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War crimes are atrocious – whichever side commits them

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DID you have a good laugh over the Ukrainian soldier’s practical joke: the one where he picked up the mobile phone of a Russian soldier’s corpse and called the lad’s parents to rejoice in his death?

Or maybe you found the videos of Russian PoWs being kneecapped more to your taste?

Or perhaps what really got you going was the Ukrainian army doctor who said he considered it legitimate to castrate captured Russian soldiers?

Unless, of course, it’s the proper stuff you’re into: the crucifixion and burning-alive? The dead woman – a filthy collaborator, must have been! – with swastikas carved into her flesh?

Clearly I must be sick in the head for I don’t find any of this remotely satisfying or titillating or poetically just. But judging by the comments on social media I appear to be in a minority.

Here’s a particularly egregious example from TalkRadio presenter Mike Graham. He was asked: ‘I want to hear your view on the way Ukrainian soldiers shot Russian POWs in the legs and filmed them bleed out.’

Graham replied: ‘I’ve seen the video. No idea what’s going on. But if I was in Ukraine fighting Russia I’d probably do the same. What’s the problem? It’s a bloody war zone.’

There have been lots of comments on Twitter and elsewhere in a similar vein: ordinary, decent people who know what the Geneva Convention is and who all their lives have been using it as the benchmark for correct and honourable behaviour during war, suddenly deciding: ‘But it doesn’t apply where Russians are concerned. They’re such verminous scum that they deserve all the torture and emasculation and brutality they get – even after they’ve surrendered.’

I cite Graham because he’s a public figure. And public figures, as a rule, tend to be more circumspect when voicing enthusiasm for war crimes such as helpless, tied-and-bound young men being shot at point-blank range in the legs and possibly being left to bleed to death. 

When was the last time you heard a broadcaster on heavily regulated British radio come out so shamelessly in favour of unspeakably brutal and blatantly illegal behaviour? I honestly cannot remember ever having encountered such a thing before, even from professional shock jocks. It’s the sort of thing which, up to now, would have got you fired.

That’s because culturally we’ve long tended to take a dim view of exulting in torture and violent death, even when it’s directed against our most bitter enemies.

Sure, I don’t doubt that at some time or other, one or two of us have let out a whoop of joy on seeing footage of a Taliban being taken out by a helicopter gunship or on hearing tales of some Special Forces sniper drilling an ISIS sheik from two miles distant. But it’s the kind of response generally understood to belong to private internet chat rooms or drunken pub conversations. It’s not something you’d want to boast about publicly.

After all, there are good reasons why we’ve evolved a code of practice over the centuries as to how we fight our wars. One is that, just like in murder trials, we sense that there is a moral distinction between acts of violence committed in the heat of the moment and those practised against the helpless and vulnerable in cold blood; and we feel, insofar as it’s possible, that this distinction should temper our behaviour in war. Another, perhaps, is that we know that one day we or our children or grandchildren might end up involved in such a conflict and we’d like to make the experience as unhorrible as we possibly can.

That’s why, artificial and unrealistic though it may be in an activity whose main aim is to kill the opposing side, we set great store by conventions such as seeing that prisoners are properly cared for and that enemy wounded are treated as well as our own wounded. These are traditions which date back at least to the Age of Chivalry. Though it’s true that these codes are often more honoured in the breach than in the observance, that doesn’t mean they are a worthless aspiration. After all, our literature and traditions suggest that ‘good’ behaviour in war is something we genuinely value. It’s why, for example, many people’s favourite story from the entirety of the First World War is the one from Christmas Day 1914 when the Germans and the British left their trenches to exchange gifts and play football. It’s why when Henry V kills the prisoners in Shakespeare’s play, it’s not generally considered a moment to be celebrated but rather an indication of a flaw in his character. 

And it’s why, by contrast, whenever we’re looking for examples of the ‘war is hell’ moments which fill us with a burning desire to ensure that none of this stuff happens ever again, we tend to focus on incidents where the tacitly accepted ‘rules of war’ are violated. One example of this would be the atrocity which inspired The Great Escape, when the Gestapo – acting on the personal orders of Adolf Hitler – shot 50 Allied prisoners of war who had attempted to escape. Another would be the appalling crime committed by the SS ‘Das Reich’ Panzer Division in the French village Oradour-sur-Glane, when 642 civilians were slaughtered in cold blood.

In the first seven or so decades after the Second World War, such atrocities would have been considered a by-word for the purest evil. It would have been a brave contrarian indeed who tried to justify them on the lines of, say, ‘C’mon. Escaped prisoners are fair game. They had to be shot pour décourager les autres,’ or ‘Das Reich were desperately needed at the Normandy beachhead. They were understandably pissed off at the delays brought about by the Resistance and needed to set an example . . .’

Not any more, though, apparently. Today, for perhaps the first time since those SS thugs herded those French women and children into Oradour’s church, set it alight and machine-gunned anyone who tried to escape, war crimes are being celebrated by the general public on social media as understandable, justifiable or even as kind of cool and admirable. By weird coincidence, the soldiers committing a lot of these atrocities are the spiritual successors to the ones who did those terrible things to French civilians back in ’44: Ukraine’s notorious Azov regiment. 

Though the BBC has done its best to gloss over this with some characteristically misleading fact-checking, the Azov regiment is made up of self-claimed Nazis who model themselves on the SS Das Reich Panzer Division. They have even borrowed their insignia. [Somehow, h/t Alex Thomson, this awkward detail slipped out in a French TV report.] 

Now I have little doubt that some of the Russian units currently deployed in the Ukraine are not the kind that takes prisoners. It’s obvious, for example, that the Chechen units sent in to take Azov strongholds such as Mariupol have been selected for their battle-joy and their ruthlessness. No quarter, I suspect, is being given on either side. But the fact that this is clearly turning into an ugly, no-holds-barred war in which crimes are likely being committed on both sides should not, I think, be a cause for glee.

Even if you believe – as I do not, by the way – that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a wholly undeserved act of aggression, I still don’t think that makes the case for treating every Russian as lower than vermin. Conscripted soldiers get no choice as to where they are deployed; nor for that matter do professional soldiers. Are we really arguing that those who happen to have been born in Western Ukraine should be championed whatever they do, however barbaric? But that those who were born in Russia have no right to sympathy of any kind because being Russian, and coming from the land of the New Hitler (TM the entire MSM) Putin they don’t even count as human beings?

It makes no sense to me. A war crime is a war crime whichever side commits it, even if that side is the one you’ve marked down as ‘the goodies’. In fact, if it’s the ‘goodies’ doing it, that ought to make the crime worse in all reasonable people’s eyes because as ‘goodies’ they should know better. (Or could it be, heaven forfend, that contrary to the media’s relentless protestations they’re not such goodies after all?)

This – perhaps even more than Covidmania – is what ‘mass formation’ looks like. People who couldn’t have placed Ukraine on a map even a month ago are suddenly so hot for vengeance against the Russian ‘invaders’ that they’re happy to see them crucified, to have their balls chopped off, to have them tortured and shot – the kind of barbaric wartime practices which, until recently, we tended to imagine were committed only by savage, brainwashed, alien creatures such as the wartime Japanese or the SS or Islamic State.

One Twitter commentator, a mild-looking individual who writes books, sought to put me right on my squeamishness by declaring airily that war crimes were par for the course on the Eastern Front and that really I should know this so why should I be making such a fuss about Russians being brutalised in Ukraine?

Well, I do know this. I’ve been studying military history for years and have written books on the subject. But the point my Twitter chum has missed is that, until very recently, the Eastern Front (and the Pacific Theatre) were viewed as paradigms of unacceptable cruelty and horror, not as model ways to fight a war.

When I was growing up, and indeed for much of my adult life, one of the great mysteries we all used to ponder when reflecting on the Second World War was how such civilised, cultured people as the Germans could end up embracing Hitler’s worst excesses. But in the last two years it has become perfectly obvious how. A cynical, corrupt political class backed by a mendacious media is all you need to whip most of the populace into a frenzy about whatever cause you like.

Six months ago, many of those exulting in Ukrainian war crimes against the hateful Russians were cowering behind masks that didn’t work, snitching on neighbours who didn’t obey the rules and taking multiple shots of an experimental mRNA treatment they didn’t need because the Government had told them that a flu-like virus with a 99.9 per cent survival rate was the new Black Death. Now these same gullible, snivelling, hypochondriacal cowards are hot for crucifixion and castration. I despair.

This appeared on James Delingpole on March 30, 2022, and is republished by kind permission. 

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James Delingpole
James Delingpole
James Delingpole is host of the Delingpod podcast. The Delingpod: The James Delingpole Podcast (podbean.com)

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