Military war crimes: When war breaks the rules

Jessica Evans
Jun 2, 2023 12:54 PM PDT
4 minute read
war crimes

A ditch full of the bodies of Chinese civilians killed by Japanese soldiers in Suzhou, China, 1938 (left). A U.S. soldier observing victims of the Malmedy massacre (right).


Here we explore the grotesque nature of war crimes, recalling some of history’s most brutal instances, and the ripple effects that haunt us.

Have you ever taken a sneak peek into the dark alleyways of warfare? It's a world that exposes the unsettling side of humanity – where the grim face of war crimes stares right back at us. War crimes, friends, are those horrifying acts of conflict that go against the very fabric of human decency, breaking international humanitarian laws. So, what do you say we take a thrilling ride through this shadowy world? Buckle up as we explore the grotesque nature of war crimes, recalling some of history's most brutal instances, and the ripple effects that keep haunting us.

So, what’s the deal with war crimes?

When you think of war crimes, imagine a giant wheel of nightmares where every spoke represents a form of unspeakable act committed during armed conflict. From torture and taking hostages to causing severe pain and harm intentionally, the list is chilling. These terrifying deeds challenge the essence of humanity and land the culprits in hot water under international law.

The hall of shame

Stepping back into the eerie annals of history, we find the chilling reality that war crimes have been lurking in the shadows since civilization's earliest days. These ghastly acts have, in fact, cast long, dark shadows over human history, their chilling impact still palpable today.

Rewinding to the time of World War II, another gruesome chapter in the chronicles of war crimes was written - the Katyn Massacre. The Soviet NKVD executed and buried in mass graves thousands of Polish officers and intellectuals. Among these lost souls was a single beacon of courage. Lt. Janina Lewandowska was the only known female officer victim of this massacre. Her story of bravery and fortitude, even in the face of such ruthless execution, continues to resonate through time.

Let's take a sinister detour into the 1990s, amidst the Bosnian War. The blood-curdling event that is the Srebrenica massacre stands out, a dreadful episode in July 1995. Bosnian Serb forces, in a spasm of ruthless brutality, exterminated over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. This bone-chilling genocide still echoes in the halls of history. It's a stark reminder of the horrifying depths to which humanity can sink during conflict.

Fast-forwarding a bit, we find ourselves in the grim setting of the Rwandan Genocide. This systematic, frenzied bloodbath spanned a horrifyingly brief 100 days. This organized massacre took the lives of about 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus. An unthinkable number of lives were snuffed out in a terrifyingly short span of time. This massacre's sheer brutality, featuring machetes, firearms, and sexual violence as weapons, could quake the staunchest hearts, transforming Rwanda into an apocalyptic tableau of violence and death. It painted a horrifying portrait of humanity's darkest potential that is deeply scarring and unforgettable.

What happens after war crimes?

HRW wrote that the Saudi Arabian-led military intervention in Yemen that began on March 26, 2015, involved airstrikes in apparent violation of the laws of war.

If war crimes were an earthquake, their aftershocks would be felt for generations. They create an intense ripple effect, causing immense human suffering, disrupting social order, inflicting socioeconomic damage, and throwing the rule of law out of the window.

To illustrate, imagine losing your loved ones, or your home being destroyed. Imagine being a survivor, living with the physical and emotional scars, struggling with PTSD and other mental health issues. The pain and despair don't end easily.

Moreover, war crimes can shatter trust within communities, fueling hatred, fear, and a cycle of revenge. This damage to the social fabric can lead to an identity crisis among affected communities, making it hard to reconcile and rebuild. In the process, the very essence of culture and heritage may be lost.

On a larger scale, war crimes can devastate economies, cause poverty, food insecurity, and strain resources, leading to a severe crisis. They also have repercussions on international justice and human rights, sometimes even fueling regional instability and creating fertile grounds for extremism and terrorism.

The road to healing and justice  

So, we've talked about the chilling shadow of war crimes, but how do we step into the light and tackle the aftermath of such atrocities? It's like mixing a cocktail of the most potent restorative ingredients. It needs the right blend of justice, accountability, and survivor support. That's to say nothing of community rebuilding, social cohesion restoration, and investments in education and healthcare.

First, justice, the bedrock of addressing war crimes, necessitates holding perpetrators accountable. This step, whether through trials or reconciliation commissions, initiates the healing process from war-inflicted wounds.

Survivor support extends beyond counseling and rehabilitation; it also includes providing economic opportunities and community support. This empowers survivors to regain dignity and reshape their lives.

Rebuilding communities and restoring social cohesion is akin to mending a torn fabric. It involves infrastructure redevelopment, fostering trust and understanding, and creating spaces for dialogue and reconciliation.

Investments in education and healthcare are recovery cornerstones. Education breaks violence cycles, encouraging community contribution. In contrast, improved healthcare ensures survivors' physical and mental well-being, fostering healthier communities.

War crimes reverberate across socio-political landscapes, impacting societies and generations, emphasizing the need for recognition of these effects and striving for a more peaceful world. But it's only through accountability that any of this can happen. As the world watches the latest batch of war crimes unfold, it's now more important than ever to bring those accountable to justice.


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