Guest Columnist

John Richard Schrock

The Crime of War


George F. Kennan was the author of the post-WWII Marshall Plan and the diplomat who kept the Cold War from becoming “hot.” Therefore U.S. foreign policy experts paid attention when he wrote an essay in the New York Times on February 5, 1997, Section A, Page 23.

Titled “A Fateful Error,” he expressed alarm that NATO was expanding to include countries up against the post-Soviet Russia border.

“But something of the highest importance is at stake here. And perhaps it is not too late to advance a view that, I believe, is not only mine alone but is shared by a number of others with extensive and in most instances more recent experience in Russian matters. The view, bluntly stated, is that expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.”

“Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking....”

“Russians are little impressed with American assurances that it reflects no hostile intentions. They would see their prestige (always uppermost in the Russian mind) and their security interests as adversely affected.”

Kennan died on March 17, 2005 and did not live to say “I told you so” when this Russian invasion of Ukraine began. Americans see the world only from our narrow point of view. Kennan was an exceptional diplomat because he could see the world from the viewpoint of others as well. Today a few commentators have also noted how the U.S. would be alarmed if Canada and Mexico joined a defense pact and were armed against the United States—we would not be happy.

In his “Memoirs 1925–1950,” Keenan also expresses concern over war crime trials, specifically the Nuremberg Trials. “The only implication this procedure could convey was, after all, that such crimes were justifiable and forgivable when committed by the leaders of one government, under one set of circumstances, but unjustifiable and unforgivable, and to be punished by death, when committed by another set of governmental leaders, under another set of circumstances.” Keenan recognized war

Charges of Russian war crimes, when their forces have been attacking extensive civilian populations in Ukraine, are without doubt accurate. But we must also look at our actions in prior wars.

The documentary “The Fog of War” follows Robert McNamara’s career through World War II and the Vietnam War. Our fire bombing of Tokyo and devastation of many other Japanese cities took a civilian toll that is greater than the current devastation in Ukraine. The victims in Nagasaki and Hiroshima were primarily civilians. McNamara’s Rule #9 is “In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil” describes the injustice inherent in any war. He admits that if we had lost, we would be the ones facing a war crimes trial.

The BBC film “Horror in the East” released in 2000 likewise documents the Japanese explanation that “in war, you do what you must do to win.” In some cases this led to an Allied response-in-kind limited policy to take-no-prisoners and shoot-on-site any Japanese who surrendered.

Today, any U.S. proposal that Russia should face charges of war crimes in front of the International Criminal Court (ICC) faces a real dilemma. 124 countries are members of the ICC. Six are not, including the United States and Russia. In June 2020, the former administration and Secretary of State Pompeo imposed sanctions on the ICC prosecutor and another ICC official, denying them entry to the U.S. over worries they would investigate U.S. personnel and actions in Afghanistan and Palestine. And even when our own Army and Navy found two officers guilty, they were pardoned by the former President.

When it comes to making charges of war crimes, the United States has little credibility in the eyes of the world. But no war is free of innocent victims. And that makes all wars a crime.