By Any Other Name, Putin is a War Criminal But He Is Not Alone
Kurt Vonnegut, the literary master of the absurd, must be turning over in his grave over the discussion about whether to charge Russia with war crimes for the atrocities of bombing civilian targets in its invasion of Ukraine.
It is a preposterous debate that would fit perfectly into Vonnegut’s genre, as he beautifully explored in his enduring anti-war novel, “Slaughterhouse Five.” Of course, Russia is committing war crimes, something that is undeniable for anybody who witnesses the calculated, terroristic onslaught of bombings of civilians.
Vonnegut knows about war crimes, having been a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany, in February 1945, when he survived the allied onslaught of firebombings, incinerating 25,000 people in the city famous for its intellectual culture and architectural beauty. Almost 4,000 tons of explosives and incendiary devices were dropped, triggering a raging firestorm which turned buildings to dust and cremated civilians alive.
Vonnegut, whose “Slaughterhouse Five” was a huge best seller, noted that the incineration of Dresden was “so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person.”
If Putin loses his horrible war in Ukraine, he may one day be charged with war crimes. If he is successful in his conquest, war crimes will never be considered because historically, it is only the losers who are prosecuted. As Winston Churchill famously said, “History is written by victors.”
The most notable war crimes trials were convened after World War II by the allies in Nuremberg, Germany, against the surviving political, military, judicial and economic leadership of Nazi Germany. The International Military Tribunal for the Far East began on April 29, 1946, to try leaders of the Empire of Japan for crimes against peace, conventional war crimes, and crimes against humanity leading up to and during the Second World War.
The U.S. was never charged with war crimes for firebombing Dresden or for incinerating between 129,000 and 226,000 mostly civilians killed by the atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Presidents Johnson and Nixon were never charged for prosecuting a war in Vietnam where napalm was indiscriminately dropped, killing thousands. President George W. Bush was never cited for sanctioning the U.S. policy of torturing prisoners in Iraq. Soviet Dictator Josef Stalin never faced trial for starving millions in Ukraine in the early 1930s as part of the Soviet leader’s push to collectivize farms under government control, a time known as the Great Famine or “Holdomor.”
Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the most infamous but by far not the only times the allies were responsible for large scale civilian killings. Thousands died in bombings of many German cities, including Hamburg, Münster, Lübeck, Augsburg, Köln, Bremen, Hamburg, , cities of Dortmund, Bochum, Duisburg, Düsseldorf, Hamm, Politz, Ruhland and Vienna and Berlin and the Ruhr region.
In July 1943, long before Dresden, the Allies unleashed a protracted air assault on Hamburg, named “Operation Gomorrah,” after the legendary biblical city, which, along with Sodom, was destroyed by God for the people’s wickedness. The attack melted streets and incinerated people in searing, hurricane-strength winds with more than 20,000 deaths in just one night alone. The RAF bombing of Pforzheim, Germany, shortly after Dresden, killed almost a third of the population.
Numerous atrocities committed by allies were reported during World War II, including killing prisoners of war and raping Japanese women on occupied territories. During the Allied invasion in Sicily, American troops massacred 12 civilians, in what was known as the “Canicattì massacre. “ The commanding officer, Lt. Col. George Herbert McCaffrey, was never charged.
Prior to World War II, the earliest documented war crimes committed by Americans came after Spain ceded the Philippines to the U.S. in 1898 as part of the peace settlement of the Spanish-American War. The surrender of the Philippines triggered a conflict between the U.S. and the revolutionary First Philippine Republic. The commanding U.S. officer, Gen. Jacob H. Smith, ordered his troops to “Kill everyone over ten.” Over one, 11-day period, American soldiers burned 255 dwellings and killed 39 people, although a British writer put the figure at about 2,500 dead and Filipino historians believe it to be around 50,000. For his actions, Smith was later court-martialed and forced to retire.
The so-called Banana Wars were rebellions waged against the U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934. Haitian historian Roger Gaillard estimated that at least 15,000 Haitians were killed during the occupation and that the killings involved rape, lynchings, summary executions, burning villages and deaths by burning. No charges were ever filed.
One of the worst examples of war crimes during the Korean War involved the so-called No Gun Ri massacre from July 26–29, 1950, an incident where an undetermined number of South Korean refugees were killed in a U.S. air attack and by small- and heavy-weapons fire of the American 7th Cavalry Regiment at a railroad bridge near the village of Nogeun-ri. The number of killings ranges from an estimated 163 to 500 civilians. No Americans were charged.
The My Lai Massacre was the most infamous example of mass civilian murder by American soldiers during the Vietnam War. U.S. soldiers killed a total of 347 to 504 unarmed citizens in the South Vietnam village of My Lai, mostly civilians and mostly women and children. Of the 26 U.S. soldiers charged with criminal offenses or war crimes, only Lt. William Calley was convicted. He was initially sentenced to life in prison, but his sentence was cut to 10 years and he was released after only three and a half years under house arrest.
Operation Speedy Express was a military operation to take control of large parts of the Mekong delta from December 1968 to May 1969. The U.S. Army Inspector General estimated that there were 5,000 to 7,000 civilian deaths from the operation.
The Phoenix Program was coordinated by the CIA to destroy the Viet Cong through infiltration, torture, capture, counter-terrorism, interrogation and assassination. Critics labeled it a “civilian assassination program.”
A small number of servicemen were charged with crimes against civilians related to the war in Vietnam. The highest ranking American charged with war crimes was Brigadier Gen. John W. Donaldson, charged with killing six Vietnamese civilians. He was acquitted out of a lack of evidence and was the first U.S. general charged with war crimes since Gen. Jacob H. Smith in 1902.
One of the worst incidents of violence against civilians during the U.S. war in Iraq came on Nov. 19, 2005, in Haditha, Iraq. A U.S. soldier was killed by a roadside bomb and in retaliation, later in the day, 24 Iraqi women and children were shot and killed by Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich and his marines. Wuterich was sentenced to 90 days in prison along with a reduction in rank and pay.
Several American soldiers were charged in connection with 2003 torture of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. A total of 11 military personnel were convicted of war crimes, including Lynndie Rana England, who was sentenced to three years in prison and a dishonorable discharge.
The highest ranking officer charged in connection with torture at Abu Ghraib was former Staff Sgt. Ivan Frederick II. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy, dereliction of duty, maltreatment of detainees, assault, and indecent acts, and served four years of an eight year sentence, loss of rank and pay and a dishonorable discharge.
Charles A. Graner Jr. is a former member of the Army Reserve who was convicted of prisoner abuse in connection with the Abu Ghraib scandal. Graner, with other soldiers from his unit, were accused of allowing and inflicting sexual, physical, and psychological abuse on Iraqi detainees. Graner was found guilty of conspiracy to maltreat detainees, failing to protect detainees from abuse, cruelty, and maltreatment, as well as charges of assault, indecency and dereliction of duty. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, demoted to private, was dishonorably discharged and forfeited pay and allowances. Graner was released from prison after serving six and a half years of his 10-year sentence.
Sabrina D. Harman was a former Army reservist convicted of war crimes in connection with the Abu Ghraib scandal. Harman and several other soldiers were tried for allowing and inflicting sexual, physical, and psychological abuse of Iraqi prisoners of war. Harman held the rank of specialist in the 372nd Military Police Company during her tour of duty in Iraq. She was sentenced to six months in prison, reduction in rank and a bad conduct discharge.
Jeremy Charles Sivits is another of the soldiers who were convicted in connection with Abu Ghraib scandal. Sivits took photographs of acts of torture at the prison which later became notorious after being aired on 60 Minutes II. Sivits was 42 when he died from COVID-19 on Jan. 16, 2022.
During the war in Afghanistan, Major Mathew L. Golsteyn was charged with murder after killing an Afghan civilian, who he claimed was a bomb maker for the Taliban. Trump reviewed the case and pardoned Golsteyn in November 2019.
Clint Allen Lorance is a former Army First Lieutenant who was convicted of war crimes in Afghanistan. Lorance was charged with two counts of second-degree murder after he ordered his soldiers to open fire on three Afghan men who were on a motorcycle. He was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison. In 2015, Lorance became a cause célèbre among conservative commentators and activists, in particular Fox News commentator, Sean Hannity, who advocated for Lorance to be pardoned. Lorance was eventually pardoned by Trump on Nov. 15, 2019.
Derrick Miller is a former Army National Guard sergeant who was sentenced in 2011 to life in prison for killing an Afghan civilian during a battlefield interrogation. After being incarcerated for eight years, Miller was paroled and was released in 2019 and is currently military adviser to Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas.