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?