An unflinching examination of humanity’s brutality in warfare – Max Hastings

In 1649, Oliver Cromwell, victorious in Drogheda, Ireland, justified the execution of 2,000 prisoners and civilians as a “righteous judgement.” From ancient times to modern conflicts like WWI, WWII, and beyond, atrocities persist, perpetuating cycles of violence. Instances like the Clarion operation in WWII or the Tulle massacre during the French Resistance illustrate the dehumanising impact of war. The struggle to preserve civilised values amidst violence remains a constant challenge in all theatres of war.

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War Is Hell, Especially for Civilians: Max Hastings

By Max Hastings

(Bloomberg Opinion) —

A victorious general wrote to his government at home, reporting the executions of 2,000 prisoners, most of whom had surrendered on promise of their lives, and including an uncertain number of civilians. “I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgement of God on these barbarous wretches,” he declared fervently, “who have imbrued their hands with so much innocent blood, and that it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future.”

This was England’s future dictator Oliver Cromwell, writing to Parliament from Drogheda in September 1649, after defeating a Royalist garrison and storming the Irish town. The King’s commander, Sir Arthur Aston, was beaten to death with his own wooden leg. Catholic priests were hunted to death through the streets.

That story, and what follows, are intended neither to justify the perpetrators of war crimes nor the revenge of their victims. I write merely as a historian, who has been driven unhappily to acknowledge that almost all armed conflicts degenerate into a contest of rival atrocities. That does not mean that we are all equally guilty — our British and American forefathers were assuredly the (relatively) good guys in World War II and some other places. History merely teaches us how hard it is to wage war with clean hands.

We are all aware of the barbarities that took place in ancient times and in the Middle Ages. Slaughter, rape and pillage followed almost every drawing of the sword. It is more depressing to recognize that down to our own times, and indeed to this very month in the Middle East, men fired by the rage of conflict — it is almost always men — find it easy to do unspeakable things. And, like Cromwell, they take pride in their actions.

When the Germans invaded neutral Belgium in 1914, they murdered civilians whom they alleged, almost entirely falsely, had fired upon their troops. The best estimate of modern historians is that more than 5,000 Belgian and French people were killed in cold blood during those first weeks of World War I.

Count Kessler, a German officer, wrote laconically in his diary: “The inhabitants of Seilles attacked our pioneers building a bridge across the Meuse, killing twenty of them. As a punishment, approx. 200 citizens were court-martialed and shot.” The attack story was nonsense, but the shootings were real.

It is a curiosity of modern war that airmen flying thousands of feet above enemy territory feel detached from the impact of their bombs and bullets on people below, whether soldiers or civilians. Scarcely any of the German, British or American flyers who razed cities in World War II felt much guilt. Airborne over enemy territory, they were preoccupied with their own vulnerability.

The longer a war continues, the more likely are those who wage it to become desensitized about the fate of their enemies. In 1940, during the German blitzkrieg on France, Royal Air Force pilots were shocked to see their counterparts of the Luftwaffe, whom they wished to regard as fellow “knights of the air,” strafe refugees from their Messerschmitts.

Yet five years later, the RAF and US Air Force collaborated in an operation codenamed Clarion. For two days in February 1945, Clarion committed thousands of British and American aircraft to bomb and strafe roads and villages in remote corners of Germany. Though billed as an “attack on enemy communications,” its real purpose was to terrorize — to convince Germans who had thus far been spared the horrors that had fallen upon their cities that the gig was up, the war was lost. They should quit.

One US staff officer recoiled in disgust from Clarion, and commented on the operational plan: “This is the same old baby-killing plan of the get-rich-quick psychological boys, dressed up in a new kimono.” But the strafing and casual killing from the air went ahead, and few war histories even mention Clarion.

Terrorist campaigns are not just murderous themselves but bring out the worst in armies charged with suppressing them. During the Irish struggle for independence from Britain in 1920, early on the morning of Nov. 20, Irish Republican Army gunmen surprised and killed 15 British army and police officers in their homes, in some cases in bed. That afternoon, outraged British soldiers responded by opening fire on a Gaelic football crowd in Dublin’s Croke Park stadium, killing 14 civilians, two of them children, and wounding 60 others. The day’s events passed into Irish history as “Bloody Sunday” — only matched half a century later by a similar British shooting in Londonderry, which was given the same name.

The writer Lawrence Durrell worked for the British government in Cyprus in the 1950s, during the murderous Greek nationalist campaign to expel the British. In his memoir “Bitter Lemons,” he penned a wonderfully succinct explanation of the terrorist: “His primary objective is not battle. It is to bring down upon the community in general a reprisal for his wrongs, in the hope that the fury and resentment roused by punishment meted out to the innocent will gradually swell the ranks of those from whom he will draw further recruits.”

Bloody Sunday in 1920 Dublin increased popular support for the IRA fighters or terrorists — the choice of word is yours. In more recent times, during the 1950-53 Korean war, the governments in Seoul and Pyongyang treated with appalling cruelty civilians who were believed to sympathize with their enemies.

In the Vietnam war, communist guerrillas often buried alive village chiefs, in front of the assembled inhabitants. Terrorization of local officials, including executions of their children before the parents’ eyes, persuaded many people to flee to the cities, leaving the countryside to the Vietcong.

It is unnecessary to detail the excesses of South Vietnamese and American forces, because these are widely known. As a BBC correspondent in Vietnam in the early 1970s, I remember my dismay on discovering that when Americans used vicious racist slurs, they meant not just the Vietcong or Northern communists but all Vietnamese, including their presumed allies in South Vietnam’s military.

It is a commonplace of counterterrorist war to dehumanize the enemy, to characterize him as a lesser species unworthy of humane treatment. That phenomenon has reappeared again and again in the Middle East. If the soldiers of a governing power cannot speak the language of the local people, it becomes easy to regard them as aliens.

The conduct of the Nazis in World War II, especially towards Jews, is hideously familiar. But I must tell one story with which I have a personal connection. It recently achieved a 21st century resonance and highlights the wretchedness of atrocity and counter-atrocity.

After D-Day in June 1944, allied commanders warned the French Resistance against attempts to seize and hold urban centers, on the grounds that they would fail. Some French communists, however, pursued their own agenda. On June 7, hundreds of them swarmed out of the hills of the Correze in south-central France, where they had been camped, into the remote town of Tulle, population 21,000, where they assaulted the garrison of Germans and French collaborationists.

During a day of fierce fighting, some 40 mostly elderly German reservists camped in the local girls’ school surrendered to the Resistance fighters, also known as the Maquis. Hundreds more collaborationist militiamen were granted a safe conduct to leave Tulle, which they promptly did. Just one enemy stronghold, in a local factory, still held out next day, when a relief column of Waffen SS troops stormed into the town.

The communist resisters fled back into the forest. Within an hour, the Germans had posted a proclamation around the town claiming that Resistance forces had murdered their prisoners and promising that three local people would be executed for each of Hitler’s dead.

The proclamation read: “CITIZENS OF TULLE! Forty German soldiers have been murdered in the most abominable fashion by the communist gangs. … For the Maquis and those that help them, there can be only one penalty, the hangman’s noose … 120 Maquis or their accomplices will be hanged.”

Two days later, 99 local civilians between the ages of 18 and 45 were hanged from the balconies and lampposts of Tulle. Then the SS armored column roared away, to resume its march to the Normandy battlefield, where many of its men perished. On June 10, another unit of the same SS formation, the Das Reich, destroyed the little town of Oradour-sur-Glane and massacred almost its entire population — 643 men, women and children.

Almost four decades later, while researching a book, I interviewed some of the SS men who carried out the executions in Tulle, together with local resisters from the Correze. The Germans, I suppose inevitably, were impenitent. Their commander, Major Heinrich Wulf, spoke to me defiantly about Tulle’s dead: “We let them have a priest. Where else have you heard of people being hanged in the war who were allowed a priest?”

There is a modern sting in the Tulle story. This summer, in woods near the town, diggers began excavating human remains. When I researched my book back in 1980, every former Resistance fighter vigorously denied that the communists had massacred their German prisoners. I did not believe the denials, and wrote as much. But only when one of them, on the brink of the grave, recently confessed that he had indeed seen the German prisoners killed in cold blood, and pinpointed their mass grave, was this old horror story laid bare.

Not for a moment did the ruthlessness of the Resistance justify the Nazis’ terrible revenge upon the innocent — only two of those hanged had participated in the June 7 attack. But it provided the SS with a fig leaf of excuse for their reprisals. Tulle became the scene for a ghastly contest between rival escalating atrocities.

Over the past two centuries, starting with the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, which were largely based on America’s Lieber Code signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, repeated attempts have been made to codify and restrain the behavior of armies. The process continued with the 1929 Geneva Conventions, updated in 1949.

The principal purpose is to protect noncombatants. In almost every war, far more civilians than uniformed soldiers perish. In Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, Vietnam and elsewhere, civilians have died in the millions, while military casualties have been numbered in mere thousands or tens of thousands.

I have said nothing here about the past or present actions of Palestinians or Israelis, because my purpose is to show that the preservation of civilized values is a hard thing in every theater of war, anywhere in the world.

When soldiers see their own kind, or their own civilians, barbarically murdered by unidentifiable enemies who wear no uniforms, the temptation is to wreak vengeance on whomever is accessible. The guilty often escape. Yet if we are to preserve any vestige of civilized behavior amid the endemic violence of war, we must continue to strive for the preservation of the innocent, even against all the experience of history.

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