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Killing Civilians

By John Scales Avery

26 August, 2014

The Geneva Conventions

In Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, Articles 51 and 54 outlaw indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations, and destruction of food, water, and other materials needed for survival. Indiscriminate attacks include directly attacking civilian (non-military) targets, but also using technology such as biological weapons, nuclear weapons and land mines, whose scope of destruction cannot be limited. A total war that does not distinguish between civilian and military targets is considered a war crime.

Targeting civilians

Throughout history, military forces have frequently committed the crime of deliberately targeting civilian populations. An early example of this was the bombardment of neutral Copenhagen by British forces, which took place, without a declaration of war, from 2-5 September, 1807. The object of the bombardment was to terrorize the citizens of the city, so that they would persuade their government to surrender the Danish-Norwegian fleet to the British. Besides exploding shells, incendiary rockets were used, and about a third of the city was destroyed. In England, news of the bombardment was greeted with mixed reactions. Canning wrote that “Nothing ever was more brilliant, more salutory or more effectual than the success [at Copenhagen]”, but Lord Erskine condemned it by saying “if hell did not exist before, Providence would create it now to punish the ministers for that damnable measure.”

Another instance of targeting of civilians was the 1937 Facist and Nazi destruction of Guernica, made famous by Picasso's painting. A report described the event as follows: “Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders. The bombardment of this open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and a quarter, during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes consisting of three types [of] Junkers and Heinkel bombers, did not cease unloading on the town bombs weighing from 1,000 lbs. downwards and, it is calculated, more than 3,000 two-pounder aluminium incendiary projectiles. The fighters, meanwhile, plunged low from above the centre of the town to machine-gun those of the civilian population who had taken refuge in the fields”

The Nanking Massacre was an episode of mass murder, mass rape and looting committed by Japanese troops against civilians and unarmed prisoners of war in Nanking (Nanjing), during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The massacre occurred during a six-week period starting on December 13, 1937, the day that the city surrendered to the Japanese. The International Tribunal of the Far East estimated in 1948 that over 200,000 people were killed in this incident. Neither pregnant women, babies, young girls, nor old people were spared.

On the 25th of September, 1939, Hitler's air force began a series of intense attacks on Warsaw. Civilian areas of the city, hospitals and fleeing refugees all were targeted. On the 14th of May, 1940, Rotterdam was also devastated. The German Luftwaffe also carried out massive air attacks on targets in Britain.

Although they were not the first to start it, by the end of the war, the United States and Britain were bombing civilian populations on a far greater scale than Japan and Germany had ever done. We can think of the terrible fire bombings of Hamburg, Kassel, Pforzheim, Mainz, Dresdin and Berlin, as well as Tokyo, Kobe, Yokahama, and the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. General Curtis LeMay, under whose command many of the attacks on Japanese civilians were carried out, said later: “I suppose that if [we] had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.”

Among the most savage recent attacks on civilians were those that occurred during the Vietnam Wat. Besides conventional high explosives, chemical weapons were used, including the notorious Agent Orange. This was a defoliant which not only lastingly damaged the ecology of Vietnam, but also had terrible effects on the health of the civilian population.

According to Wikipedia, “The government of Vietnam says that 4 million of its citizens were exposed to Agent Orange, and as many as 3 million have suffered illnesses because of it; these figures include the children of people who were exposed....Children in the areas where Agent Orange was used have been affected, and have multiple health problems, including cleft palate, mental disabilities, hernias and extra fingers and toes. In the 1970's high levels of dioxin were found in the breast milk of South-Vietnamese women, and in the blood of US military personnel who had served in Vietnam."

During the Vietnam war, he effect of conventional high-explosive bombs was also enormous. According to a study by Edward Miguel and Gérard Roland of the University of California, “The United States Air Force dropped in Indochina, from 1964 to August 15, 1973, a total of 6,162,000 tons of bombs [in Indochina]...This tonnage far exceeded that expended in World War II.”

Of this enormous quantity, more than million tons of bombs were dropped on the tiny country of Laos, making it, per capita, the most heavily bombed nation in history The bombings were part of the U.S. Secret War in Laos to support the Royal Lao Government against the Pathet Lao and to interdict traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The bombings destroyed many villages and displaced hundreds of thousands of Lao civilians during the nine-year period. Up to a third of the bombs did not explode, leaving Laos contaminated with vast quantities of unexploded ordnance.

Genocides must also be included if we are to have a complete picture of the way in which governments attack civilian populations. These include the mass murder of Jews, Poles and Gypsies by the Nazis during World War II, Armenian Genocide, the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur, the genocidal treatment of Palestinians by Israel, and many many other cases.

Do our “Defense Departments” really defend us?

What is the point of this long and gruesome list of crimes committed by military forces against civilians? What I am trying to show, is that the very name, “Department of Defense” is a fraud. The military-industrial complex sells itself by claiming to defend civilians. It justifies vast and crippling budgets by the same claim. But it is a fraud. Soldiers do not “guard us while we sleep” as Kipling believed. They do not defend us. They do not care about civilian lives. What the generals, arms manufacturers and politicians are really defending is their own power, and their own profits. Civilians are just hostages. They are expendable.

We can see this most clearly if we think of nuclear war. Nations threaten each other with “Mutually Assured Destruction”, which has the very appropriate acronym MAD. What does this mean? Does it mean that civilians are being protected? Not at all. Instead they are threatened with complete destruction. Civilians here play the role of hostages in the power games of their leaders.

If a thermonuclear war occurs it will be the end of human civilization and much of the biosphere. This will definitely happen in the future unless the world rids itself of nuclear weapons since, in the long run, the finite chance of accidental nuclear war happening due to a technical or human failure during a given year will gradually build up into a certainty of disaster. Nevertheless, our leaders stubbornly hold onto their nuclear toys, which seem to give them a sense of god-like power.

Civilians must stop being passive hostages. Civil society must make its will felt. Where democracy has decayed, it must be restored. If our leaders continue to enthusiastically support the institution of war, if they continue to cling to nuclear weapons, then let us have new leaders!

John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ordbog/aord/a220.htm. He can be reached at avery.john.s@gmail.com



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