Those Who Make Wars

In his book The Face of Battle, Howard Keegan quotes an account by Lieutenant W.P. Joynt which was included in The Official Australian History of the Great War (that would be World War I). Lieutenant Joynt, during the Battle of Ypre came upon a circle of Australian soliders surrounding a two-story German pillbox.

“The Germans in the lower chamber soon surrendered,” Joynt writes. “The circle of Australians at once assumed easy attitudes, and the prisoners were coming out when shots were fired, killing an Australian.

“The shot came from the upper storey, whose inmates knew nothing of the surrender of the men below; but the surrounding troops were much too heated to realize this. To them the deed appeared to be the vilest treachery, and they forthwith bayoneted the prisoners.”

Keegan quotes the official historian’s response: “The Germans in this case were entirely innocent, but such incidents are inevitable in the heat of battle, and any blame for them lies with those who make wars, not with those who fight them.”

I think soldiers should be held accountable for deliberate atrocities, but cases of this kind are inevitable in war, and that’s why waging aggressive war is a crime. It was one of the charges against the Nazi defendants at Nuremberg.