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War Crimes Redux


Monday, Nov. 26, 2007

"It's War!" shouts the giant Los Angeles Times headline reprinted in the new edition of Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know. The book, published this month, is a normative response to the newspaper's call: It enumerates and analyzes the manifold legal issues raised by war.

What is the responsibility of military commanders for crimes committed by their subordinates? When does the killing of civilians constitute collateral damage -- regrettable if not illegal -- and when it is a war crime? What do the Geneva Conventions say about terrorism? These are among the questions that Crimes of War addresses.

The Los Angeles Times headline that opens the book dates from 1941, but the bulk of the new volume is preoccupied with the questions, complications, and controversies associated with modern warfare. Conceived as a primer for journalists and interested members of the public, and written in a cogent and accessible style, the book covers all of the varied players in today's wars -- from guerrillas to death squads, child soldiers to mercenaries. And it does not shy away from addressing all of their appalling acts, including wanton destruction, systematic rape, enforced disappearance, and ethnic cleansing.

Originally published in 1999, but just reissued in expanded form, Crimes of War remains an indispensable tool for reporters and others who seek to understand the legal rules that, in theory at least, constrain human behavior in wartime. While narrating a depressing litany of atrocities (Grozny, Halabja, and Abu Ghraib, among others), the 447-page book also describes the Geneva Conventions and related treaties, and assesses the progress of international tribunals responsible for trying the perpetrators of war crimes and other violations of the laws of war.

Laudably, the book manages to span the gap between what should happen and what does happen, without yielding to naivete or to cynicism.

A Changed Context

Like its predecessor, the revised edition of Crimes of War is packaged as an A-to-Z guide -- A for Aggression, Afghanistan, and Apartheid, B for Bosnia, and so on -- but it now includes chapters on such newly salient topics as Darfur, Iraq, and private military contractors.

The chastened and somewhat apologetic tone of the book's new introduction is telling. While the first edition of Crimes of War was written with the Balkan wars as backdrop, the new edition has the U.S. "war on terror" as its setting. Rather than violations by so-called rogue states, it is the actions of Western powers -- the United States, in particular -- that now seem to pose the greatest threat to the vitality of international humanitarian law rules. As the editors explain, "in a very short time, the United States went from being the guarantor of the regime of humanitarian law to becoming a major violator of it."

The guarded optimism of the earlier introduction is gone, replaced by a more somber realism. Instead of talk of a "new paradigm" in which accountability for violations of the laws of war may soon become the norm, the introduction to the second edition simply affirms that the laws of war are "not obsolete." They may be honored in the breach, the introduction acknowledges, but they remain our best protection against barbarism.

The extent to which times have changed since the book's first edition can also be gauged by examining which chapters have been added, revised, or replaced. While historian Benny Morris's chapter on the Arab-Israeli wars was not updated to reference the 2006 war in Lebanon, the book's discussions of torture, combatant status, weapons, and "gray areas in international humanitarian law" were adapted to reflect recent developments. And besides the added chapter on the ongoing Iraq conflict, new chapters on Guantanamo, detention and interrogation, and the Second Intifada attest to the pressing relevance of what the Bush Administration insists on calling a "new kind of war."

The chapter on terrorism was, unsurprisingly, begun afresh. It now focuses on al Qaeda, the radical post-September 11 claims asserted by the U.S. government, and the concept of a global war on terrorism (a conflict that, understood more narrowly and realistically, pits the United States against al Qaeda and affiliated groups).

Anthony Dworkin, the chapter's author, points out that the concept of terrorism is legally ambiguous but emotionally resonant. Because the term still lacks an internationally-agreed-upon meaning, it "tends to become a place-holder for those forms of political violence that the speaker regards as most illegitimate."

The result is an inconsistent and practically incoherent set of claims that gives the lie to the supposed international consensus against terrorism. The United States, for example, views the 2000 attack on the USS Cole as terrorism, although the Cole was a military vessel. The Chinese government condemns Uighur nationalists as terrorists, regardless of whether they have engaged in acts of violence. And out of sympathy for the Palestinian cause, many Arab and Muslim governments refuse to recognize suicide bombings against Israeli civilians as terrorism. Not only do these conflicting approaches explain the international community's inability to reach consensus on a convention to define and outlaw terrorism, they bode poorly for future global efforts to combat the phenomenon.

All-Star Roster of Contributors

Crimes of War describes these issues clearly and succinctly. And since it was written not by scholars, but largely by journalists and activists who witnessed firsthand the scenes that they describe, it is a gripping read.

The book's table of contents reveals that its 100 or so contributors include many of the best journalists and photojournalists working today. Among the writers are CNN's Christiane Amanpour, the New Yorker's Jon Lee Anderson, the BBC's Jeremy Bowen, Dana Priest of the Washington Post, and David Rieff of the New York Times Magazine. The photographers -- whose images are equal in importance to the text in this beautifully-designed book -- include Gilles Peress, James Nachtwey, and Annie Leibovitz.

One contributor, Sydney Schanberg, ends his piece on Cambodia with a few lines that could well serve as an overall conclusion to the volume:

It is hopeless, then, to try to strengthen both international law and its enforcement? No, never hopeless, not if you believe in the possibility of improvement, not matter how slight. Journalists are by blood and tradition committed to the belief, or at least to the tenet, of trying to keep bad things from getting any worse than they already are. Thus, this book.

Joanne Mariner is a human rights attorney who has worked with many of the contributors to Crimes of War in places like Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Darfur. She directs readers to for more information about the new edition.

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