Books: The good that came out of My Lai

Crimes of War edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff W W Norton pounds 22.50
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
W hen, during his military service, the writer Amos Oz and his platoon were ambushed and fired upon for the first time by a group of Syrians in the Golan Heights, his immediate reaction, he said, was to tell someone to call the police. That sentiment, taken rather more seriously, is the premise of this book. It was conceived as a primer in international humanitarian law for journalists in the field. It is also a stylish anthology of war reporting for the general reader. As the editors say, just as war is too important to be left to the generals, war coverage is too important to be left uncritically to the news media.

In the First World War, nine soldiers were killed for every civilian. In the Second, the numbers were roughly equal. Today, around nine civilians are killed for every soldier. In Bosnia, Chechnya and Rwanda, armies have waged war against populations rather than other armies. "War crimes" are not always a deviation from warfare - for their perpetrators they are often one and the same thing. This is a fact the book acknowledges but does not address, rendering itself ever more ludicrous with every entry in its A-Z roll call of murder and disorder.

The obliging models paraded to display each transgression include the Serbs, Saddam Hussein and the American troops of the Vietnam era. In case of confusion there are pictures too: from the heaps of corpses fused together in mass graves outside Srebrenica to a militiaman in mid-execution in Liberia. In another shot, one of Arkan's "Tigers" kicks the head of a Bosnian woman he has just shot dead. Against such wanton evil, the hair- splitting of international human rights lawyers resembles nothing so much as the attempts of a tribal witchdoctor to legislate for rain.

But order has had its successes. In the My Lai massacre of 16 March 1968, troops of the Americal Division under Lieutenant William Calley killed more than 500 Vietnamese men, women and children. A young lieutenant colonel in the Americal Division at the time was Norman Schwarzkopf. As commander of coalition forces in the Gulf War, Schwarzkopf ensured that every officer and every enlisted soldier was lectured on the rules of land warfare and the proper treatment of prisoners. The legal division of the Red Cross was contacted almost daily by members of Schwarzkopf's staff on the finer points of the laws of warfare. But while the good guys are even worthier of their name today, they were never the ones the legislators really had in mind.

While Henry Kissinger travels unmolested and even appears on television shows, the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic enjoys his own degree of freedom. The not so good doctor, charged with genocide and crimes against humanity, currently lives a sedate life on a farm, the nearby detachment of French troops apparently unwilling to cross a minefield and cordon of bodyguards to feel his collar. Karadzic knew what he was doing, but other miscreants never fully grasped the concept of war crimes. In 1983, Iran lodged an official complaint with the UN charging Iraq with using poison gas against her soldiers. The accusations were well-founded, but the Iranian "soldiers" were often children pushed forwards in "human wave" attacks. Sometimes they were even used to clear minefields, armed only with plastic keys which they were told would gain them entry into heaven.

However ineffectual are war crimes tribunals, one contributor professes that arguments based on international law are at least more likely to sway your average guerrilla leader than appeals to their compassion. So long as war criminals take measures to conceal their identities and crimes, there is some hope that they might one day take their crimes as seriously as they take their orders.