Monday, 11 November 2013

The value of life in war

Erich Priebke was the SS officer responsible for the execution of 335 Italian hostages in the Fosse Ardeatine. He was later charged with five murders. Three hundred and thirty hostages were lawfully shot in retaliation for an attack on German soldiers in which thirty-three had died; Hitler ordered a 10:1 ratio for retaliation. Until 1949, and the IVth version of the Geneva Convention, the shooting of hostages in certain circumstances by occupying armies was perfectly legal. An invaded civilian population was expected to be compliant to the rule of the invaders; the convention allowed the collective punishment of the population for infractions. And so Priebke was guilty only for the five additional victims of the Ardeatine massacre that he added himself. 

The 1949 Geneva convention that the UK signed up to (but the US didn't) made any future Dambusters crews war criminals (attacking dams a war crime under Articles 56 and 53 of Protocol 1) and indeed made 'Bomber' Harris' entire city bombing campaign illegal for the future, and every member of the RAF's WWII bomber crews potential war criminals (Articles 51 and 54; attacks on civilian targets). It also gave the rights of combatant soldiers to guerillas - including the right to protection if rendered hors de combat on the battlefield.

Of course, before the 20th century the individual lives of war's victims, civilian or military, were accorded far less importance. There's a fine piece in the Indie this morning by John Lichfield that catalogues how the CWGC changed everything after the Great War; the dead of Waterloo were used to provide replacement teeth, and after to fertilise the fields of the Midlands. Today the footways of Royal Wootton Bassett  are five-deep in respectful mourners as each flag-draped service coffin passes through. 

Following the debate on the issues surrounding the Ardeatine massacre - were the killers of the German soldiers terrorists or freedom fighters? -   István Deák wrote that although "armed resistance during World War II was romanticized because the Nazis were such an appalling enemy, and because in that war the guerrillas' targets were still mainly soldiers", it is increasingly hard to draw the line between freedom fighting and terrorism. In his opinion, the Hague Conventions regulating irregular warfare has been "more a failure than success." "What is needed," Deák stresses, "is a recognition of reality, namely that future wars will increasingly consist of civilians shooting at soldiers from hiding and frightened soldiers killing innocent civilians. And what is needed, in the aftermath of such a sobering recognition, is an attempt to create a new international law for the more efficient regulation of this type of horrible warfare."


Anonymous said...

Assymetric warfare by its very nature is nasty, vicious and gruesome, applying a set of rules and edicts, a new structure of laws and regulations at any time, in say - Syria?

Good luck with that one.

Britain, is walking down that street, soon there will be a Damascene explosion.

Bill Sikes' Dog said...

Sad to report that , since the closure of the Lyneham airbase ,
Royal Wootton Bassett is no longer part of the route used for the repatriation of our war - dead .

jack said...

my understanding of the Geneva Convention is that guerrilla fighters are to be accorded the protection of the convention if they fight wearing a distinguishing mark ( which need not be a uniform), showing they are part of an organisation involved in military action. ‘Franc tireurs’ are still not accorded that protection, although I suppose human rights conventions and treaties could be used to dictate that bombers, etc. should only have ‘humane’ legal action taken against them. Marine A might not have broken the Geneva Convention at all – He might just be guilty of common or garden murder. Anyway, he was certainly derogate in his military duty; having been sent to evaluate the effectiveness of an aerial strike, he destroyed a potential intelligence source produced in that strike. Time to let Jesus into his life, orstart listening to orders..