is to demand the sort of double-standard that gained
Kissinger his Nobel prize, that justified the 88,000 dead at Hiroshima, that
underwrites the modern Pentagon's high-level saturation bombing tactics.

Hitler offered the challenge of total war, war against entire populations,
but in accepting the challenge Churchill invited judgement by the same

His resemblance to Hitler ends with that. There is no shred of justification
for suggesting any sort of moral equivalence. But there is equally no excuse
for the sort of ignorant, BBC-sponsored hero-worship that makes a mockery of
history and truth.

Churchill was as brutally ruthless, more than once, as he believed the
situation demanded. If we really are to put any faith in international law,
now and in the future, we should say so.

Bear it in mind, please, the next time someone decides to celebrate the
natural superiority of the British. Bear it in mind, above all, when our
stainless democrats present the bill for Baghdad.

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