What is a War Crime?

Signing the Geneva Conventions, 1949

As I write this post, Israel has begun to invade Gaza. This promises to be a lengthy, bloody conflict, as Hamas says it has constructed around 300 miles of tunnels under the Strip, under whatever buildings remain after bombardment. Urban warfare is notoriously brutal, costing huge number of civilian lives as well as the lives of combatants on both sides. For example, in taking Mosul back from ISIS, 82,000 U.S.-led coalition soldiers were killed, as were an estimated 10,000 Iraqi civilians.

Various pundits, from the comfort of their armchairs, have been discussing how Israel can conduct its invasion without committing war crimes. Others say Israel has already been committing war crimes by bombing buildings inhabited by large numbers of civilians.

So how do we define a war crime? International treaties codifying these crimes were adopted at The Hague conventions of 1899 and 1907, and at the Geneva Conventions of 1949, with additional protocols added in 1977. The rules regulating armed combat prohibit targeting civilians and/or murdering combatants who have surrendered.

Under those rules, the Hamas invasion of October 7th might be classified as a war crime. Others call it a pogrom. Perhaps it partakes of both.

Will the Israeli army refrain from committing war crimes in retaliation? I doubt it. Immediately after the Hamas attack, Prime Minister Netanyahu called for “mighty vengeance.” What happens when you send young men (and these days, women) trained to kill into a situation where they are furious, consumed with revenge for the slaughter of fellow citizens, people they personally knew—or even family members? When you put those soldiers into a crowded urban jungle or into tunnels where they are being shot at, where their platoon mates may be killed in front of their eyes? And then you expect them to keep calm and follow the Geneva Conventions?

In any case, what we now call war crimes were always part of human history.

Some Ancient Examples

Sometimes we’ve recorded our war crimes, bragging about them or even insisting that we were doing God’s work. A tiny sprinkling of examples from earlier times:

11th Century BCE: God, through the Prophet Samuel, tells King Saul to kill all the Amalekites “…and utterly destroy all that they have…man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” (I Samuel 15:3) Saul did kill all the people but took the best of the animals as spoils of war. He was punished by losing his throne to David.

2nd Century BCE: The destruction of Carthage, another case of urban warfare, motivated by revenge for previous wars and by greed for the rich lands around the city. After the walls of the city had been breached, the Romans found that each street had been barricaded and every house fortified. After they cleared all the houses, one by one, they destroyed the city itself. According to the Britannica, they killed 62,000 Carthaginians and enslaved the remaining 50,000. The Romans lost 17,000 of their 40,000 soldiers.

13th Century CE: The Albigensian Crusade, a war initiated in 1209 by Pope Innocent III against members of the Cathar sect in southern France, took the lives of an estimated one million people who were truly innocent. In the first major action, the 10,000 inhabitants of Béziers were slaughtered in cold blood. “The city had probably only had some 700 heretics and it was now clear to all that this was a campaign of conquest, not conversion.” The leaders seized the lands of the conquered.  The war to exterminate the Albigensians “led to further persecution of heretics in the following century, including the infamous Spanish Inquisition and various other crusades.”

Now let’s consider more recent events:

Crime and Punishment—World War II

During their World War II invasion of China the Japanese lost one to two million soldiers but took the lives of over three million Chinese soldiers and over 17 million Chinese civilians. According to historian Mitsuyoshi Himeta, at least 2.7 million Chinese civilians died during the “kill all, loot all, burn all” operation. The worst massacre was in Nanjing, where 200,000 were killed in a six-week period and 20,000-80,000 women were raped.

At the end of the war, the victors—led by the U.S.—tried and convicted 5,526 Japanese. A total of 944 were executed.  So far I haven’t found how many were sentenced to imprisonment.

In Europe, in addition to the six million Jews, the Nazis murdered perhaps seven million, including prisoners of war, Poles, Romani, the disabled, gays, etc. This figure does not include people who became “collateral damage,” e.g. Londoners bombed during the Blitz or citizens of countries invaded and occupied: Austria, Czechoslovakia, Albania, Poland, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Greece, Yugoslavia and the U.S.S.R. and then, when the tide turned, Italy and Germany.

At the end of WW II, the Allied victors held a series of trials at Nuremberg. They indicted a total of 201 Nazis, Four committed suicide before trial. Twenty-five were executed, 125 given long prison sentences, and 28 were acquitted.

Many of the prisoners were pardoned early in the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War. It seems that the capitalist governments found Nazis less threatening than Communists, and even found many of them useful—after the war, Wernher von Braun and 1,600 other German scientists, engineers, and technicians were secretly moved to the U.S. to help with rocketry development. Von Braun was particularly instrumental in developing the V2 rocket,  which killed 43,000 civilians in the Blitz.

Getting Away With Murder

War crimes committed by the victorious side are almost never brought to trial, let alone punished. Continuing to look at World War II, we have the Allied fire bombing of Dresden, where “the ensuing firestorm killed 25,000 [civilians], ravaging the city centre, sucking the oxygen from the air and suffocating people trying to escape the flames.”   British and American air forces killed up to 600,000 German civilians in various cities during similar bombing raids, but the destruction of Dresden was particularly egregious as Germany was about to surrender.

The fire bombing of Tokyo killed 80,000-100,000 in a single night.   110,000-210,000 civilians were killed during the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Within a few months after the A-bombs were dropped, an estimated 150,000-246,000 died of radiation poisoning.

Volumes have been written either to condemn or to justify the fire bombings and the use of the A-bomb. Nevertheless, no attempt was made to target combatants and spare civilians, and according to the rules drafted at the Geneva conventions, these were war crimes.

I do know of one instance where a member of the more powerful state was tried and convicted of such a crime. Lieutenant William Calley was sentenced to life imprisonment for killing 22 unarmed Vietnamese civilians in My Lai. Around 500 peasants—the elderly, women, and children—were murdered during that massacre. Calley was sentenced to life imprisonment, but served three days in the Fort Benning stockade before President Nixon ordered him transferred to house arrest. Three years later, Nixon paroled him. h

Many thousands more Vietnamese were killed in similar fashion. A whistle blower in the 9th Infantry Division wrote that our military’s policies resulted in “industrial-scale slaughter, the equivalent…to a ‘My Lai each month.’” No one, other than Lt. Calley, received as much as slap on the wrist.

It should be remembered that Vietnam never attacked the U.S. Between slaughters on the ground and aerial bombardment we killed one to two million Indochinese people and poisoned countless others with Agent Orange. The real perpetrators—Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and the generals that served under them—died peacefully in their beds. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently celebrated his 100th birthday.


Looking at the 20th and 21st Centuries alone, a history of war crimes–at least as the Geneva Conventions define them–would fill an encyclopedia. Some of them are ongoing—not just in Israel/Palestine but also the Saudi bombardment of Yemen, the conflict in Sudan, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Will any of the perpetrators be prosecuted? Don’t kid yourself.

To answer my initial question: WAR ITSELF IS THE CRIME.

4 Responses to What is a War Crime?

  1. NESTOR LUIS LATRONICO October 29, 2023 at 5:51 pm #

    War is a crime, but the human animal is always at war. We praise and envy the Romans, the Egyptians for their victorious wars. We never changed in a million years. I love your writing, Martha. I´m one of your many readers, always expecting to see more!

  2. Connie O Byrne October 29, 2023 at 5:56 pm #

    thank you as always for laying out, not just the facts of the current disasters, but the history of the killings of people who did nothing more than being born and existing in the “wrong place, at the wrong time”. And I am in total agreement with you that war in itself is a crime. Always has been, always will be.

  3. Martha Shelley October 29, 2023 at 6:23 pm #

    Hi Connie,
    And I wish we could do something to change it.

Leave a Reply

Privacy Policy

We do not retain any credit card information
and will not sell, lend, or otherwise transfer your
contact information to anyone, ever.