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War and Violent Crime


In its pure form, war is violence organized by one sovereign state against another in an attempt to influence it. War affects crime in two ways. There are rules for war, and they are often violated by those who wage it. In addition, the sudden shifts in demographic, economic, and social structure, as well as in the law and its administration that are typically associated with war, affect official rates of civilian crime and juvenile delinquency. This entry examines the relationship between war and illegality at both of these levels.

The persistence of war

In the heady optimism of the 1960s, many futurists and students of conflict declared that war had become obsolete as a mechanism of dispute settlement. Skepticism about the use of war as an extension of diplomacy actually emerged much earlier, following World War I. It settled nothing and cost millions of lives and billions of dollars on both sides. World War II was in some ways a continuation of the conflagration, but eventually produced a definite outcome. However, the use of new weapons made possible the total destruction of populations, rather than just active combatants. This frightened political leaders as well as the public and cast even greater doubt on the utility of war as an institution for settling international arguments. Yet wars continued, but without nuclear fallout. In spite of General Douglas MacArthur's efforts to persuade the U.S. Congress to use atomic bombs against North Korea, President Harry Truman, who had already used two nuclear devices against Japan, accepted another stalemate rather than risk retaliation in kind from the Soviet Union. Further, even when facing the fall of Saigon and total defeat, South Vietnam and its nuclear allies also refrained from using weapons of mass destruction. Thus, as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had predicted, the threat of mutual annihilation deterred nuclear powers from using their ultimate weapon, and wars continued, using more circumscribed weaponry. As Mark Twain might have written, reports of the death of war have been greatly exaggerated.

War crimes

War was never a no-holds-barred fight between opposing states. War is somewhat like boxing, with rules of conduct extending well back into antiquity. For example, when Odysseus counseled the Greek leaders to blockade shipments of food to Troy in an effort to end what had become a protracted siege, his idea was rejected. At that time, it was widely regarded as improper to extend war to noncombatants in the general population by starving them into submission (this may have been based less on humanitarianism than on the value of the enemy's women and children as slaves). It is noteworthy, too, that Odysseus' successful strategycelebrated "gift" of a horse that ended the Trojan siege and won the war for the Greekswhich brought victory was regarded as somewhat ignoble, since it was obtained through deceit. In fact, had the Trojans managed to win the war despite the Greeks' ploy, Odysseus might have been vilified as the first war criminal rather than celebrated as one of antiquity's heroes. The Nazi defendant Hermann Göring went further, claiming at his trial following World War II that the most important factor in being charged as a war criminal is to be on the losing side. Although there is certainly a much greater chance of this happening to someone on the losing than the winning side, there is far more to being charged with war crimes than simply losing the contest.

War crimes mala prohibita

As noted earlier, there have always been rules for war, and they were often codified in treaties. (In 1785 Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson drafted one of the first of such treaties, between the United States and Prussia, to protect prisoners of war.) There have also always been violators. Psychological as well as structural factors play a major part. War is terrifying, and soldiers are often quite young, sometimes only a few years past adolescence. They are less likely to run amok in combat than they are to turn tail and run (see Keegan). When either happens, it is likely to be the result of a combination of youthful spontaneity, fear, and extraordinary situations that produce an intense "flight or fight" response. As with policing within states, both represent a serious breakdown in bureaucratic control, which can jeopardize organizational goals. Given the time, resources, and expertise, armed forces try to provide careful selection, extensive training, strong leadership, and an emphasis on group loyalty to counter breakdowns in organizational goals and morale. This is reflected in the military personality and the emphasis on hierarchy in the armed forces.

On another level, apart from xenophobia or ethnic hatred, cultural differences between nation states may affect how closely their soldiers follow rules for war. As with crimes mala prohibita within states, there is no widespread agreement across cultures on the illegality of some offenses, which would only be considered wrong because they are defined as such by a law within a nation state (see Nettler, p. 17). For example, in World War II the samurai tradition and the Bushido code inclined Japanese military personnel to choose death over capitulation. Such a tradition does not easily coexist with the compassionate treatment of enemy prisoners or of populations who have surrendered. Thus, from the viewpoint of the Western Allies, where collective duty (makido ) is underdeveloped and individualism high, Japanese occupying armies and prisoner of war camps seemed inordinately disdainful.

In an effort to standardize international conduct concerning the treatment of prisoners and civilian populations, the Geneva Convention for the protection of war victims was drawn up in 1949. These four international agreements were signed by the representatives of sixty-one states. Göring and the other twenty high-ranking Nazis who survived for trial at Nuremberg in 1946, before the advent of the Geneva Convention, were accused of committing "crimes against humanity," misdeeds so heinous that they are generally regarded as crimes mala in se, and held to be illegal, whether explicitly codified or not. Although the criminal charges at Nuremberg involved acts that were committed before any laws prohibiting them were written, the illegality of the systematic mass destruction of people by those in charge of a state was regarded as self-evident. Thus, the war crime trials at Nuremberg were not seen by the Allies to have been the post factum application of international law. Further, viewing serious war crimes as mala in se negates the "just following orders" defense, since their illegality is held to be obvious (Robertson).

War crimes mala in se

As noted earlier, in the West the rules of war traditionally precluded attacks on nonparticipants in the enemy population. It was viewed as dishonorable to wage war on women, children, the elderly, and the helpless, even if they were the enemy. However, by World War II conditions had changed. Many nation-states were in fact multination states, often containing and sometimes restraining more than one tribal, ethnic, religious, or racial group. Even in the best of times the coexistence of different groups within the political boundaries of one state is not without some conflict, and war can exacerbate ethnic hatred and xenophobia. When states are at war, civil liberties are often suspended or greatly curtailed in the interests of national security. Fear can produce paranoia, and innocent citizens can be deprived of their land and liberty solely on the basis of shared ethnicity with the enemy. One need look no farther for an example than the U.S. government's treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. However, in other instances, attacks by governments on their own citizens have been based more on interethnic antagonism than on real or imagined fears about state security.

Historically, conquest has placed the power of the state at the disposal of one cultural or racial category while denying access to another. This has often been problematic. For example, in the case of the British conquest of French territory in eastern North America, it led to the 1755 expulsion from their homeland of Acadians who refused to swear allegiance to England. Although their descendants flourished as the Cajuns of Louisiana, this eighteenth-century version of "ethnic cleansing" by England was decried almost a century later by Longfellow in his epic poem Evangeline. At the end of World War I, the Treaty of Versailles ceded what had been German territory to other nation-states. From the German standpoint, this was tantamount to having part of the nation occupied, a bitter pill for any nation to swallow, made worse by the cultural and status differences between victor and vanquished. Twenty years later, World War II was triggered by Germany's invasions of Czech Sudetenland and Poland, actions justified by Adolf Hitler as rescue missions to protect ethnic Germans from their non-German compatriots.

Although it is pertinent, the German invasions were not the source of the war crimes tried at Nuremberg. The Nazi version of pan-Germanism was based on race and ethnicity rather than citizenship. As a consequence, the problem impairing the campaign for German unification was the presence of non-Aryans within the boundaries of the nation-state. The result of this drive for ethnic purification was the expulsion, incarceration, and destruction of its own citizens by the state and the ensuing horror of the Holocaust. This was the basis of the Nuremberg trials and has become the root of most charges for contemporary war crimes as well.

The East-West alliance dissolved after Nuremberg, replaced by a Cold War between the Communist East and the capitalist West. Although wars continued, and East and West accused each other of crimes against humanity, each side blocked any effective United Nations action, and war crimes prosecutions ceased. All this changed with the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989, and war criminals are once again pursued by the United Nations (see Chandler).

In contemporary Rwanda, centuries of intertribal hostility erupted into wholesale genocide in 1994, with the state in the hands of one tribe bent on slaughtering another. The collapse of highly centralized states in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union unleashed centrifugal forces of separatism and interethnic violence. For example, in Yugoslavia, the unraveling of the state ended the precarious peace between Croatians, Serbs, Slovenians, and Albanian Moslems fashioned by that nation's Serbian founder Josip Broz (Marshal Tito), and ethnic cleansing began in Bosnia and Kosovo. As of early 2001, the U.N.'s International War Crimes Tribunal in the Netherlands was trying to bring the offenders to trial. Another U.N. tribunal may soon be set up in Asia to try officials from Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge government who decimated the urban professional population of Cambodia in death camps during the 1970s (Chandler).

In the end, those in power may use the state to embark on genocidal violence or commit other crimes against humanity, as did the Nazis in Germany. On the other hand, strong, centralized, Communist governments may use the state to prevent sub-populations from committing ethnic violence, as in Tito's Yugoslavia. Like most social inventions, the state can be used either to provoke or prevent violence, including crimes against humanity.

At present, the most publicized war crimes are extreme forms of collective ethnic or class violence, committed by high-ranking officers of the state. These offenses have not been extensively studied by criminologists. However, there are signs that this is beginning to change, especially since the actions taken by the U.N. International War Crimes Tribunal concerning Rwanda and Bosnia (see Hagan). The scope of social scientific interest is also expanding to include crimes against humanity committed by states whether they are at war or not, as in Pol Pot's Cambodia (see Robertson). Even specific acts of violence such as aggressive policing, unwarranted incarceration, or capital punishment committed by states against citizens are increasingly decried as uncivilized. This is somewhat ironic inasmuch as those who were found guilty at Nuremberg were sentenced to hang, a particularly barbaric method of execution. (Göring committed suicide when his request for a firing squad was denied.)

War and rates of adult crime

In theory, war can directly or indirectly affect crime within states in a variety of ways. Some effects are immediate, some long term, and others may cancel each other out. Many of these explanations are indirect and tie into more general social scientific arguments, but some are specific to war.

For example, as noted above, wartime footing typically increases states' emphasis on security at the cost of civil rights. This jeopardizes the freedom of foreign nationals or ethnic groups sharing cultural connections with opponents. International hostilities may also legitimize ethnic violence, and perhaps violence in general, within countries, especially when a nation is occupied by foreign soldiers and a resistance movement is trying to discourage collaboration. War may also increase the number of offenses among nationals inasmuch as there are more rules to break and greater surveillance by the state. On the other hand, from a deterrence perspective, the increased centralization of state power, surveillance, and severity of sanctions should reduce illegal behavior, eventually lowering crime rates.

From an economic standpoint, wartime shortages and rationing can create conditions for crime in two ways. One is through increasing the proportion of the population without resources while at the same time intensifying the desperation of those who were already disadvantaged. The other is through the creation of black market economies. As with organized crime in peacetime, criminal violence may be required to enforce the illegal contracts of black marketeers, who, lacking police protection, may themselves be targets for robbery. On the other side, because of the external conflict, social solidarity and cooperation may be higher during war, with black market activity and associated crime rates minimal.

Immediate and long-term effects

On a demographic level, the removal of young males from the general population and placing them into the armed services or sending them abroad should lower the general crime rate, since this age-sex category is typically responsible for an inordinate number of offenses. Engaging in hostilities may even be cathartic. On the other hand, war may beget violence, even among those who are not directly involved in it. During the Vietnam conflict, for example, F.B.I. reports show that in the United States, rates of homicide increased among all age groups (Archer and Gartner). However, as a lost cause on the other side of the world, the Vietnam conflict was unusual. It generated extraordinary levels of dissension and conflict, not only between political parties at home, but between generations and within families, which continue to reverberate almost a half century later. In fact, one of the founders of modern sociology, Émile Durkheim, observed that in his native France rates of property crime dropped during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, only to rise after the war to a level greater than they had been before hostilities began. Although the wartime plunge was less pronounced, rates of serious crimes of violence followed a similar postwar pattern.

Like the Vietnam conflict, the Franco-Prussian War can also be considered unusual. It was followed immediately by the state's destruction of the Paris Commune, leaving thousands dead and a host of communards charged with serious offenses. This was not a typical postwar phenomenon, and undoubtedly had an impact on official rates of crime. Thus, generalizing from Durkheim's observations of the effects of the Franco-Prussian War on crime even to other wars in France is risky, never mind wars in other times and places. However, the most sophisticated contemporary treatment of the relationship between war and rates of violent crime shows that the pattern observed by Durkheim was by no means unique to the Franco-Prussian War. In their analysis of fifty "nation-wars," Archer and Gartner report that postwar increases in homicide are indeed typical in combatant countries and atypical in nations at peace. Moreover, this pattern holds whether wars are large or small, won or lost, produce low or high unemployment, and, curiously, is as evident among female as well as male offenders. They conclude that "sanctioned killing during war has a residual effect on the level of homicide in peacetime society" (p. 96).

This might be true, but research on total populations is difficult at the best of times, and as Charles Dickens noted, war is also the worst of times. This is especially so for statisticians. Calculating meaningful rates of anything is difficult because the denominator includes young males who are serving in the armed forces, but may be doing so outside the country. As a consequence, during hostilities, the activities of military personnel, criminal and otherwise, may go undetected or be ignored in the context of wartime violence, processed in the host nation or by military courts, and not be recorded at home. The result of any of this would be a decline in rates of activities reported for the population as a whole during war.

An examination of rates of various activities during and following the Franco-Prussian War, on which Durkheim's conclusions were based, sheds interesting light on the crime statistics. Basically, rates of almost everything were stable or dropped during the war, and then increased sharply afterward. This may mean that French soldiers were too busy with the Prussians to file for bankruptcy, get divorced, have fatal accidents, or engage in criminal acts until after the war was over, which they then did with a vengeance. Oddly, this pattern also held for the women of France, most of whom were not directly involved in trying to repulse the Prussians. In view of this, it seems more likely that the part of the apparatus of the state responsible for seeing, detecting, and recording such events was either put on hold or operating at a reduced capacity until after the war was over. This was certainly the case for the judiciary. The gendarmerie was administered as a regiment in the French army, and their primary duty was transferred from patrolling the highways, small towns, and rural areas of France to defending France when war broke out in 1870. This sudden shift in the attention and availability of police would have produced a decline in charges and officially recorded crimes. However, when hostilities ceased, the return of the gendarmes to policing would have inflated the number of charges, surpassing the prewar rate if there were backlogs of complaints. (See Gillis, on the contemporaneous and long-term impact of policing on crime in nineteenth-century France.)

The great gift of the research done by Archer and Gartner is substantiating that the pattern discovered by Durkheim is not specific to the Franco-Prussian War. As noted earlier, this conflict and its aftermath were in many ways unique, and other wars involving other nations may not have affected crime in the same way. In any case, it is clear that war affects official rates of crime. What is less clear is how.

Juvenile delinquency

It is noteworthy that juvenile delinquency may be affected by war in a different way than is adult crime. During World War II studies in England and in the United States found that rates of delinquency increased rather than decreased in the early years of the conflict. The legitimacy of violence produced by war, combined with the absence of fathers who were away in the services, household and school disruptions through evacuation, blackouts, and economic disruptions may have had a different impact on juveniles than on young adults who were integrated into the war effort through their membership in the armed forces or in some other capacity. However, as with the patterns of adult crime, whether these or any other mechanisms actually link war to delinquent behavior is uncertain. In the end, like adult crime, fluctuations in official rates of wartime delinquency may reflect changes in the nature and enforcement of law, or the collection and tabulation of official data, rather than changes in the behavior of juveniles.

In the end, we know that wars affect rates of crime and delinquency, albeit in different ways, and insofar as they are indicated by official records. We also know that when wars occur, so too do war crimes. When viewed more broadly, as crimes against humanity, however, wars are not necessary to generate such offenses, which typically arise from ethnic or class conflict, and the complicity of the state in perpetrating extreme violence on behalf of one category against another. Neither the concentration of power nor the political orientation of the state by itself determines whether such crimes will occur. After a hiatus of almost half a century the United Nations is once again pursuing those who commit crimes against humanity, and this is generating renewed attention from social scientists. Thus, the conditions giving rise to crimes against humanity may yet be more precisely specified.

A. R. Gillis

See also Homicide: Behavioral Aspects; International Criminal Courts; International Criminal Law; Political Process And Crime; Violence; War Crimes.


Archer, Dane, and Gartner, Rosemary. Violence and Crime in Cross National Perspective. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984.

Chandler, David. Voices From S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot's Secret Prison. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Dukheim, Émile. Professional Ethics and Civil Morals. Translated by C. Brookfield. London: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1957.

Gillis, A. R. "Crime and State Surveillance in 19th-Century France." The American Journal of Sociology 95, no. 2 (1989): 307341.

Hagan, John. "Making War Criminal." Presented to the Annual Meetings of Law and Society. Miami, Fla., May 26, 2000.

Keegan, John. The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. New York: Vintage, 1977.

Nettler, Gwynn. Explaining Crime, 3d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984.

Robertson, Geoffrey. Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice. London: Allen Lane, 1999.

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