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In 1939 there had been just over 300,000 indictable offences known to the police in England and Wales. Over the next few years this figure was to increase dramatically.
Teenage blackout gangs became a common problem during the early stages of the war. In once incident, seventeen-year-old James Harvey, was beaten to death by a rival gang near the Elephant and Castle underground station. There was a public outcry when the court accepted the defendants claim that they had not intended to murder Harvey. Convicted of manslaughter, the three convicted gang members were only sentenced to three years, eighteen months and twelve months respectively.
One of the most shocking crimes committed during wartime was the looting from bombed houses. In the first eight weeks of the London Blitz a total of 390 cases of looting was reported to the police. On 9th November, 1940, the first people tried for looting took place at the Old Bailey. Of these twenty cases, ten involved members of the Auxiliary Fire Service.
The Lord Mayor of London suggested that notices should be posted throughout the city, reminding the population that looting was punishable by hanging or shooting. However, the courts continued to treat this crime leniently. When a gang of army deserters were convicted of looting in Kent the judge handed down sentences ranging from five years' penal servitude to eight years' hard labour. Some critics pointed out that Nazi Germany suffered less from this crime as looters were routinely executed for this offence.
In Leeds a judge announced that "more than two whole days have been occupied in dealing with cases of looting which have occurred in one city (Sheffield)... In many cases these looters have operated on a wholesale scale. There were actually two-men who had abandoned well-paid positions, one of them earning £7 to £9 a week, and work of public importance, and who abandoned it to take up the obviously more remunerative occupation of looting."
Chief Inspector Percy Datlen, reported what happened in Dover after one heavy raid: "In cases where there are several houses bombed out in one street, the looters have systematically gone through the lot. Carpets have been stripped from the floors, stair carpets have been removed: they have even taken away heavy mangles, bedsteads and complete suites of furniture."
Widespread fraud was another consequence of the Blitz. The government agreed to pay compensation for people who had been bombed out. Those who owned their houses and lost them during an air raid had to wait until after the war to receive their full compensation, but they could claim an advance of £500 (£20,000) with £50 (£2,000) for furniture and £20 (£800) for clothes.
So many people were losing their homes during 1940 that officials of the local National Assistance Office did not have enough time to check people's claims. This was made even more difficult when the people claimed their identity card and ration book had also been destroyed during the air raid. By 1941 the government realised that they were paying out more than they should and extra staff were brought in to make more detailed checks on the claims being made. One of the first to appear in court was Walter Handy, who was sent to prison for three years for falsely claiming he had been "bombed out" nineteen times in five months.
Another major fraud concerned billeting. On the outbreak of the Second World War the government attempted to evacuate of all children from Britain's large cities. Sir John Anderson, who was placed in charge of the scheme, decided that people living in rural areas would be forced to take in these evacuees. The billetor received 10s. 6d from the government for taking a child. Another 8s. 6d. per head was paid if the billetor took more than one. Some people continued to claim their allowances after the billetor had returned home. Others stole blank billeting forms and filled them in, so that allowances were drawn for non-existent people.
The trade in goods in violation of the official regulations became known as the black market. A secret staff at the Ministry of Food investigated attempts by people to deal with black marketeers. Parliament passed legislation which enabled the courts to impose fines of up to £500, with or without two years' imprisonment, plus three times the total capital involved in the transaction. Eventually around 900 inspectors were employed to make sure that the the statutory orders of the Ministry Food were obeyed by customers, retailers and wholesalers. Investigators discovered that farmers and smallholders were the main source of producing food for the black market.
The Labour Party MP Joseph Clynes described the black market as "treason of the very worse kind" and others in the House of Commons called for the government to introduce new punishments for this offence. As well as "long terms of penal servitude" one called for the use of the cat-o'-nine-tails on the offenders.
Juvenile Delinquents were blamed for the high rate of crimes in crowded tube shelters. As soon as the chosen victim had gone to sleep the thief would quietly carry off their bags. Teenage pickpockets were also kept busy in public air raid shelters. Others concentrated on burgling the houses of those who had gone to public shelters. One fifteen-year-old was told by a magistrate that it was "a crime almost as serious, if not as serious, as looting."
By February 1941 the government announced that all the country's remand homes were full. Soon afterwards two boys of 14 and 15 escaped from Wallington remand home and broke into the Home Guard store at Upper Norwood. Luckily they were arrested before they could do too much damage with their tommy-gun and 400 rounds of ammunition.
Raids on Home Guard armaments stores became a common problem during the war. In February 1943 seven teenage boys stole 2,000 rounds of sten-gun ammunition. The following month three seventeen-year-olds held up the cashier at the Ambassador cinema in Hayes with three loaded sten-guns that had been stolen from the local Home Guard store. After they were arrested they admitted that they had taken part in 43 other raids in London.
In 1942 Britain suffered from a shortage of alcoholic drinks. This was solved by the illegal production of what became known as "hooch". Organized gangs were busy all over the country mixing pure alcohol with juniper and almond essences. Others used industrial alcohol and methylated spirits. In May 1942 fourteen people died in Glasgow of acute alcoholic poisoning while drinking hooch. Cases like this were reported all over Britain. Many of the victims were soldiers and by October 1942, commanders of American camps, in an effort to protect their men from hooch, began to issue a free bottle of gin or whisky from camp stores to each man going on leave.
The arrival of the United States Army was also blamed for the increase in the crime-rate. In August 1942 Parliament passed the United States of America (Visiting Forces) Act. This enabled American servicemen to be arrested by their own police, interrogated by their own Criminal Investigation Division, tried in their own courts and imprisoned and sometimes executed, in their own prisons (United States Army Disciplinary Training Centres).
This caused some problems concerning the differences between the two country's legal system. For example, eight American servicemen were hanged in Britain after being found guilty of rape during the war. Opponents of capital punishment pointed out that like in the United States, the majority of the men executed for this offence were black.
The most controversial case involved Leroy Henry, a black soldier from St. Louis, who was sentenced to death for raping a white woman in the village of Combe Down. Local people were aware that Leroy Henry had been having a relationship with the woman and tended to believe his story that she accused him of rape after he refused to pay her money. Others were concerned about the way he had been beaten by the Military Police during their investigation. Over 33,000 local people signed a petition calling for Leroy Henry to be reprieved. It was sent to General Dwight Eisenhower and he eventually agreed to grant the soldier his freedom.
The murder-rate increased dramatically in the war. One interesting case involved Harry Dobkin. He soon realized that during the Blitz so many people were killed in air raids that it was impossible for the police to investigate every death. Victims were buried quickly and very few post mortems were carried out. Dobkin murdered his wife, Rachel Dobkin, in April 1941 and buried her under the ruin of Vauxhall Baptist Chapel, hoping she would be discovered as an air raid victim.
The body was not discovered until May 1942. It became clear that the person had not died recently and a pathologist was called in. After examining the body Dr. Keith Simpson argued that the broken bone in the throat suggested that Rachel Dobkin had been strangled. The body was coated in builders' lime. The police came to the conclusion that the murderer had done this to destroy the body. However, he had obviously not known the difference between quicklime and builders's lime, which actually helped to preserve the body.
The jury took only twenty minutes to find Harry Dobson guilty of murder and he was hanged at Wandsworth Prison. This case raised the issue of how many people had been murdered during the war and had been successfully buried in the rubble of bombed out buildings.
One of the most notorious murder cases took place during a week in February 1942. On 9th February, Evelyn Hamilton, was found in an air raid shelter in Marylebone. She had been strangled and her handbag had been stolen. The following day the body of Evelyn Oatley was found in her Wardour Street flat. She had been strangled and mutilated with a tin-opener. Three days later Margaret Lowe was also found strangled and mutilated. On 12th February, a fourth woman, Doris Jouannet, was also found killed in the same way. The newspapers now described the killer as the Blackout Ripper.
Soon after the body of Doris Jourannet was found, the killer attacked a fifth woman. He was disturbed by a delivery boy and the man ran off. He left behind his Gas Mask case. Inside was a service number that identified it as belonging to Gordon Cummings, a twenty-eight year cadet in the RAF. Although he did not have a criminal record or have a history of violence, the evidence against Cummings was overwhelming. His fingerprints were found in two of the flats where the killings took place. He was also found in possession of objects stolen from the women. Cummings was found guilty and executed on 24th June. Later Scotland Yard claimed Cummings had also murdered two other women during air raids in London in October 1941.
The most famous murder case of the war involved a deserter from the United States Army. On 3rd October 1944 Karl Hulten met Elizabeth Jones, a eighteen-year-old Welsh striptease dancer. On their first date they ended up using Hulten's stolen military truck to knock a young girl from her bike and stealing her handbag. The following day they gave a lift to a woman carrying two heavy suitcases. After stopping the car Hulten attacked the woman with an iron bar and then dumped her body in a river.
On 6th October the couple hailed a hire car on Hammersmith Broadway. When they reached a deserted stretch of road they asked the taxi driver to stop. Hulten then shot the driver in the head and stole his money and car. The following day they spent the money at White City dog track.
Jones now told Hulten she would like a fur coat. On 8th October they parked the stolen hire car outside Berkeley Hotel while they waited for a woman to emerge wearing a fur coat. Eventually Jones chose a white ermine coat worn by a woman leaving the hotel. Hulten attacked the woman but before he could get the coat a policeman arrived on the scene. Hulten managed to escape and drive off in his car. However, the following morning, Hulten was arrested as he got into the stolen hire car.
There was great public interest in the case of the GI gangster and his striptease dancer. The public was deeply shocked by the degree of violence the couple had used during their crime spree and it came as no surprise when both Karl Hulten and Elizabeth Jones were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Hulten was executed at Pentonville Prison on 8th March 1945 but Jones was reprieved at the last moment and was released in May 1954.
The number of murders in England and Wales rose from 115 in 1940 to 141 in 1945. An increase of 22 per cent. During the same period there was an increase of 44 per cent for wounding and 65 per cent for grievous wounding.
A shocking triple shooting occurred in East Grinstead early Tuesday morning when the bodies of Phyllis Martin, aged 40, Alice Martin, her 12 year old daughter, and John Bankhurst, aged 29, their lodger, were found in their house at 20 Sackville Gardens, East Grinstead. The tragedy was witnessed by 7 year old, David George Martin.
David Leslie Martin, the father of David George Martin, told the coroner that John Bankhurst had been lodging with him for 16 months. He was a single man and was employed locally as a nurseryman. Some months ago Bankhurst started to kiss Alice Martin. David Leslie Martin took Bankhurst on one side and told him in a friendly way that he must stop it. Bankhurst broke down and said it would never happen again.
One day, a few weeks later, the witness saw Bankhurst coming out of Alice's bedroom. On Tuesday, 14th November, Alice again complained of Bankhurst's behaviour and David Leslie Martin told him he must go.
The next witness was the boy David George Martin. He said he slept with his sister, Alice. "On Tuesday morning, John Bankhurst came into the bedroom and tried to whisper to Alice, as he always did." Alice and David were still in bed. When David's mother entered the room, Bankhurst left.
"After a few moments" continued the boy: "He came back into the room with the gun he always kept in his bedroom. My mother screamed, but he did not say anything, but lifted his gun and fired. Mummy fell down. Alice screamed and tried to hide under the bed clothes and I jumped out of bed. I saw Alice pull the bed clothes over her head. I could see her hands holding the bed clothes over her head. Bankhurst raised the gun to his shoulder and fired at Alice. He turned to me and I said 'Don't shoot me John.' He just looked at me and went out of the room, upstairs to his bedroom. I waited and listened. I heard him shut the door and then heard a shot. I put some clothes on and ran off to find daddy."
P.C. Adams stated that at eight that morning he arrived at 20 Sackville Gardens. He found the body of Bankhurst in an upstairs room. The top of his head was blown away. P.C. Adams said Bankhurst had apparently knelt in front of a chest of drawers on which was a mirror so he could see what he was doing.
Sidney Herbert Thayre of 47 Buckhurst Way, East Grinstead, told the coroner that Bankhurst was his brother-in-law and that he kept the gun for rabbit shooting. "He had a bad temper. He was the sort of man who would brood over any imaginary grievance." Thayre also told the coroner that Bankhurst was expecting to be called up for military service and the prospect did not seem to please him.
More than two whole days have been occupied in dealing with cases of looting which have occurred in one city (Sheffield). When a great city is attacked by bombs on a heavy scale, numbers of houses and their contents are left exposed and deprived of their natural defences. Necessarily these are the homes of comparatively poor people, since they are by far the most numerous.
In many cases these looters have operated on a wholesale scale. There were actually two-men who had abandoned well-paid positions, one of them earning £7 (£280) to £9 (£360) a week, and work of public importance, and who abandoned it to take up the obviously more remunerative occupation of looting. The task of guarding shattered houses from prowling thieves, especially during the blackout, is obviously beyond the capacity of any police force. In view of the fact and having regard to the cowardly, abominable nature of the crime the perpetrators of which are preying upon the property of poor folk rendered homeless and often killed, the Legislature has provided that those found guilty of looting from premises damaged or vacated by reason of attacks by the enemy are on conviction liable to suffer death or penal servitude for life. Thus the law puts looters into the category of murderers, and the day may well be approaching when they will be treated as such.
Even in the midst of war one has to do something to keep law and order in the country. With the exception of about five cases, every one in this calendar is a soldier - bigamy, housebreaking, rape - and I shall be told in every case that he is an excellent soldier and that the Army cannot afford to lose him. That doesn't affect my mind in the least.
In cases where there are several houses bombed out in one street, the looters have systematically gone through the lot. Carpets have been stripped from the floors, stair carpets have been removed: they have even taken away heavy mangles, bedsteads and complete suites of furniture. We believe it is the greatest organized looting that has yet taken place and many front line citizens who have returned to their homes to carry on their essential jobs there are facing severe financial difficulties as a result of the work of the gang.
I commend the endurance, mutual helpfulness, and constancy, which during the "blitz" reached heroic proportions but people are not conscious of injuring the war effort by dishonesty or by sexual indulgence. There is a danger that we may win the war and be unfit to use the victory.
Marjorie Helen Brooker (20) of 7 West View Gardens, East Grinstead, was charged with the death of her newly born female child by wilfully neglect. The girl's sister, Mrs. Virginia Evans (22) and Corporal George Palmer (23), a Canadian soldier, was charged with endeavouring to conceal the birth of the child by the secret disposition of the body in some rushes at Worsted Farm, East Grinstead. Marjorie Brooker pleaded guilty to the concealment of the birth and the plea was accepted by the prosecution. At the birth of the of the child she thought she must have fainted, and when she recovered, the child was dead. She placed the body in a suitcase under the bed. The following Saturday she took the suitcase downstairs and gave it to her sister. Marjorie Brooker told Detective Constable Miller that Corporal George Palmer was asked by Mrs. Virginia Evans to get rid of the child's body which was in the suitcase. Palmer said he did not like doing so but he would do it as a favour to her. Palmer returned with the suitcase empty.
It is unfit for a woman to walk unescorted through the town at night or in the daytime, due to the ineffectiveness of the American military authorities to deal with the improper behaviour of the American forces and the complete failure to prevent unconcealed immorality and give proper protection to women.
The brash American, physically strapping but of stunted mental growth, consigned by army order to an unfamiliar land, sought to impress the natives with his own superiority by aping the habits of a gunman or a thug. The poverty-stricken adolescent refugee from Neath, frail alike in body and in mind, vaguely aspiring but completely talentless, sought a pitiable escape in fantasies inspired by the spurious appeal of gangster films. A world convulsion brought this pair together, at a moment when life was cheap and violence sanctified; under such conditions the union was deadly. It was like holding a lighted match to dynamite, having first ensured that the latter was exposed.
On 17th July 1942, a workman helping to demolish a bombed Baptist church premises in Vauxhall Road, South London, drove his pick under a heavy stone slab set on the floor of a cellar under the vestry and prised it up. Underneath lay a skeleton with a few tags of flesh clinging to it, which he assumed to be the remains of another victim of the Blitz. He put his shovel under the skeleton and lifted it out. The head stayed on the ground.
Detective Inspectors Hatton and Keeling, who were called in to investigate, wrapped the bones in a brown paper parcel and took them to the public mortuary at Southwark, where I inspected them the next morning. The sight of a dried-up womb tucked down in the remains of the trunk established the sex. There was a yellowish deposit on the head and neck. Fire had blackened parts of the skull, the hip, and the knees.
Could she have been the victim of a bomb explosion? Hardly likely, considering she had been lying neatly buried under a slab of stone, neatly set in the floor of a cellar; this was no bomb crater. The detectives told me there had been an ancient cemetery on the site: could the body have been there fifty years? I shook my head. Soft tissues do not last so long. I thought the body was only about twelve to eighteen months dead. The church had been blitzed in August 1940, almost two years before.
Even though the prohibition of certain behavior in the conduct of armed conflict can be traced back many centuries, the concept of war crimes developed particularly at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, when international humanitarian law, also known as the law of armed conflict, was codified. The Hague Conventions adopted in 1899 and 1907 focus on the prohibition to warring parties to use certain means and methods of warfare. Several other related treaties have been adopted since then. In contrast, the Geneva Convention of 1864 and subsequent Geneva Conventions, notably the four 1949 Geneva Conventions and the two 1977 Additional Protocols, focus on the protection of persons not or no longer taking part in hostilities. Both Hague Law and Geneva Law identify several of the violations of its norms, though not all, as war crimes. However there is no one single document in international law that codifies all war crimes. Lists of war crimes can be found in both international humanitarian law and international criminal law treaties, as well as in international customary law.
The 1949 Geneva Conventions have been ratified by all Member States of the United Nations, while the Additional Protocols and other international humanitarian law treaties have not yet reached the same level of acceptance. However, many of the rules contained in these treaties have been considered as part of customary law and, as such, are binding on all States (and other parties to the conflict), whether or not States have ratified the treaties themselves. In addition, many rules of customary international law apply in both international and non-international armed conflict, expanding in this way the protection afforded in non-international armed conflicts, which are regulated only by common article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol II.
Looting, Violence, Organised Crime – Britain in The Blitz
We often hear talk of the “Blitz Spirit” when Londoners stuck together and helped each other through the German bombing raids which destroyed large parts of the city. But there is another side to how people responded to the war, one which showed a darker aspect of human nature in a time of crisis.
During the years of the Second World War, there was a marked increase in crime. This was due to a combination of different factors. Some were opportunistic crimes, in which not only criminals but also members of the public took advantage of the chaos during air raids and blackouts.
There also was an increase in gang activity linked to the black market. And there were new crimes which were the results of war restrictions such as rationing and the criminalization of previously legal activities.
One of the most common crimes was looting. When a building was damaged or destroyed during bombing raids, looters would steal what they could. Both homes and shops were targets. People would come home to find that not only had their home been destroyed, but also that their possessions had been stolen. The loot may have been sold or kept by the individuals.
Women salvaging possessions from their bombed house, including plants and a clock
During the four months of the London Blitz from September to December 1941, a total of 4,584 cases of looting were heard by the Old Bailey court. In just one day in November, 56 of the cases to be heard by the courts involved looting.
Of course, this only represents the percentage of cases that reached the courts. The actual number of incidents was likely considerably higher.
The scene at Aldwych tube station 1940. Seventy nine tube stations were used as air raid shelters by Londoners, but they were not proof against a direct hit.
In some of the worst examples of looting, the possessions of those who had been killed in an air raid were removed from their dead bodies. An attack on the expensive Café de Paris restaurant and nightclub in Piccadilly in 1941 created the perfect opportunity for looters to steal rings, watches and other valuables from the casualties. What made this crime even worse was that the looters often got in the way of emergency services and hampered rescue efforts, putting more lives at risk.
Although criminal gangs were responsible for much of the looting, they were not the only ones to take advantage. Members of the public and even wardens and members of the armed forces were known to have taken part.
A young woman plays a gramophone in an air raid shelter in north London during 1940.
There were already many criminal gangs operating in London and other major cities before the war, but the war provided additional opportunities to expand their scope of activities. Looting resulted in a trade in stolen goods which often fell into the hands of gangs. Rationing of food and many luxury goods created a black market for those items.
Preparation for point rationing. A shopper and her son carefully weigh posted price and point values in purchasing canned foods under war ration book two
Gangs were also involved in prostitution. With 1.5 million American GIs added to the 3 million British servicemen stationed across the UK, the sex trade boomed in London and beyond. There were many criminal gangs who ensured a supply of women for the soldiers. One notorious Maltese gang known as the “Messina” prostituted a large group of women in London known as the “Piccadilly Commandos.”
The easy availability of prostitutes was a cause for concern for the US government and created some tension between the UK and the US. The US government was worried about the possibilities of GIs returning home and spreading sexually transmitted diseases they had contracted while in service in the UK.
Throughout the 1940s (and for nine years after the end of the war) every man woman and child in Britain owned ration books of coupons for food and clothing.
Of course, all the “normal” crimes that had been a problem before the war continued, and increased in number. Darkness and confusion due to blackouts and bombing raids created the perfect scenario for murders to take place.
A serial killer who became known the “Blackout Ripper” took advantage of the cover of darkness and murdered at least four women over a period of six days during the blackouts in London. The killer was a young airman of the RAF named Gordon Cummins. He was caught thanks to his fingerprints on a gas mask left behind at the scene of an attempted murder. Cummins had no previous history of crime or violence.
Buildings damaged by bombs provided the perfect place for a murderer to hide a body. It is likely that the death would be blamed on the air raid, and therefore would not arouse suspicion and require further investigation.
Smoke rising from fires in the London docks, following bombing on 7 September
There were also new laws regarding work practices that made it not just a sackable, but a criminal offense to take time off work without permission in certain occupations. Compulsory work orders covered many of those involved in essential war work. Being late for work too often or being unwilling to work could also land a person in court.
It became illegal to go on strike in certain key occupations. However, this was not always easy to enforce. 1,000 miners at a colliery in Kent were fined for going on strike in 1942. They refused to pay. Although they were threatened with jail, the threat was not carried out. The government realized it would have been impractical and self-defeating to imprison so many essential workers.
Office workers making their way through debris as they go to work after a heavy air raid on London.
Crimes of the times
Times of crisis can turn ordinary people into criminals. This can sometimes be a matter of survival at the expense of the law, but sometimes it is due to changes in the law.
Food rationing, for example, was introduced in Great Britain in January 1940. Essential products were rationed to ensure there was enough for everyone. Butter, sugar, meat, milk, and cheese were among the foods rationed. Not surprisingly, many of these could be bought for a price, but anyone buying or selling risked being fined or worse.
Civilian rationing- A shopkeeper cancels the coupons in a British housewife’s ration book
It was also a crime to misuse ration books. Some families continued to claim rations in the names of deceased family members. Or sometimes an extra ration book was sent out by mistake. One mother who had received two ration books for her 15-year-old son – an adult and a child’s book – was fined £160 ($200) for using both them.
It is true that war seems to bring out both the best and the worst in people. Although many of the crimes were committed by the kind of people we commonly recognize as “criminals,” a large number of ordinary people found themselves involved in criminal activities that they would not have imagined committing in different circumstances.
10 of the Most Heinous Forgotten War Crimes of the American Civil War
By the summer of 1864 the Confederacy was in decline on all fronts, its armies weakened by the ongoing war and the ever increasing strength of the Union forces. One hope maintained by the Confederacy was that the Union, tired of the long struggle and shocked by the casualty figures endured by the Union army, would refuse to re-elect Abraham Lincoln in November, allowing new leaders to reach a negotiated peace. Southern leaders planned several military strikes in an attempt to influence Northern voters.
In September, General Sterling Price attacked Northern Missouri using troops of the Missouri Militia, with the aim of capturing St. Louis and disrupting Mississippi river traffic. Among his troops was a well established group of guerrilla fighters led by William Anderson, who was known by the nickname &ldquoBloody Bill.&rdquo Among his guerrillas was a pair of southern Missouri brothers named Frank and Jesse James. Anderson planned to destroy railroad infrastructure at Centralia, Missouri.
When Anderson&rsquos troops arrived at Centralia on September 27 they encountered a train which carried among its passengers 23 Union soldiers on leave after the battles around Atlanta. After separating the civilian passengers from the soldiers, Anderson&rsquos men shot and scalped the Union troops, retaining one sergeant as a hostage. Anderson&rsquos men kept the Union uniforms they often raided in Missouri disguised as Union troops. They then destroyed the depot and fled the scene.
By late afternoon inexperienced Union troops were in pursuit, newly recruited men armed with muzzle loading single shot rifles. By contrast Anderson&rsquos men were mostly armed with repeating rifles and revolvers. When the Union troops caught up with Anderson they were no match for the raiders, and of the 147 who took part in the skirmish, 100 were killed. Only one was wounded.
The high ratio of killed to wounded suggests that the raiders executed wounded men as they lay. Frank James later claimed this to be the case, and also claimed that his brother Jesse killed the Union commander, Major A V Johnston. The second phase of the so called Battle of Centralia was an open fight between armed troops, but the first phase, the execution of disarmed prisoners, was simply murder.
Rape Was Rampant During the Vietnam War. Why Doesn’t US History Remember This?
<a href="http://www.cabq.gov/parksandrecreation/parks/veterans-memorial-park/history/history-vietnam-war">City of Albuquerque</a>
This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
On August 31, 1969, a rape was committed in Vietnam. Maybe numerous rapes were committed there that day, but this was a rare one involving American GIs that actually made its way into the military justice system.
And that wasn’t the only thing that set it apart.
War is obscene. I mean that in every sense of the word. Some veterans will tell you that you can’t know war if you haven’t served in one, if you haven’t seen combat. These are often the same guys who won’t tell you the truths that they know about war and who never think to blame themselves in any way for our collective ignorance.
The truth is, you actually can know a lot about war without fighting in one. It just isn’t the sort of knowledge that’s easy to come by.
There are more than 30,000 books on the Vietnam War in print. There are volumes on the decision-making of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, grand biographies of Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, rafts of memoirs by American soldiers—some staggeringly well-written, many not—and plenty of disposable paperbacks about snipers, medics, and field Marines. I can tell you from experience that if you read a few dozen of the best of them, you can get a fairly good idea about what that war was really like. Maybe not perfect knowledge, but a reasonable picture anyway. Or you can read several hundred of the middling-to-poor books and, if you pay special attention to the few real truths buried in all the run-of-the-mill war stories, you’ll still get some feeling for war American-style.
The main problem with most of those books is the complete lack of Vietnamese voices. The Vietnam War killed more than 58,000 Americans. That’s a lot of people and a lot of heartache. It deserves attention. But it killed several million Vietnamese and severely affected—and I mean severely—the lives of many millions more. That deserves a whole lot more focus.
Missing in Action (From Our Histories)
From American histories, you would think the primary feature of the Vietnam War was combat. It wasn’t. Suffering was the main characteristic of the war in Southeast Asia. Millions of Vietnamese suffered: injuries and deaths, loss, privation, hunger, dislocation, house burnings, detention, imprisonment, and torture. Some experienced one or another of these every day for years on end. That’s suffering beyond the capacity of even our ablest writers to capture in a single book.
Unfortunately, however, that’s not the problem. The problem is that almost no one has tried. Vietnamese are bit characters in American histories of the war, Vietnamese civilians most of all. Americans who tromped, humped, and slogged through Vietnam on one-year tours of duty are invariably the focus of those histories, while Vietnamese who endured a decade or even decades of war remain, at best, in the background or almost totally missing. (And by the way, it’s no less true for most of the major movies about the war. Remember the Vietnamese main characters in Apocalypse Now? Platoon? Full Metal Jacket? Hamburger Hill? Me neither.)
The reasons for this are many and varied, ranging from racism and ethnocentrism to pure financial calculation. Few Americans want to read real stories about foreign civilians caught up in America’s wars. Almost no one wants to read an encyclopedia of atrocities or a tome-like chronology of suffering. And most Americans, above all, have never wanted to know the grotesque truths of their wars. Luckily for them, most veterans have been willing to oblige—keeping the darkest secrets of that war hidden (even while complaining that no one can really know what they went through).
The truth is, we don’t even know the full story of that war’s obscenity when it comes to the American experience. This, too, has been sanitized and swapped out for tales of combat horror or “realistic” accounts of the war in the boonies that focus on repulsive realities like soldiers stepping on shit-smeared punji sticks, suffering from crotch rot, or keeling over from dehydration. Such accounts, we’ve been assured, offer a more honest depiction of the horrors of war and the men who nobly bore them.
As the narrator of Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story” puts it:
“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”
Which brings us back to that rape on August 31, 1969.
Aside from Daniel Lang’s Casualties of War, a brilliantly-compact and harrowing account of the kidnap, gang-rape, and murder of a young Vietnamese girl (a New Yorker article-turned-book-turned-movie), you’re not likely to encounter the story of the rape of a Vietnamese woman by Americans in “the literature.” And yet the sexual assault of civilians by GIs was far from uncommon, even if you can read thousands of books on the Vietnam War and have little inkling that it ever happened. Hints about the harassment or sexual assault of American women—nurses, enlisted women, and so-called Donut Dollies—also rarely make it into the histories. And you can read most, perhaps all, of those 30,000 books without ever coming across a case of GI-on-GI rape in Vietnam.
But that’s just what happened on that August 31st at a US base in Vietnam’s far south, when three GI’s attacked a fellow American, a fellow soldier. For the purposes of this piece, we’ll call him Specialist Curtis. We know his story because the court martial records of one of his assailants, who was found guilty of and sentenced to prison time, made it to the National Archives where I found the document. But really, we know it because, according to the military judge presiding over the case, Curtis delivered “clear, strong, convincing, not halting, not hesitant, not reluctant, straight-forward, direct, willing, sincere, and not evasive” testimony. He and others told a brutal story, an obscene story—that is, a true war story.
What Veterans Won’t Tell You
Curtis was feeling sick that late summer day and wouldn’t drink with his hootch-mates, so they pounced on him, held his mouth open, and poured whisky down his throat. When he began to retch, they let him go and he ran outside to throw up. He returned to his bunk and they attacked him again. The cycle repeated itself twice more.
The last attempt to force Curtis to drink began with a threat. If he didn’t imbibe with them—”them” being a fellow specialist, a private first class, and a private—they swore they would anally rape him.
In a flash, the three tore off his bed sheets and flipped him onto his stomach. They leaned on him to hold him down as he thrashed and bucked, while they ripped off his underwear. Then they smeared hand lotion all over his buttocks. As Curtis cried out for help, the private mounted him. He began to rape him and was heard to exclaim that it was “really good, it was tight.” After the private was finished, the private first class raped Curtis. The specialist followed. “I know you enjoy it,” Curtis heard one of them say before he blacked out from the pain. Across the hootch, another private watched the entire episode. Curtis had protested, he’d later say, but this soldier did nothing to intervene. He was, he later testified, “very scared” of the three attackers.
After Curtis regained consciousness, he retreated to the showers. When he finally returned to the hootch, the fellow specialist who raped him issued a threat. If he reported the attack, they would swear that he had paid them $20 each to have sex with him.
And that’s a Vietnam War story that’s absent from our histories of the conflict—all 30,000 of them.
Given the stigma attached to rape, especially decades ago, and the added stigma attached to male rape victims, it’s shocking that the case ever became public, no less that it went to trial in a military court, or that the victim gave clear, graphic, painful testimony. The truth was out there, but no one ever told this story to the wider world—neither the victim, the perpetrators, the witnesses, the lawyers, the judge, the commanders at the base, nor a historian. You could read thousands of books on the Vietnam War—even books devoted to hidden histories, secrets, and the like—and never know that, in addition to rifles and rice paddies, war is also about rape, even male-on-male rape, even GI-on-GI rape. Just how many such rapes occurred, we’ll never know, because such acts were and generally still are kept secret.
Veterans don’t tell these stories. They almost never offer up accounts of murder, assault, torture, or rape unsolicited. They don’t want you to know. Such realities need to be mined out of them. I’ve done it for the last 10 years, and believe me, it can be exhausting.
Veterans, their advocates, and their defenders often tell us it’s never okay to ask if a soldier or marine killed somebody “over there.” But if veterans refuse to offer up unsanitized accounts of their wartime experiences and it’s improper for us to ask what they did, how can civilians be faulted for failing to understand war?
To set the historical record straight, I’ve traveled across the globe, walked into people’s homes, and asked them questions to which, in a better world than ours, no one should have to know the answers. I’ve asked elderly Vietnamese to recount the most horrific traumas imaginable. I’ve induced rivers of tears. I’ve sat impassively, taking notes as an older woman, bouncing her grandchild on her knee, told me what it was like to be raped with an American weapon.
I also asked these questions of American veterans because—some notable and iconic exceptions aside—too few have had the courage of that Vietnamese grandmother. After all, some American raped her with that weapon, but as far as I know—and if anybody knew, it would probably be me—he never leveled with the American public about the true nature of his war. He never told the truth, publicly apologized, voiced regret, or even for that matter boasted about it, nor did he ever make a case for why raping a woman with a weapon was warranted in wartime. He kept it a secret and, if he’s still alive, continues to do so today. We all suffer for his silence.
On a single day in August 1969, on one base, three GIs raped a fellow American soldier. Three rapes. One day. What does that mean? What does it say about men? About the military? About war? We can’t know for sure because we’ll never know the whole truth of sexual assault in Vietnam. The men involved in wartime sex crimes—in raping Vietnamese women, in sodomizing them, in violating them with bottles and rifle muzzles, in sexually assaulting American women, in raping American men—have mostly remained silent about it.
One of the rapists in this case may have passed away, but at least one is still apparently alive in the United States. Maybe even on your street. For decades we knew nothing of their crimes, so we know less than we should about the Vietnam War and about war in general.
Maybe it’s time to start asking questions of our veterans. Hard questions. They shouldn’t be the only ones with the knowledge of what goes on in armies and in war zones. They didn’t get to Vietnam (or Iraq or Afghanistan) on their own and they shouldn’t shoulder the blame or the truth alone and in silence. We all bear it. We all need to hear it. The sooner, the better.
Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of the New York Times bestseller Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books). You can watch his recent conversation with Bill Moyers about that book by clicking here. His website is NickTurse.com. You can follow him on Tumblr and on Facebook.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.
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Which Presidents Have Been Tied to a Crime? A History
President Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives in 1998 and later cleared by the Senate in a trial.
Very few U.S. presidents have been formally tied to criminal conduct while in office, and legal uncertainty remains over whether a president can be indicted. As Michael Cohen’s guilty plea casts President Trump under possible legal scrutiny, here’s a look back at past presidents and vice presidents who have been caught up in the criminal legal system or political impeachment process:
President Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House of Representatives in 1868 during clashes with Congress over his post-Civil War policies, including his firing of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. He was acquitted by the Senate.
President Ulysses S. Grant, who served from 1869 to 1877, was once arrested for speeding in his horse and buggy—but police let him go with a fine. Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University, said the 18th president was caught speeding a few times.
Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973 after pleading no contest to a felony tax-evasion charge stemming from a broader investigation into alleged kickbacks he received during his time in Maryland politics, which included a stint as Maryland’s governor.
President Richard Nixon was famously named by a grand jury in 1974 as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Watergate scandal but never charged with a crime. He resigned before an impeachment process could be completed and later was pardoned by President Gerald Ford.
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How Has Crime and Punishment Changed Today?
The biggest change in how we deal with crimes and criminals today is in the types of punishments that are legally allowed. We no longer punish criminals as an act of revenge, and we have, thankfully, done away with torturous punishments, designed to humiliate and inflict pain. Instead, we now focus more on responding to crime with reform.
We also don't have public punishments anymore &mdash while public executions and floggings used to be typical, we now understand that those punishments were less for the sake of rehabilitation and more a way to publicly humiliate a person. Eventually, punishments for crimes became less public and more private.
The Rise of Prisons
Before the 18th century, prisons were mostly used to hold prisoners before their trial or before their public corporal punishment. They weren't considered to be very good at deterring criminals from becoming repeat offenders or a legitimate way to punish a person.
However, as lawmakers began to outlaw public punishments, prisons started to become popular. As a result, 18th-century prisons were extremely overcrowded. Prisoners would often fall ill and die because they were crammed together in small, filthy spaces.
Prison overcrowding was so bad that Britain began banishing criminals to isolated lands, like Australia and the Americas. Plus, prisoners were not separated by crime or even by gender &mdash so a murderer and a petty thief were thrown into the same room with hundreds of other criminals without a second thought.
Corrupt jailers and a lack of staff to help keep the prison safe and secure made for even worse circumstances &mdash and many times, people would stay in prison for longer than their sentence because they couldn't afford to pay the jailers to let them out.
People began suggesting the need for prison reform, but it wasn't until the 19th century that it truly began.
How Did Prisons Change in the 19th Century?
The 19th century saw prison reform in the way of individual cells. Advocates like Elizabeth Fry worked to improve the conditions for women in prison and took it upon herself to teach imprisoned women certain skills.
Men's prisons often had cruel practices, such as forcing prisoners to remain isolated &mdash not even allowed to talk, in some cases &mdash and inactive. Corporal punishment, like flogging, was still the norm, just done inside prison walls now &mdash this resulted in many prisoners killing themselves, supporting Fry's claim that prisons were inhumane and uncivilized.
She advocated for improvements for the lives of prisoners and helped change society's attitude about prisons and prisoners &mdash mainly that prisoner rehabilitation was a better use of taxes.
How Did Prisons Change Over Time?
From the early 20th century through today, prisons have changed and been improved as we become more and more aware of how humanity functions. The cruel and unusual punishments that still hung around in prisons in the 19th century began to be phased out, once it was understood that they were ineffective.
Instead, we now focus more on rehabilitation and reform. Improvements in the prison system include better food, sanitary conditions and the opportunity for inmates to take classes and learn useful trade skills they can use once freed. Instead of focusing on how to punish people for crimes they've committed, we now work to understand what led them to commit the crime and find ways to prevent others from following similar paths.
We also have started to understand the importance of prison as a place in which to rehabilitate the person, so they can return to society with new skills and education that may not have been available to them before.
Crimes and Consequences in Ancient Rome
After capturing King Jugurtha, Gaius Marius paraded his chained captive through Rome in a victory procession.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
In ancient Rome, commanders who broke the unwritten rules of military conduct might be greeted with either praise or punishment.
AS THE SUMMER OF 107 BCE DREW TO A CLOSE, Gaius Marius drove his legions deeper into the North African interior, determined to accomplish something great. A newly elected consul of the Roman Republic, he had recently taken command of Rome’s war against King Jugurtha, a canny foe whose Numidian kingdom sprawled across the north African coast in what today is Algeria. When Jugurtha refused to meet the legions head on in battle, preferring to use his mobile cavalry to raid and ambush rather than get chopped to bits by the Roman heavy infantry, Marius adopted the strategy of assaulting Numidian strongholds one by one.
Gaius Marius (Glyptothek München)
His latest target was the fortified town of Capsa, which reconnaissance revealed would be difficult to capture. Aside from its solid defenses, it was nestled in a sun-baked desert bereft of water, lacking forage, and reportedly infested with venomous snakes. None of this deterred Marius. He led his army in a series of daring marches until they arrived by night just a few kilometers outside Capsa. After concealing his forces in some hills, he watched and waited until the light of dawn began stretching over the horizon. The inhabitants of Capsa, utterly unaware of the legions lurking nearby, opened the gates to the town and went about their morning business. Marius saw his moment.
The Roman cavalry and light infantry sprang out of their hiding places and raced to the open gates, with Marius bringing up the rest of his army close behind. The people of Capsa immediately panicked as they saw the Romans barreling toward their open gates. Their leaders lost heart and surrendered before the wave of attacking legionaries crashed against their walls.
Despite the surrender, Marius did not restrain his men. In light of Capsa’s strategic importance, he thought the population could not be trusted and decided to neutralize the latent threat. His forces butchered the town’s adult males, rounded up women and children for sale into slavery, and then looted and torched Capsa.
THE ROMAN HISTORIAN SALLUST, WRITING IN THE FIRST CENTURY BCE, asserts that Marius committed an “act against the laws of war” by destroying Capsa after its people had surrendered. Yet the Romans did not have a concept of “war crimes” in a codified, legal sense. Nor did they invariably regard massacres, mass enslavement, or the destruction of entire towns and cities as beyond the pale. Indeed, Roman warfare was frequently punctuated by these and other large-scale atrocities, usually without comment or criticism in ancient texts. Such was common enough in the ancient world, when there were no effective international laws to curtail military violence and where victors enjoyed the “rights of conquest” over the vanquished—effectively the right to do whatever they wanted to defeated enemies.
On the other hand, the Romans did develop norms and conventions for the treatment of enemies who surrendered, and this is probably what Sallust means by “laws of war.” Notably, it was customary to spare enemies who submitted “before the ram touches the wall”—that is, who yielded without resisting. As the Roman historian Livy puts it, “towns are sacked after they are captured, not after they surrender.” These ideas were formalized in a Roman ritual of unconditional surrender called deditio in fidem, or “surrender to the good faith” of Rome. In this procedure, the surrendering party formally yielded its people, community, and property to Roman discretion. Polybius, a Greek author, observes that “the Romans gain possession of everything [in a deditio], and those who surrender remain in possession of absolutely nothing.” This may seem severe, and technically the ritual gave commanders license to do whatever they wanted. But the expectation—and the usual outcome—was that the Romans would treat the vanquished relatively well, perhaps imposing some minor punishment but then restoring their liberty and property.
Roman generals like Marius did not always follow these unwritten rules of conduct, however, and they were almost never punished for breaking them, as these were customs and conventions, not formal laws. Yet in the second century bce, three Roman commanders suffered severe political backlash when they treated surrendering enemies with abject ruthlessness. Their celebrated cases reveal that while the Romans took their military norms seriously, they ultimately failed to restrain gratuitous violence in war.
The first of these cases came in the summer of 189 bce, when the consul Fulvius Nobilior assaulted the Grecian city of Ambracia. Ambracia was a member of the Aetolian League, a confederation of communities at war with Rome it was well-fortified and strategically significant, so its capture would be a coup. Yet despite Nobilior’s tireless efforts to break through its defenses by using tunnels, siege engines, and towers, the Ambracians and their small Aetolian garrison bravely deflected every Roman attack. As exhaustion set in, the two sides entered negotiations. The Aetolian League made a separate peace with Rome, ending their war, while the Ambracians formally surrendered their city to Nobilior—who then let his soldiers thoroughly plunder the city.
On his way back to Rome a couple of years later, Nobilior planned to request a triumph for his accomplishments. (A triumph was a parade through Rome that celebrated a general’s glorious victories and reveled in the destruction of foreign foes it was a great honor, only granted for outstanding military success.) But Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, one of Nobilior’s political opponents, saw an opportunity to turn sentiment against him. As Livy writes, Lepidus “introduced ambassadors from Ambracia into the Roman Senate, having suborned them to make accusations against Fulvius.” The Ambracian ambassadors bewailed that Nobilior had attacked them without just cause and sacked their city with utmost savagery. To add to their accusations, Lepidus forced the passage of a senatorial decree that ordered the return of the Ambracians’ looted property. Then he tacked on an additional clause stating that Ambracia had not been captured by force—suggesting that Nobilior had seized and sacked the city by less than glorious means.
Nobilior and his allies maintained that there was nothing unusual about the sack of Ambracia, since this sort of thing was commonplace when cities were captured in war. Moreover, they argued, Nobilior deserved a triumph for capturing Ambracia, since his soldiers had fought at the walls of the city for 15 days, inflicting 3,000 casualties on their resolute enemy. Most members of the Senate obviously agreed: In the end Fulvius got his triumph and openly paraded his well-won Ambracian loot to adoring Roman crowds.
SOME 16 YEARS AFTER NOBILIOR SACKED AMBRACIA, another Roman consul led his army against the Statellates, a Ligurian tribe in northwestern Italy. Although this particular tribe was not at war with Rome, its leaders drew up warriors for combat when they saw the legions approaching. The Roman commander, Popilius Laenas, was itching for a fight and, quickly throwing his own troops against the enemy’s, won the ensuing battle. When the Statellates surrendered afterward, Laenas took away their weapons, sacked their main town, and sold them all into slavery.
Laenas proudly reported all of this to the Roman Senate, apparently expecting praise for a job well done. Instead, many senators were appalled: He had attacked the only Ligurian tribe still at peace with Rome and then enslaved its people after their formal surrender this was not only harmful to Rome’s reputation but strategically unwise, since it set a bad precedent for other communities that might surrender in the future. The Senate ordered Laenas to free the enslaved Statellates and restore their property. Infuriated, he instead returned to the capital to object. As far as he was concerned, the Senate should have decreed honors to the immortal gods for the successes he had enjoyed in war. The Senate then ordered another consul to liberate the Statellates and resettle them farther south. The senators also supported the creation of a special court to prosecute Laenas for his misdeeds, but this came to nothing. In 159 bce Laenas was even elected to the prestigious office of censor. Any ill will against him presumably must have faded away.
FINALLY, IN 150 BCE, A PAIR OF ROMAN COMMANDERS led a two-pronged invasion into western Spain and systematically ravaged the landscape. They were determined to suppress the Lusitanians, a tribe that had been launching regular raids into Roman territory and had humiliatingly defeated several Roman armies. Their punishing counterattack worked: Several Lusitanian communities approached Sulpicius Galba, one of the Roman generals, and formally surrendered. At first Galba received them kindly, made a truce, and pretended to be sympathetic to their plight. “It is your poor soil and your poverty that compels you to [raid and make war],” he told them, according to the Greek historian Appian. “I will give my needy friends good land, dividing them into three sections and settling you in a bountiful country.” Galba then led the Lusitanians to three different locations with the promise of resettlement, where his troops disarmed them, surrounded them, and massacred all men of military age. They sold the women and children.
If Galba expected a hero’s welcome in Rome for suppressing the Lusitanians, he was sorely disappointed. In a series of public meetings, several senators denounced him for violating the “good faith” of Rome. Among his accusers was Marcus Cato the Elder, a leading statesman, a bitter rival, and a famously effective speaker. One Roman official also proposed a bill that would not only have sought out and freed the enslaved Lusitanian survivors but also put Galba on trial in a special criminal court. Yet Galba was an accomplished orator himself, and he delivered three speeches in his own defense, in which he claimed that the massacre was preemptive because the Lusitanians were planning to attack his army and had only pretended to make a truce to hide their real plans. Galba later appeared before the citizenry with his children in tow, tearfully entrusting the youths to the guardianship of the Roman people after all, they would soon become orphans if he were condemned in court.
Roman voters rejected the proposals arrayed against Galba, so there was no special trial and no remediation for the survivors of his massacre. His pragmatic justification for violence and pitiful histrionics were apparently more persuasive than norms or ethical principles with respect to the treatment of enemies. In fact, Galba went on to hold the consulship, Rome’s highest elected office, a few years later. Evidently the Romans decided that his atrocity was acceptable, or at least forgivable.
There was an epilogue to this story, albeit an unimpressive one. The same year that Galba escaped trial, the Romans passed a law called the Lex Calpurnia. The law instituted a permanent court designed to prosecute the misbehavior of Roman officials operating abroad. Several scholars argue that this new court was a direct response to Galba’s case and an effort to prevent similar atrocities in the future. But if so, the new courts were a weak remedy, as they were solely concerned with the restoration of property and offered no restitution for massacre, enslavement, or other such sufferings.
FOR SOME LEADING ROMANS, VIOLATIONS OF MILITARY CUSTOM WERE SERIOUS OFFENSES. Otherwise there would have been no grounds for complaint against Galba, Laenas, and Nobilior, and no audience willing to hear the accusations against them. Nonetheless, their stories show that Rome’s “surrender norms” were a poor source of restraint in war. On the one hand, the mistreatment of surrendered enemies could inspire public outrage and could be weaponized by political rivals. Galba and Laenas were even threatened with formal trials, which might have ruined their political careers, or worse. On the other hand, none of these men thought they had done anything wrong—Laenas and Nobilior even expected reward—and none were punished. All went on to enjoy future political success.
In the end, the three cases illustrate the inherent flexibility of military ethics in Rome and elsewhere: Breaches of norms only become “criminal” if there is a way, and a willingness, to punish offenders. MHQ
Gabriel Baker is a historian who specializes in mass violence and atrocity in ancient warfare.
This article appears in the Summer 2020 issue (Vol. 32, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Laws of War | Crimes and Consequence
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The Origins of the Geneva Conventions
The Origins of the Geneva Conventions
The rules of war are part of the Geneva Convention and they first were established in the 19th century.
They dictate what can and cannot be done during armed conflict. They aim to protect people who are not fighting in the conflict and curb the brutality of war by setting limits on the weapons and tactics that can be employed.
Representatives of aid groups say there is a growing disregard for these rules in conflict zones around the world. "It has become glaringly obvious that respect for international humanitarian law is in decline," says Scott Paul, the humanitarian policy lead of Oxfam America, a global aid agency.
History of the rules of war
Although our modern rules of war can be traced back to ancient civilizations and religions, it was Henri Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross, who began the process of codifying these customs into international humanitarian law. In 1864, he helped establish the first Geneva Convention, an international treaty that required armies to care for the sick and wounded on the battlefield. It was adopted by 12 European countries.
Over the next 85 years, diplomats debated and adopted additional amendments and treaties to address the treatment of combatants at sea and prisoners of war — not just combatants on battlefields. In 1949, after the horrors of World War II, diplomats gathered again in Geneva to adopt four treaties that reaffirmed and updated the previous treaties and expanded the rules to protect civilians. They're now collectively known as the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and contain the most important rules of war.
Upholding the rules
Since then, the rules of war have been ratified by 196 states. They protect people who are not fighting in the conflict and curb the brutality of war by setting limits on the weapons and tactics that can be employed. In 2014, for example, the rules helped guarantee safe passage for civilians in South Sudan to flee violence.
They're also used in domestic and international courts to determine if a government or non-governmental militant group is guilty of a war crime. If a warring party is accused of violating international humanitarian law — whether by an individual, group, country or observer — countries are obligated to investigate. The U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, for example, helped punish war criminals who committed mass atrocities during the Bosnian war in the 1990s.
The U.N. Security Council, a group of 15 countries at the U.N. charged to maintain international peace and security, may also impose sanctions — like a travel ban or an arms embargo — as an incentive for warring parties to comply with the rules of war.
Enforcing the rules can be difficult. For example, the five veto-holding permanent members of the Security Council — the U.S., China, Russia, the U.K. and France — must vote unanimously to pursue a resolution that might call for an investigation, refer a case to a court for trial, threaten sanctions or propose another motion. But often one or several of these countries has a vested interest in the conflict in question.
As mandated by the Conventions, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has a special role to play as a guardian of these laws. The ICRC tracks the evolution of warfare and makes recommendations for updates to the rules accordingly. It also participates in U.N. discussions on crises and potential violations to ensure the rules are being upheld.
In addition, the ICRC helps inform the public of the rules of war through videos and social media messaging. This 2-minute film, titled "Why we can't save her life," won a Grand Prix award at the Cannes Lions festival in France this month. The film reminds people that hospitals are not a target.
The rules of war
Although there are many rules contained in the Conventions, here are six crucial principles that are relevant to ongoing conflicts. Because the rules themselves often use legal terms, we have paraphrased the language. To read the original language, click here:
1. No targeting civilians
Airstrike Reportedly Hits Doctors Without Borders Facility In Yemen
Intentionally targeting civilians, buildings such as schools or houses and infrastructure like water sources or sanitation facilities is a war crime. Killing or injuring a person who has surrendered or is no longer able to fight is also prohibited, as is punishing someone for an act that another person, even a family member, has committed.
Attacks should only be directed at military objectives, and military targets such as bases and stockpiles should not be placed in or near populated areas.
If the expected "incidental civilian damage" of an attack is "excessive and disproportionate" to the anticipated military gain, then the attack legally cannot be carried out.
There is one caveat: a civilian structures, for example a school, may become a legitimate target if it is being used for specific military operations — as a base to launch attacks, for example, or a weapons storehouse.
2. No torture or inhumane treatment of detainees
Torture and other forms of cruel, degrading or ill treatment are expressly prohibited. The lives, rights and dignity of detainees should be preserved. They must be given food and water, protected from violence and allowed to communicate with their families.
There are no exceptions to this rule, even when torture might elicit lifesaving information.
3. No attacking hospitals and aid workers
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Can Attacks On Aid Workers Be Stopped?
The wounded and sick always have a right to be cared for, regardless of which side of the conflict they're on. Medical and aid workers who are on duty in these areas make an effort to be neutral and serve both sides of the conflict. They must, therefore, be protected by all warring parties and allowed access to collect and care for the wounded and sick.
If combatants see a red cross or red crescent, symbols of the national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, they should know that person or place should not be attacked
But the rules of law do grant an exception for hospitals as well as other civilian structures. If a hospital is being used for specific military operations, it may become a legitimate target.
4. Provide safe passage for civilians to flee
Parties to a conflict must take all reasonable steps to evacuate civilians from areas where there is fighting. In the heat of conflict, such steps can take the form of advanced warnings or the creation of "safe corridors" for civilians to leave a besieged city and for humanitarian workers to deliver aid and services. Civilians must never be blocked from fleeing.
5. Provide access to humanitarian organizations
Civilians and militants who are no longer fighting in the conflict have a right to receive the help they need, whether it's medical care, food, water or shelter. This means that restricting the delivery of humanitarian aid — through naval and air blockades, closing ports or confiscating supplies — is prohibited. In fact, deliberately causing starvation and hunger is a war crime.
6. No unnecessary or excessive loss and suffering
The tactics and weapons used in war must be proportionate and necessary to achieve a definitive military objective. The use of weapons that are "by nature indiscriminate," according to the Geneva Conventions, is prohibited.
For example, the use of land mines, while not banned, is limited because they can indiscriminately kill and maim both combatants and civilians.
Joanne Lu is a freelance journalist who covers global poverty and inequity. Her work has appeared in Humanosphere, The Guardian, Global Washington and War is Boring. Follow her on Twitter @joannelu.
U.S. War Crimes Of World War 2: Mutilation In The Pacific
Ralph Crane, Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images via Wikimedia Photo published in the May 22, 1944 issue of LIFE magazine, with the following caption: “When he said goodby two years ago to Natalie Nickerson, 20, a war worker of Phoenix, Arizona, a big, handsome Navy lieutenant promised her a Jap. Last week, Natalie received a human skull, autographed by her lieutenant and 13 friends and inscribed: ‘This is a good Jap-a dead one picked up on the New Guinea beach.’ Natalie, surprised at the gift, named it Tojo. The armed forces disapprove strongly of this sort of thing.”
In 1984, some four decades after the battles of World War II had torn the area apart, the Mariana Islands repatriated the remains of Japanese soldiers killed there during the war back to their homeland. Nearly 60 percent of those corpses were missing their skulls.
Throughout the United States’ campaign in the Pacific theater, American soldiers indeed mutilated Japanese corpses and took trophies — not just skulls, but also teeth, ears, noses, even arms — so often that the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet himself had to issue an official directive against it in September 1942.
And when that didn’t take, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were forced to issue the same order again in January 1944.
Ultimately, however, neither order seemed to make much difference. While it’s understandably all but impossible to determine precisely how many incidents of corpse mutilation and trophy taking occurred, historians generally agree that the problem was widespread.
Wikimedia Commons A skull fixed to a tree in Tarawa, December 1943.
According to James J. Weingartner’s Trophies of War, it is clear that the “practice was not uncommon.” Similarly, Niall Ferguson writes in The War of the World,that “boiling the flesh off enemy [Japanese] skulls to make souvenirs was not an uncommon practice. Ears, bones and teeth were also collected.”
And as Simon Harrison puts it in “Skull trophies of the Pacific War, “The collection of body parts on a scale large enough to concern the military authorities had started as soon as the first living or dead Japanese bodies were encountered.”
In addition to the assessments of historians, we’re left also with several equally grim anecdotes that suggest the appalling breadth of the problem. Indeed, the extent to which repugnant activities like corpse mutilation were able to sometimes poke their way into the mainstream back home suggests just how often they were going on down in the depths of the battlefield.
Consider, for example, that on June 13, 1944, The Nevada Daily Mail wrote (in a report that has since been cited by Reuters) that Congressman Francis E. Walter presented President Franklin Roosevelt with a letter opener made out of a Japanese soldier’s arm bone. In response, Roosevelt reportedly said, “This is the sort of gift I like to get” and “There’ll be plenty more such gifts.”
Then there was the infamous photo published in LIFE magazine on May 22, 1944, depicting a young woman in Arizona gazing at the Japanese skull sent to her by her boyfriend serving in the Pacific.
Wikimedia Commons Clockwise from top left: U.S. soldier with the Japanese skull adopted as the “mascot” of Navy Motor Torpedo Boat 341 circa April 1944, U.S. soldiers boiling a Japanese skull for preservation purposes circa 1944, a Japanese soldier’s severed head hangs from a tree in Burma circa 1945, a skull adorns a sign at Peleliu in October 1944.
Or consider that when famed pilot Charles Lindbergh (who wasn’t allowed to enlist but did fly bombing missions as a civilian) passed through customs in Hawaii on his way home from the Pacific, the customs agent asked him if he was carrying any bones. When Lindbergh expressed shock at the question, the agent explained that the smuggling of Japanese bones had become so common that this question was now routine.
Elsewhere in his wartime journals, Lindbergh notes that Marines explained to him that it was common practice to remove ears, noses, and the like from Japanese corpses, and that killing Japanese stragglers for this purpose was “a sort of hobby.”
Surely it’s just this sort of conduct that induced Lindbergh, one of the great American heroes of the pre-war period, to render this damning summation on American atrocities committed against the Japanese in his journals:
As far back as one can go in history, these atrocities have been going on, not only in Germany with its Dachaus and its Buchenwalds and its Camp Doras, but in Russia, in the Pacific, in the riotings and lynchings at home, in the less-publicized uprisings in Central and South America, the cruelties of China, a few years ago in Spain, in pogroms of the past, the burning of witches in New England, tearing people apart on the English racks, burnings at the stake for the benefit of Christ and God. I look down at the pit of ashes….This, I realize, is not a thing confined to any nation or to any people. What the German has done to the Jew in Europe, we are doing to the Jap in the Pacific.