The Threat of the Pro-War Crimes Right

Ye shall know them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:16, KJV)

I recommend The Russian Military Has Descended Into Inhumanity by Andrew Exum at The Atlantic. Exum is a former U.S. Army officer and scholar of the Middle East who was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East in the Obama Administration. Exum notes that the Russian military has a long history of war crimes, but explains this is not because of Russian culture but Russian military culture. “Russia’s military, as we have seen these past five weeks, is a mess: Seemingly leaderless in Ukraine, it cannot even effectively maneuver against its opponent, much less carry out a coherent terror campaign against Ukrainian civilians,” Exum writes.

The U.S. military certainly has committed war crimes, he continues, but in two decades in Iraq and Afghanistan “the incidence of tactical units committing heinous crimes was lower, despite the duration of those wars, than that among Russian troops in a few weeks in Ukraine.”

There are several reasons for that disparity. First, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps are mostly led, at the tactical level, by a professional noncommissioned-officer corps—something Russia’s army largely lacks. I asked a friend who led a brigade in Baghdad during the surge of 2007 why we did not see more war crimes then, despite the intensity of the combat. “That’s all down to the junior officers and noncommissioned officers who led the infantry platoons and squads,” he replied. “Those young men didn’t allow it.”

Second, the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan was—often to the detriment of its war aims—quite isolated from the populations themselves. U.S. troops lived in remote outposts, which hamstrung their efforts to defend the populations from insurgents but also reduced the kind of contact between occupying soldiers and civilians that has led to crimes of intimacy in Ukraine: looting on one end of the spectrum, rape and murder on the other.

And third, the U.S. military prosecuted its own war criminals, or at least the ones who got caught. “Convicted war criminals such as Clint Lorance and Eddie Gallagher were turned in by their own men before being tried and convicted in the military justice system,” Exum said “The military moved, before others could move it, to enforce discipline within its own ranks.”

This last factor is the most important, according to Exum, because it reveals a military culture with a lower tolerance of criminal behavior toward civilian populations.

The issue of war crimes raises the question of how war came to have laws. It appears there have been broadly agreed-upon rules about conduct in warfare for some time. We see this in a scene in Shakespeare’s Henry V, which features an invasion of France by England. When the soldier Bardolph was caught robbing a church in France and sentenced to be executed, King Henry says,

We would have all such offenders so cut off: and we
give express charge, that in our marches through the
country, there be nothing compelled from the
villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the
French upbraided or abused in disdainful language;
for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the
gentler gamester is the soonest winner.

The gentler gamester is the soonest winner. Henry’s aim was to rule France, not just destroy it, so it made sense to not piss off the locals. The real-world Henry was perhaps not so gentle. It’s recorded that during the seige of Rouen (1418-1419) he refused to let 1,200 civilians — elderly, women, children — evacuate so they could find food and survive. He instead forced them into a ditch between the lines, without food and exposed to the elements, until they died.

Still, if you intend to govern a people, good public relations doesn’t hurt. I have learned that our current international “laws of war” are loosely based on the Lieber Code, orders issued by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 that were drawn up by a Columbia College professor named Francis Lieber. The Lieber Code was designed to allow war to be both more humane and more terrible. It came about after discussions between Lincoln and Gen. George McClellan.

McClellan was determined to wage a textbook Napoleonic-style war of battles between armies on open ground that left civilians out of danger and the social fabric intact. Lincoln grasped what McClellan did not, that the war they had to fight could not be so limited. In the Civil War the lines between “soldier” and “civilian” had blurred. There was ongoing guerilla warfare among civilians and “irregulars” being carried out by the likes of William Quantrill and “Bloody Bill” Anderson. And Lincoln saw that the war would not end until it was brought home to the southern plantation class that had pushed for it to protect their “property.”

So, as the Union army took over former Confederate territories and engaged with civilian populations, the Lieber Code gave them parameters to work within.  See John Fabian Witt, Lincoln’s Rules of War:

The code reduced the international laws of war into a simple pamphlet for wide distribution to the amateur soldiers of the Union army. It prohibited torture, poisons, wanton destruction, and cruelty. It protected prisoners and forbade assassinations. It announced a sharp distinction between soldiers and noncombatants. And it forbade attacks motivated by revenge and the infliction of suffering for its own sake. Most significantly, the code sought to protect channels of communication between warring armies. And it elevated the truce flag to a level of sacred honor.

If the ultimate goal is to reunite the country, the defeated secessionists had to be willing to peacefully reunite instead of engaging in endless rounds of revenge and retribution. Cruelty and atrocities are not good strategy of war.

Which is why, to my mind, Putin has already lost. It may be that he will succeed in destroying enough of Ukraine and killing enough Ukrainians that it could be occupied by Russian church ladies and Boy Scouts. But good luck keeping it, Vlad.

But we’ve got something else to worry about. Going back to Andrew Exum at The Atlantic:

Our military’s culture of accountability took a blow when then-President Donald Trump pardoned both Lorance and Gallagher and was then cheered on by a morally loathsome minority of veterans and military fanboys who elected to side with Lorance and Gallagher against the many others in uniform who had testified against each man.

As Americans look at what is taking place in Ukraine, they should condemn Russia but also reflect on the efforts of a reactionary minority to excuse similar behavior in our own ranks. That we kept our military engaged in combat for 20 consecutive years without facing horrors on the scale that we are witnessing in this relatively short conflict in Ukraine is truly remarkable. But ensuring that will remain the case in future conflicts will take hard work and vigilance.

The “morally loathsome minority of veterans and military fanboys” seems a pretty good description of the mob that attacked the Capitol last year. We are dealing with an internal enemy that not only does not disavow cruelty; for them, cruelty is the point. As Adam Serwer famously wrote,

We can hear the spectacle of cruel laughter throughout the Trump era. There were the border-patrol agents cracking up at the crying immigrant children separated from their families, and the Trump adviser who delighted white supremacists when he mocked a child with Down syndrome who was separated from her mother. There were the police who laughed uproariously when the president encouraged them to abuse suspects, and the Fox News hosts mocking a survivor of the Pulse Nightclub massacre (and in the process inundating him with threats), the survivors of sexual assault protesting to Senator Jeff Flake, the women who said the president had sexually assaulted them, and the teen survivors of the Parkland school shooting. There was the president mocking Puerto Rican accents shortly after thousands were killed and tens of thousands displaced by Hurricane Maria, the black athletes protesting unjustified killings by the police, the women of the #MeToo movement who have come forward with stories of sexual abuse, and the disabled reporter whose crime was reporting on Trump truthfully. It is not just that the perpetrators of this cruelty enjoy it; it is that they enjoy it with one another. Their shared laughter at the suffering of others is an adhesive that binds them to one another, and to Trump.

They have no real interest in government or progress and especially not democracy. It’s all about the cruelty. Give them free rein, and none of us will be safe.

And here is a list of some of their leaders and “public intellectuals.” See also William Saletan, Who’s Soft on Russia? Meet the Republican Anti-Ukraine Caucus! and The Year in Hate & Extremism Report 2021 from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

There’s one more name I want to call out: Charles Koch. Koch industries is still doing business with Russia. Koch will remain in business in Russia so that it doesn’t have to lay off Russian employees. So big of Charles. Koch’s company has also issued statements calling for the U.S. and EU to end the sanctions and give Putin a partial “victory” as part of a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. So, one of the chief obstacles to a sane climate change policy is letting us know that his profits come before lives. Which is another kind of violence. But I think we all knew that about Koch already.

The Seige of Rouen (1418-1419)