Seventy years ago, the victorious Allies created an unprecedented legal system to deal with the criminal wartime behavior of the Nazis. Nothing like the International Military Tribunal which met in Nuremberg had ever been attempted. British and Soviet representatives argued for summary executions of Nazi leaders. They were worried about giving these men a platform to espouse their dangerous ideas and perhaps whip up public support. A trial before a panel of international judges only came about because American leaders, notably Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, insisted on an open public legal proceeding. Stimson argued that the “punishment of these men in a dignified manner consistent with the advance of civilization will have all the greater effect on posterity.”
In the final months of the war, Allied negotiators not only created a new kind of court, they defined the legal principles on which the Nazi government could be tried. “Crimes Against Humanity” represented a new legal category, vaguely defined as “any and all atrocities committed by the regime”.
Not new was another category of crimes, “War Crimes”, violations of the already existing international agreements about the proper conduct of war. In 1899, the major nations of the world agreed to a set of “laws and customs of war on land”. The killing of prisoners of war, the use of poisons and collective punishment were all forbidden. After the German armies used poison gas in World War I, another international agreement in Geneva in 1925 explicitly forbade chemical and biological weapons. After World War II, torture was prohibited by international laws as a violation of universal human rights. The United States agreed to all of these rules of war.
Politicians campaigning for votes often ignore laws and treaties in order to whip up potential voters and prove that they are the toughest guys around. In this presidential campaign, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz went further: they openly advocated violating these international rules of war.
In December, Ted Cruz said in a speech in Iowa: “If I am elected president, we will utterly destroy ISIS. We will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don't know if sand can glow in the dark, but we're going to find out.” Despite criticism from both Democrats and Republicans, Cruz liked this image, and repeated his promise in the FOX News debate in January: “You claim it is tough talk to discuss carpet bombing. It is not tough talk. It is a different fundamental military strategy than what we've seen from Barack Obama.” Cruz eventually backed down by redefining carpet bombing to mean its opposite, precision bombing. But the image of annihilating the places where ISIS terrorists mingle with civilians remained as Cruz’s idea of warfare.
Donald Trump openly advocated torture of prisoners and collective punishment in the war on terror. As late as the Republican debate on March 3, he repeated his support for waterboarding and for targeting families of terrorists. “We should go for waterboarding and we should go tougher than waterboarding.” When questioned about whether American soldiers would obey such orders, he boasted, “They won't refuse. They're not going to refuse me. Believe me.”
In response to widespread condemnation of this position by foreign policy and military experts, Trump partially reversed himself the next day. He issued a statement: “I do, however, understand that the United States is bound by laws and treaties and I will not order our military or other officials to violate those laws and will seek their advice on such matters.” His spokeswoman explained, “He realized they took him literally, that's why he put out the statement.”
Perhaps the problem is that people have been taking these politicians literally, assuming that they had thought about their words and meant them. If that’s a mistake, I will admit to committing it. This is not a race for small-town mayor. Every word from presidential candidates is heard around the world.
Even in political campaigns, where saying stupid things often seems like a good idea, threatening war crimes is dumb. Cruz and Trump demonstrated the foolishness of their tough talk by nearly immediately disavowing it, claiming that they really meant something else. But their words were already spinning around the world, telling friends and enemies that they had no respect for international law, for human rights, or for anything outside of their desire to win votes.
Committing war crimes is a terrible idea. It does not frighten opponents, it inflames them, ratcheting up their motivation. War crimes are remembered for generations, tarnishing nations which commit them long after the leaders who made those decisions are gone.
Politicians who promise voters that they will commit war crimes reveal how unsuitable they are as world leaders. Their words have already tarnished respect for America among nations. Their disavowals show their lack of seriousness. Men in fancy suits who have never seen war substitute tough talk for tough decisions. They and their ignorant plans would diminish America for generations.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 17, 2016