War and Homicide

Posted By January 2, 2005 No Comments

You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.

— William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs, 1875


The filmed shooting of a wounded insurgent in Iraq by a US Marine during last November’s excise of the Jihadists in Falluja didn’t provoked much of a debate — those who are opposed to the war remain so, those who support it haven’t wavered in their stance. There was some discussion about whether the Marine may have felt justified in doing so because he had reportedly lost a comrade to a wounded Jihadist the day before, and was himself wounded by a booby trapped body. Regardless, the US Military intends to haul him up before a court martial.

The discussions about whether the shooting was “legitimate” skirted around a virtual absence of fact and guidance. While the central act of war is homicide and there is no end to histories and studies of almost every facet of combat, the shelves of literature on the actual act of killing in warfare are strangely barren when it comes to issues like shooting a wounded prisoner. The only exception to this comes under ‘Rules of Engagement’ Instructions issued to Western troops when on particular missions – but these are seldom, if ever, made public.

That war is homicide is a point that needs no debate. War revolves around killing people, but in a manner that most of us sanction in one way or another. In the eyes of most societies, what separates the soldier from the common murderer are three conditions: First, the soldier is assumed to be fighting in some way for the benefit of the society he represents; that he likewise fights at the direction of the leaders of that society and more or less remains under control; and finally that he is under an assumption of risk – he kills today, but may himself be killed tomorrow.

Uniformed fighting men (and women) assume risk, but it is recognized that they will strive to limit these. Killing the enemy from ambush or from a position of superiority is perfectly acceptable. After all, the successful fighter pilot might himself be shot down from behind tomorrow; the lurking submarine might also be torpedoed by an unseen opponent or it is the turn of yesterday’s ambusher to walk into somebody else’s ambush. Until that moment comes, every combatant strives to minimize risk to themselves as much as possible.

We have ‘rules’, laws, customs and unwritten practices that outline what aspects of homicide are acceptable or not during warfare, yet there is a substantial gray area between some absolutes. It is entirely acceptable for a soldier to kill another soldier who is shooting at him. It is entirely unacceptable to take secured unarmed prisoners in a safe area, and shoot them down. The gray areas lie between, shading from light to dark according to circumstances and situations. The customs and unwritten practices of combatants remain an ambiguous and largely unexplored territory although they go far towards defining what is permissible according to men in battle.

What should be first and foremost in determining what is or is not acceptable is the state of mind of combatants themselves. Combatants are subjected to a complex cocktail of exhilaration and constant dread, adrenalin and mind-numbing fatigue, love and hatred – all in varying strengths and all are powerful influences by themselves. Discipline is supposed to help to inhibit some of the more extreme reactions this cocktail can induce, but it is less strong than the demands of peer esteem and other mechanics of group dynamics.

Peer respect and shared values are the strongest influences on the behavior of soldiers. In combat, the “laws” of war or guidance provided by Rules of Engagement matter less than most of us suppose, save only through their indirect influence on the soldiers through their shared values. Concepts that arise out of traditional morality can have a strong influence but can also be much weakened by the stresses of combat and keyed instinctive or drilled responses.

One ‘‘light gray’ area concerns the killing of people who are trying to surrender in the middle of combat. Most of the literature in this area is anecdotal, but there are many stories about it. A friend of the author once described watching a German fire an anti-tank rocket into a Canadian tank from ambush – killing all but one of the five man crew. Then the German immediately stood up with his hands in the air to offer surrender, only to be promptly cut in half with a burst from an infantryman’s Bren gun.

The thinking of the Canadian infantryman was probably along the lines of “F**k you for thinking you’d get away with that.” Another observation from the famous war correspondent Alan Moorhead was of an Australian killing a German machine gunner in North Africa who had kept firing until the Aussies were within a hand-grenade’s toss of his trench. The German then offered surrender, but was told “Too late, chum” (or words to that effect) and gunned down. The end of the D-Day landing sequence of the movie Saving Private Ryan can also give the uninitiated a hint about the state of mind of a soldier and his attitude towards his enemies in the immediate aftermath of a brutal encounter.

A combatant who puts his hands in the air at the very last minute will usually be killed by his attackers, who are usually unwilling to allow the survival of someone who just shot at them. In a similar vein, in Shakespeare’s Henry V (Act III, Scene III) the King tells the Governor of Harfleur to yield while his soldiers are in command of themselves – or else. By time honored custom, men who endured the horrors and death traps in storming the defences of a fortified city would be merciless to defenders (and their families) who had not surrendered beforehand. As late as 1813, British troops felt that they had an absolute right to rape and rob the inhabitants of cities whose defences had to be stormed. Soviet troops behaved the same way in the fiercely defended Berlin of 1945.

More problematical is the issue of accepting the surrender of people who can’t or won’t offer it, yet have stopped resisting. In the chaos of an assault with the pressing need to immediately secure an objective, there may be no time to debate the issue – so it is solved in more direct ways. There are many anecdotes about troops who wouldn’t come out of their dugouts or caves once the entrance had been captured: So in goes the grenade or demolition charge and the issue is settled. Police behave much the same way with a suspect who simply won’t drop his weapon; other than with a perfunctory inquiry, the shooting is usually regarded as closed.

One grey area is illustrated by an anecdote from Barry Broadfoot’s impressive collection in Six War Years (1974, Doubleday, Toronto, pg 237):

The thing I hated was when they’d call up a carrier with a flamethrower to burn out one of their pillboxes. I can still sort of turn green when I think of it. I remember once there was this pillbox, and we could hear the guys inside yelling. We didn’t know what they were yelling and I told the sergeant maybe they wanted to surrender but the door was jammed. I said it might have taken a hit and buckled but they couldn’t get out. He said, “Fuck ‘em” and yelled to the guy with the flamethrower to turn on the heat, and you should have heard those Germans in that pillbox screaming. God it was awful.

Was this murder, rather than the more legitimate homicide of combat? The narrator doesn’t relate whether this was an ongoing assault or not, and a soldier going forward to invite the occupants of the pillbox to surrender might be shot at – one can notice that the narrator didn’t volunteer to do it either. Besides, the sergeant had an obligation to protect his own men, and on the principle that it better to be safe than sorry…

Soldiers are also discriminating about accepting the surrender of those who use weapons they really don’t like. Snipers and flamethrower operators are often likely to be shot out of hand by their captors. Similarly, in WW I, German soldiers who had been issued a saw-backed bayonet were usually advised by their comrades to immediately throw it away (there is a reference to this in All Quiet on the Western Front) as Allied soldiers were likely to summarily shoot any surrendering soldier who had one – in the belief that these bayonets were intended to cause excessively brutal injuries.

There is a substantial grey area about the issue of those who use surrender or who feign being wounded as an opportunity to deceive their enemy into drawing closer. The Jihadists in Iraq are notorious for doing this, and the Waffen SS were known to sometimes engage in the same practices in WW II. Again, a soldier’s first responsibility is his own self-preservation for as long as possible; and a foe who routinely booby-traps his own wounded or who throws a grenade after indicating a willingness to surrender is not going to be given an inch of trust. Even so, American troops in Falluja killed 1,200 of their opponents while taking 2,000 prisoners – clearly not all the Jihadists were faking it, nor were the Marines and soldiers entirely pragmatic and ruthless.

When fighting a fanatical and treacherous opponent like the Jihadis, soldiers can be forgiven for incidents of shooting enemy wounded or for demanding that an individual offering surrender must first strip down to his underwear. Interestingly, most of the photographs of captured Japanese in WW II (and there were a few hundred or so), show them stripped down to their loincloths in a bid to demonstrate that they weren’t concealing weapons.

There are some other conventions about taking prisoners that are seldom discussed except in the occasional anecdotes from soldiers. In combat, even if a surrender is accepted, keeping a prisoner is often difficult. Soldiers on patrol inside territory controlled by the enemy may not want to encumber (and hence endanger) themselves – unless their specific task is to capture someone for subsequent interrogation. They will be especially reluctant to carry back a wounded enemy. Barry Broadfoot has at least one anecdote along these lines while the novelist George MacDonald Fraser recounted a similar episode (where they spared the prisoner after some debate) from his time in Burma in 1945. Technically, what happens next is murder but it is also self-preservation.

It can also be extremely difficult to keep prisoners in the middle of combat. Imagine an infantry platoon which has just managed a successful assault on a defended position; and half a dozen of the enemy are standing around with their hands up. At this moment, only half of the 30 or so men in the platoon are available to its commander – two or three of his men are dead, four or five are seriously wounded and need prompt attention, another half dozen or so are lightly wounded and/or too unlikely to move themselves from cover in the next few minutes. Half (or more) of the platoon’s ammunition has been used and this is the usual time for a counter-attacking enemy force to show up. For the platoon commander, every man and every minute is crucial – can he really spare two or three men to escort the prisoners to the rear?

Often they won’t. Or, equally commonly, two or three men who are given an order like “Take these to Company Headquarters and then double back here – you’ve got a minute” will disappear out of sight and shoot their prisoners immediately. Charles B. MacDonald, the American military historian, recounts a couple of episodes like this in his personal memoirs, Company Commander, of fighting in Europe in 1944-45. A British and a Canadian veteran of WW II both had similar tales for the writer, and there are many other accounts in numerous memoirs. The Germans in Russia were often even more brutal – Guy Sajer (whose gripping story The Forgotten Soldier is a rare account from a German infantryman) described one of his comrades tying Soviet prisoners together and then leaving an ignited grenade in the pocket of one of them.

Still, veteran soldiers tend not to regard the shooting of prisoners by front-line troops as murder per se, or if they do, they generally do not make much of a fuss about it. While it is sometimes seen as being cruel (and the writers normally disprove of the act), it is also not always considered to be entirely inappropriate under the circumstances.

However, soldiers are not unequivocal about episodes like the massacre of American POWs at Malmedy and of Canadian POWs at ‘Panzer’ Meyer’s HQ in Normandy, or by the Japanese bayoneting of wounded Allied soldiers in a hospital in Hong Kong. From the narratives in numerous memoirs, it seems that once a captured soldier has been brought back as far as a company HQ, he should be entirely safe — in Western militaries anyway. The vast majority of the opponents of Western troops since 1945 have never felt obligated to look up the Geneva Conventions, let alone think about applying them.

Another dividing line between quasi-legitimate homicide and actual murder for prisoners lies with some act of simple human contact. In many memoirs and recollections giving a cigarette or a drink of water to a prisoner seemingly re-established his ‘humanity’, turning him from an enemy into a fellow soldier, and thus guaranteed his survival by his immediate captors.

To step back into the combat boots of that Marine in Fallujah who was filmed shooting a wounded insurgent in the head, it isn’t clear that this was an act of murder. By the reckoning of a Marine on Okinawa in 1945, or a Canadian up against the Hitlerjugend SS in Normandy in 1944, the shooting would not be unremarkable. They also faced opponents who might lie still when wounded, only to pull the pin from a grenade when approached; or who might raise their hands in surrender only to lure a would-be captor closer to an ambush.

Did that Marine commit an act of homicide? Certainly – that’s what he was there to do. Was it murder? Perhaps those who have been in similar circumstances are the only people who could answer that question.