The definition of a "war crime"

A “war crime” doesn’t seem to be defined by the killing of civilians so much as it is defined by what the civilians were being killed for: Almost everyone would consider the My Lai Massacre a war crime, yet it killed far fewer civilians than the A-bombs or the firebombing of Tokyo. And there are many people who defend the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the firebombing of Tokyo (these bombings which killed many thousands of civilians) on the basis that *“It ended World War II sooner and thus saved lives.” *

By that logic, though, atrocities can be excused if they hasten the end of a war and save lives. Surely that’s not a justifiable argument.

Is it the intention or malice that makes a war crime, a war crime? For instance, a soldier murdering one civilian for sadistic motives is a war crime, but a bomb hitting a school by mistake and killing a hundred students is not?

Is it the method? Obama’s warning to Syria not to use chemical weapons against its own civilians seemed to suggest, for instance, that somehow killing an innocent civilian with nerve gas is worse than killing an innocent civilian with an AK-47, even though dead is dead in either case.

Is it “Winner writes history?” But that’s not the case, there have been winning sides that acknowledge that their actions in wartime were war crimes. It’s not always “Loser committed crimes, winner is always blameless.”
So, all in all, what exactly constitutes a war crime?

Are you familiar with the law of armed conflict? Including things like the Geneva Conventions, the rules of proportionality, etc? Seems like you need to read a little bit on the general principles:

As is the case with many issues concerning international law there is no definition that all nations have agreed upon. A definition that at least comes close can be found in article 8.2 of the Rome statue of the international criminal court. It reads:

I think that is a good place to start.

Were you referring to this LeMay quote?

As with common civilian crimes, in order to be classified as one so as to be prosecuted, tried and penalized by a legitimate authority, the actions and their effects have to be clearly defined, as are the principles upon which it is agreed that there is cause for penalty, and these have to be codified into a Law or something with the standing of Law, i.e. a Treaty. In civilian Criminal Law, many instances in which the death of a person is caused by another’s action are not “murder”, some are not even “manslaughters”, and sometimes you don’t even have a case for a lawsuit, depending on what the Law says for each case. And just as in Criminal Law in general, intentionality in the sense of willing action; form and method; intent as in the sense of the goal being sought, and other factors are considered in the definition.

In the OP example of chemical weapons, yes, using them on civilian populations is explicitly outlawed under the treaties followed by most countries (not by Syria or by Saddam’s Iraq, obviously). But, massacring helpless civilians wantonly by “conventional” means is also forbidden and can also get you tried for war crimes anyway – see: Bosnia. Just that gassing people is considered so outside the norm, so taking things to a whole other level, beyond the pale, and Syria had already crossed that line before, so a loud public warning was felt necessary.

The aggressor committed crimes. That World War II ever happened was a crime on Germany and Japan’s part (a Crime Against Peace). It’s the same principle behind the felony murder rule: by waging an aggressive war to try to take over the world they bear responsibility for every death in that war, including those caused by their victims trying to defend themselves.

Just one other thought – the idea that the winners in wars never face charges of war crimes is not true. Here is a Marine convicted of killing an unarmed civilian, and you know this guy for torturing Iraqi detainees.

However, it is also true that had the United States lost World War II, one could expect that the firebombing of Japanese cities (among other things) would have undergone much greater legal scrutiny.

In general, a military force may not target noncombatants, nor use weapons that cause undue pain or suffering to a military target. If you happen to drop an atom bomb against a military depot that happens to kill 100,000 civilians as collateral damage, you’re good. You were aiming at a combatant target. But you can’t target a pilot who ejected from a fighter plane, because he’s no longer a fighter.

Yeah, it’s kinda nuts.

The problem with that analogy is that the felony murder rule doesn’t make anyone blameless, it can only add to the list of people to be held responsible for the murder.

Besides the Geneva Convention, there’s a Hague Convention. And there are “Rule of Land Warfare”.

Here’s a question I’m uncertain of myself. An arms/ammunition plant is a legitimate target. Okay. And if civilian workers get harmed, well, that’s okay too. What about the Mama-san fire-hardening lengths of bamboo to make pungi sticks?

It leads one to suspect that not all civilians are purely non-combatants.

Well, we didn’t actually “win” what wasn’t actually a “war”.

Plenty of case law now. What constitutes a war crime in legal terms is absolutely clear.

Of course, the law is a total arse; if Bush and Blair aren’t war criminals then the law is wrong - and the law is wrong. It was designed to punish tin pot dictators and protect (permanent member of the Security Council) imperialists. The game is totally rigged.

Looking at some of the Germans who were convicted, the primary War Crime seems to be “on the losing side”. Doenitz, Raeder, and a few others. Most richly deserved their punishment, of course.

“Over 100 senior Allied officers also sent letters to Dönitz conveying their disappointment over the fairness and verdict of his trial…”

Nuremberg was ad hoc victors justice - a nice court room drama played out for Pathe News and the new imperialists. Had no basis in existing law.

This is not news.

The big problem is that propotionality and military necessity are subjective value judgments.

Also, most laymen have no understanding of military law, so “war crime” becomes another word for “something I disagree with.”

Really, according to what law of the time exactly?

Take over the world??
Where did you get that?

Germany very explicitly wanted to conquer the world and Hitler anticipated war against North and South America, the return of African colonies, and ownership of the middle east and most of India. The only question is whether he really intended global ownership or would have been content with global hegemony.

Can you point me to where this is explicitly stated?
As far as I know they only wanted territories in the east.

If it did not exist, Rudolf Hess was still sentenced to life in prison for it.

From the fact that Germany and Japan planned to conquer all of Eurasia, came to an agreement about who had responsibility for conquering which parts, and the Germans at least had a particular idea of which parts would go to who when the war was over.

It’s certainly true that much of the law the Nuremberg tribunals relied on was ad hoc. There was a (German) woman who was tried for falsely accusing her husband of anti-Nazi beliefs so he would be sent to the front lines and make it more convenient for her to carry on an affair. He was sent to Kursk and killed. The woman was tried but the tribunal couldn’t find anything to convict her of under the laws of war. Eventually they found a Weimar-era German law along the lines of bearing false witness and put her away for that.