Who counts as a victim?

The pantomime drama of victims and villains conceals the real horrors of  war | Aeon Essays
Misrata, Libya, April 2011. Photo by David Rose/Panos Pictures

Innocent, passive, apolitical: after the Holocaust, the standard for ‘true’ victimhood has worked to justify total war

A Dirk Moses is Frank Porter Graham Distinguished Professor of Global Human Rights History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His latest book is The Problems of Genocide: Permanent Security and the Language of Transgression (2021).

Edited by Sam Haselby

In September 1945, a month after the foreign ministers of the Soviet Union, Great Britain and the United States issued the Charter of the Nuremberg Trials, the chief US prosecutor, Robert Jackson, wrote an article for The New York Times Magazine to explain the impending proceedings to the US public. In ‘The Worst Crime of All’, he justified why aggressive wars were the charter’s supreme crime: because all others – crimes against humanity and war crimes – derived from the German invasion. Appearing a month after the US dropped two atomic bombs on Japanese cities, the article drew a further, terrible conclusion: ‘If there are to be future wars we have got to win them’ by ‘being better killers, by killing more and killing more quickly than the enemy, by killing with less risk to ourselves.’

In elaborating this argument, Jackson advocated violating the legally established ‘principle of distinction’ between combatants and noncombatants, by casting warfare as conflict between peoples rather than military forces: ‘For the fact is obvious that modern war has become more and more a struggle between whole populations, not between armies alone. The issue is which shall be subjugated and which will survive.’ Consequently, it was necessary in future wars ‘to kill and maim the enemy and to destroy all that shelters him and all that he lives by not only in the field but at home.’ Killing the enemy’s civilians until they surrendered was the strategy – as the unmentioned cases of Hiroshima and Nagasaki indicated. The Nazis, by contrast, had murdered civilians ‘for no military purpose’, he later said during the Nuremberg Trials.

Jackson’s approach proved to be fatally prophetic. Ever since, governments of most stripes countenance inflicting enemy civilian casualties rather than endangering their military forces. Bombing enemies into submission – conceived as entire societies – has been the preferred means, from the US flattening of North Korea in the early 1950s, and later in Vietnam, and the Russian shelling of Grozny, Chechnya, in the 1990s, to the serial Israeli attacks on Gaza, the Syrian government’s barrel-bombing of Aleppo and other localities, and the Saudi-led destruction of Yemen. While more accurate than shelling and saturation bombing, continuous US drone strikes also causes civilian deaths. Together, these actions have killed millions. Trumping them all is the largest post-Second World War civilian casualty case: the some 45 million ordinary Chinese who perished in the Great Leap Forward famine between 1958 and 1962. But who remembers these people and their suffering besides their families and some academics? They’re excluded from the contemporary image of authentic victimhood because they aren’t victims of genocide.

The crystallisation of ‘the victim’ since 1945 comprised several elements based more on selective forgetting than inclusive remembering. After the First World War, the experiences of Armenian and Russian refugees in particular featured in Western humanitarian campaigns as victims worthy of empathy and emergency mobilisation. But after the Second World War, the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons languishing in camps couldn’t be accorded the same status because most refugees were now ethnic Germans expelled from eastern and central Europe with Allied consent.

Second, Allied bombing killed almost a million German and Japanese civilians: again, enemy civilians couldn’t be iconic victims. Although Germans and Japanese militaries had started the practice of bombing undefended cities, the Allies perfected it. This is why, at Nuremberg, Germans weren’t indicted for their aerial bombing campaigns.

Third, states distinguish between ‘military necessity’ – measures taken to achieve military aims not prohibited by international law – and emergency domestic security on the one hand, and genocidal intention on the other, although the same number of civilians might be affected. Consequently, while civilians are killed in smaller numbers in ‘proportionate’ responses to perceived security threats, their deaths accumulate over time as entirely legal, ‘business as usual’ actions. Such casualties can’t be seen as iconic victims if states engage in international and non-international armed conflict on the terms they prefer. In other words, these civilian deaths don’t ‘shock the conscience of mankind’, to use the archaic phrase that recurs in international humanitarian legal instruments.

If Jackson was prophetic about the shape of postwar conflict, he was wrong about the worst crime. By the late 1940s, genocide replaced aggressive warfare as the threshold that ‘shocked the conscience of mankind’. And genocide’s archetype was the Holocaust. States couldn’t agree on defining aggressive warfare, while Holocaust victims were becoming increasingly visible after serial trials of German perpetrators…



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