Sir: Two letters today (16 August) accused the UK of "war crimes" during the Second World War.
Ideally, there would be no wars as war is always terrible, usually involves considerable suffering, and is often avoidable; but there is a clear distinction between the acts of violence pursued in war and "war crimes". The former have the aim of weakening the enemy's military strength, economy or morale to achieve victory and minimise loss of life of one's own military and civilian population. Over the past century or two, the conduct of war has evolved from the "nine-to-five" battles of small professional armies to all-out war involving whole nations, both civilian and military.
War crimes, however, involve the mistreatment or murder of civilian or military personnel who are wholly under one's power and can make no contribution to the war effort.
Thus, the bombing of cities by nuclear or incendiary bombs is an act of war that aims to reduce the contribution to the war effort and the will to continue the war of a free civilian population. The starvation and torture of prisoners is a war crime, which bears no comparison. It is not only the Japanese who seem not to appreciate the difference.
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