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Who’s to Blame for War Crimes?

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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We have seen a lot of outrage in the media at President Donald Trump’s decision to pardon service members accused of war crimes that some witnesses called evil. As a veteran, I share this outrage. Dreadful things were done, and we ought not to honor the perpetrators or let them off scot-free. But the president was also partly right. Front-line soldiers are under great pressure. Their commanders may be to blame for putting them in danger without appropriate training and supervision.

In 1969, I was assigned to investigate the killing of a local villager in Vietnam by fire from a helicopter. I found that the helicopter came from a neighboring command and had strayed into our space because the colonel there had put an untrained lieutenant in charge of the helicopter and sent him up without a map or a clear mission. Flying low over a populated area, he saw lights and thought he was under fire.

The day after I reported this, the colonel was relieved of duty and his prospects ruined. He had put a lethal weapon — a helicopter gunship — into the hands of someone who had no idea about how to use it. The higher-ups were right to relieve the colonel, as he was indirectly responsible for the death of an innocent man. The lieutenant was not disciplined so severely.

These days we’ve forgotten how to assign blame in such cases. After the revelations of crimes against detainees at Abu Ghraib, a few lower-ranking people were punished, but those in the higher command were hardly touched. And yet they were more to blame than the guards, knowing that jailors are in danger of abusing prisoners unless they are trained and well led. The abuses at Abu Ghraib were due to a failure of leadership, as a commission led by former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger reported.

Trump is right that we should not come down too hard on soldiers who harm POWs or civilians. War is a violent teacher, as the historian Thucydides wrote 2,400 years ago. Soldiers in combat are in danger of abusing civilians and POWs, especially if they have suffered the loss of friends in combat. For a moving account of such a war crime, read Philip Caputo’s “A Rumor of War.” In his case, bad leaders assigned his team dangerous missions that served no purpose. His men took high casualties, and their trauma changed them for the worse. Their crime was a symptom of moral injury caused by war.

Good leadership makes an enormous difference. I once spoke with a Vietnam veteran who told me that he once had a POW at the end of his rifle — a man he thought had killed two of his best friends. I asked him why he didn’t pull the trigger. He replied it was simple: He knew the battalion commander would have punished him if he had done such a thing.

Leadership matters. Two of my ancestors, Seth and Parsons Woodruff, were imprisoned on a British hulk during our war of independence. They had joined the militia in New Jersey. Conditions were dreadful on board the old ship; many did not survive, and those who did were weakened by typhus.

By contrast, George Washington insisted on treating English and Hessian POWs so humanely that many wanted to stay in America. Washington wrote the British general, Lord Howe, asking him to treat American POWs better, threatening to reciprocate if the British went on abusing prisoners. Howe refused, but Washington kept to his humane policy. War does not have to be as nasty as we sometimes make it.

Who is to blame for war crimes? Responsibility runs up the chain of command. The people most to blame are those who send poorly trained soldiers into situations in which — human nature being as it is — they are in danger of killing or abusing POWs or innocent people. The president is partly right: We should sympathize with front-line soldiers, but we should go hard on their commanders.

Paul Woodruff is the Darrell K Royal Professor of Ethics at The University of Texas at Austin. In 1969-70 he served in the Army in Vietnam. He has written on the ethics of war and more recently on ethical leadership. His latest book is “The Garden of Leaders.”

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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