Of Crimes and Pardons

tags: war crimes, military history, Nuremberg, Trump

Rebecca Gordon is the author of Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States. She teaches in the philosophy department at the University of San Francisco. She is a member of the War Times/Tiempo de Guerras collective. You can contact her through the Mainstreaming Torture website.


The United States was not always so reluctant to put national leaders on trial for their war crimes. That’s exactly what this country, along with the other three “Great Powers” of World War II -- France, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union -- did when they tried high-ranking Nazis and their enablers at Nuremberg.

In his opening remarks at the first Nuremberg trials in 1945, Robert Jackson, the chief prosecutor for the United States (and an associate justice of the Supreme Court), issued a warning: “We must not forget that the record on which we judge the defendants today is the record on which we will be judged tomorrow.”

As it turned out, he was wrong. The practices established at Nuremberg, and the understandings behind them, later codified in the 1950 Nuremberg Principles, have not proved to be the record by which U.S. actions in war, whether in Vietnam or in today’s never-ending war on terror, have been judged. Nonetheless, it’s worth taking a look at those ideas, because they provide an excellent basis for assessing just who are the real war criminals still walking among us.

Nuremberg established the principle that the international laws of war are real laws and that breaking them is a real crime. That’s what the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, was created to adjudicate -- even though the United States quickly removed itself from the ICC in 2002, the year it began functioning. It was then that President George W. Bush’s top officials started getting nervous about their new CIA torture program. And lest we think of that as ancient history, remember that it was John Bolton, President Trump’s current national security advisor, who delivered the newsto the United Nations that the U.S. was leaving the court.

Under the Nuremberg Principles, even heads of state or other high government officials are not immune from prosecution for war crimes or crimes against humanity, nor can anyone be exonerated for them on the sole grounds of a superior’s orders. (That defense was nevertheless used by the My Lai killers and some of those President Trump is now thinking about pardoning.)

Read entire article at Tom Dispatch

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