Atrocities in War

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ATROCITIES IN WAR. The history of warfare is replete with examples of atrocities, and the American experience offers no exception. Americans have been the perpetrators as well as the victims of atrocities. Sometimes referred to as war crimes, atrocities have usually involved torture, maiming, or killing of civilians and noncombatants; destruction of nonmilitary targets; maltreatment and killing of wounded and prisoners of war; and use of weapons to cause superfluous damage or injury.

Many atrocities committed by Americans have occurred during guerrilla counterinsurgent wars, such as the American Indian wars, the Philippine Insurrection, and the Vietnam War. Colonial Indian wars, such as the Pequot War (1637) and King Philip's War (1675–1676), decimated or annihilated entire Indian societies in New England. Callous military tactics characterized the pacification of the Seminole tribe in Florida and the forced removal of the Five Civilized Tribes from the southern states. Massacres such as those suffered by the Cheyenne at Sand Creek (1864) and at Summit Spring (1868), by the Piegan Blackfoot Indians in Montana (1870), and by the Sioux at Wounded Knee (1889) are flagrant examples of atrocities by the U.S. Army on the frontier. Neither women nor children were spared; many victims were sexually mutilated, disemboweled, and inflicted with other indignities, while the survivors were treated with indifference and their crops and herds destroyed. Revenge and retaliation for atrocities of equal brutality committed by the Indians often motivated such massacres.

Americans have, on occasion, been the victims of atrocities on home soil and abroad. Two such events—both stemming from America's westward expansion into lands belonging to others—have reached iconic status in national lore. In 1836, Mexican troops executed the Texan soldiers who survived the siege of the Alamo. Forty years later a U.S. Army regiment under the command of Col. George A. Custer was slaughtered by Sioux Indians at the Battle of Little Bighorn. A complex mythology has developed around both massacres. They have been used both as symbols of courageous American manhood and as justifications for the expansionist policies that caused them in the first place.

Revelations that American soldiers in the Philippines were murdering civilians, destroying their villages, indiscriminately killing prisoners, and using dum-dum bullets and torture such as the "water cure" to defeat the Philippine insurgents led to the court-martial of Brig. Gen. Jacob Smith and other officers in 1902. Smith was charged with "conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline" because of his orders to kill prisoners and destroy civilian property in the course of his pacification efforts. Smith was found guilty, admonished by President Theodore Roosevelt, and forced into early retirement. Apologists for the military claimed that the unconventional tactics of the insurgents and the difficulty in distinguishing them from the native peasants justified the extraordinary measures.

American military operations in South Vietnam were characterized by conditions similar to those in the Philippines, and allegations were made of similar atrocities perpetrated by American soldiers. The majority of the allegations concerning Vietnam atrocities were proved false, and other actions, such as the use of napalm and crop destruction, have been defended on the basis of military necessity. The most publicized, proven atrocity of the Vietnam War was the killing of unarmed civilians, mostly women and children, at the village of My Lai in 1968. Several American officers were punished for participation in this massacre or for failure to investigate its occurrence. The events of the Vietnam War continued to prick the American conscience, however. In 2001 the decorated Vietnam veteran and U.S. senator Bob Kerrey sparked a new round of debate about the U.S. atrocities during the war when he admitted that his platoon had probably killed a number of women and children during a confused night raid in 1969.

The number of proven atrocities in American military history is small in relation to the large number of men who have participated in the nation's wars. This is particularly true for conventional wars. Undisciplined volunteers were responsible for massacres on several occasions during the Mexican-American War, the most infamous occurring at Guadalupe on 25 March 1847. The number of American war crimes during the two world wars was small, primarily involving individual acts of murder, sex crimes, and abuse of enemy prisoners of war. The number of such crimes was greater during the occupation after World War II than during combat.

American prisoners of war have suffered cruel and inhumane treatment during several wars. Deplorable conditions characterized the British prison ships of the American Revolution and the Confederate and Union prisons such as Andersonville, Rock Island, Elmira, and Camp Chase during the Civil War. On 12 April 1864 Confederate troops killed scores of black Union army prisoners after the capture of Fort Pillow in Tennessee. During World War II, a number of American prisoners died in the Japanese prison camps that housed the survivors of the Bataan-Corregidor campaign. During the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, near the town of Malmédy in the Belgian Ardennes, eighty-six American prisoners were executed by German SS Panzer troops.

Several international protocols and conventions have attempted to curb unnecessary violence and atrocities in war by prohibiting use of certain types of weapons and codifying rules of warfare pertaining to the protection of civilians, the treatment of wounded and prisoners of war, and the protection of cultural landmarks. The Nuremberg trials of German war criminals and the Japanese war crimes trials after World War II established that senior commanders are responsible for atrocities and war crimes perpetrated by subordinates. War criminals ever since have been tried at the international courts of arbitration and justice in The Hague in Holland. Human rights activists had long sought a United Nations war crimes court. Progress toward that end was stalled in 2001, however, when the U.S. government refused to ratify the International Criminal Court for fear that its military personnel would be exposed to legal risks for actions taken during the course of humanitarian, counterespionage, or antiterrorist campaigns. (Also opposing the U.N. war crimes court, ironically, were Iraq and Liby a, nations identified as proterrorist states by President George W. Bush.)

The depth of the international community's unwillingness to prosecute war crimes was severely tested in the 1990s. Little action was taken when fanatically nationalistic members of the Hutu tribe in the African country of Rwanda slaughtered more than 500,000 of their Tutsi rivals. Stronger actions were taken in response to "ethnic cleansing" that took place during the ethnic conflict in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. An army led by the Bosnian Serb Radisav Krstic invaded Srebrenica in 1995—easily over-running the token United Nations force that had prematurely declared the city a "safe haven" for war refugees—and massacred eight thousand Muslim men and boys. Elsewhere, the Serbian army and local militia groups murdered tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims and buried them in mass graves. Krstic was later tried in The Hague for his role in the Srebrenica massacre and sentenced to forty-six years in prison.

The United States became deeply involved in the conflict in March 1999. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, a Serb, had initiated a campaign to "cleanse" the region of Kosovo of ethnic Albanians, sending hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians fleeing into impoverished neighboring countries and creating a massive humanitarian crisis. After evidence of atrocities against civilians surfaced, the United States led an air strike sponsored by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization against Serbian forces in Kosovo on 25 March 1999. The strikes expanded into a full-scale bombing campaign that lasted for seventy-eight days, ruining much of Yugoslavia's industrial infrastructure and killing some civilians. Although the United States was roundly criticized for its aggressive stance, the air campaign succeeded in ousting Milosevic, who was later caught and put on trial for human rights abuses. At the time of this writing, his fate had not yet been decided.


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Vincent H.Demma/a. r.

See alsoAlamo, Siege of the ; Little Bighorn, Battle of ; Malmédy Massacre ; My Lai Incident ; Pillow, Fort, Massacre at ; Vietnam War ; War, Laws of ; Wars with Indian Nations, Later Nineteenth Century (1840–1900) ; Yugoslavia, Relations with .