War Is . . .

How do charges of Israeli crimes in the Six-Day War match up with similar charges against American forces in other wars?

American troops approaching Omaha Beach, during the Invasion of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Wikipedia.

American troops approaching Omaha Beach, during the Invasion of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Wikipedia.

July 13 2015
About the author

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of, among other books, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present Day (2013).

Martin Kramer has performed a valuable public service by investigating the origins of the film Censored Voices and its claims of Israeli soldiers committing war crimes during the Six-Day War. Beyond the specifics of this particular documentary and that particular conflict, his article, “Who Censored the Six-Day War?,” raises larger issues relating to actual or imaginary war crimes committed by the armed forces of liberal democracies, whether Israeli or American, British or French.

Generally, such accusations are publicly aired—often in exaggerated form—during controversial or unpopular conflicts and ignored during more popular ones. There is a particular tendency for allegations of misconduct to seize the spotlight in guerrilla wars where troops have trouble distinguishing combatants from civilians. The circumstances under which troops fight, rather than what they actually do, thus prove more important in determining whether or not “war crimes” become a subject of public controversy.

The history of the U.S. armed forces provides a good case in point. In 1899, the United States was drawn into an unpopular conflict in the Philippines as an outgrowth of the Spanish-American war. The treaty ending that war had ceded the Philippines to American sovereignty; before long, American troops were fighting Philippine “insurrectos” under Emilio Aguinaldo who had no desire to trade a Spanish king for an American president. As the conflict dragged on, it grew more unpopular. Vocal anti-imperialists like Mark Twain seized on news that American forces were torturing and killing suspected insurrectos to denounce the entire conflict. Twain quipped that the Stars and Stripes should be redesigned with “the white stripes painted black and stars replaced by the skull and crossbones.”

In 1902, the Senate got into the act by convening a committee of investigation, and the Army was forced to hold courts-martial to try the most egregious offenders. One major case involved actions on the island of Samar where, following the massacre of an infantry company by insurrectos disguised as peaceful peons, Brigadier General “Hell-Roaring” Jake Smith ordered his subordinates “to kill and burn,” slaughtering anyone over the age of ten. Although his orders were not carried out, one Marine officer did summarily execute ten Filipino porters on suspicion of treachery. In the resulting trial, which became a cause célèbre, “Hell-Roaring Jake” was convicted of “conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline” and forced into retirement.

By contrast, atrocities that are committed in popular wars tend to be ignored. During World War II, for example, it became common for American troops in the Pacific theater to kill the few Japanese soldiers who tried to surrender and to shoot Japanese sailors trying to escape sinking ships. This was seen as just retaliation for the mistreatment of American POWs in Japanese hands—mistreatment and suffering recently dramatized by the book and movie Unbroken.

Even in the European theater, where the Germans generally adhered to the Geneva Convention in their treatment of British and American (if not Soviet) POWs, it was not uncommon for GIs to kill German soldiers trying to surrender. After 80 American POWs were murdered in German captivity in 1944, at least one American general issued explicit orders that SS troops were not to be taken prisoner but rather to be shot on sight. The U.S. troops who liberated the Dachau death camp in 1945 were so horrified by what they found that they summarily executed at least 500 German guards. An internal investigation into this incident could have led to a court-martial for the officers responsible had not General George S. Patton dismissed the charges.

At the time, because of wartime censorship and the even more pervasive self-censorship among correspondents who were supportive of the war effort, there was little awareness among American civilians that their soldiers might not be playing by Marquesse of Queensbury rules. There was greater awareness of the “strategic bombing” being carried out by the U.S. Army Air Forces, but no real debate about the fact that, in the process of destroying urban areas, B-17s, B-24s, and B-29s were killing hundreds of thousands of German and Japanese civilians. The prevailing attitude was that the Axis powers had started the war and deserved whatever was coming to them.

Predictably, the war in Vietnam, which became the most unpopular conflict in American history, drew more attention to the misconduct of American soldiers. The most famous and horrifying case of abuse occurred in 1968 at My Lai, where troops of the Americal division slaughtered 347 unarmed civilians. Opponents of the war claimed that My Lai was no aberration but rather the norm. To make their case, antiwar veterans sought to document such abuses in the three-day “Winter Soldier Investigation” of 1971. At a subsequent Senate hearing, John Kerry, one of the leaders of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, testified that his fellow vets

had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.

Yet few of these claims could be documented. As the Vietnam veteran Scott Swett subsequently wrote:

The Army’s Criminal Investigative Division (CID) had opened cases for 43 WSI [Winter Soldier Investigation] “witnesses” whose claims, if true, would qualify as crimes. An additional 25 Army WSI participants had criticized the military in general terms, without sufficient substance to warrant any investigation. The 43 WSI CID cases were eventually resolved as follows: 25 WSI participants refused to cooperate, thirteen provided information but failed to support the allegations, and five could not be located. No criminal charges were filed as a result of any of the investigations.

Indeed, under questioning, many of these supposed “eyewitnesses” retracted their testimony; some, it turned out, had not even served in Vietnam.

The evidence suggests that American troops in Vietnam or the Philippines were no worse behaved than troops in World War II; the difference is that in the former conflicts their misdeeds were magnified and in the latter conflict minimized because of public attitudes toward the cause in which they fought.


Israel suffers from the same double standard. The Israel Defense Forces have experienced the greatest criticism of their conduct when fighting insurgents in Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank in wars that were generally unpopular with the outside world and even (in the case of the first Lebanon war and the first intifada ) with a significant sector of Israeli public opinion. What makes Censored Voices unusual is that it is an attempt to indict the conduct of the IDF during one of Israel’s “good” wars, that is, those fought primarily against uniformed foes with the survival of the nation at stake.

How can this be? One suspects that the explanation can be found in what came out of the Six-Day War: namely, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, now seen as morally illegitimate by world opinion and by vocal critics within Israeli society itself. In other words, the unpopular consequences of the Six-Day War have now rendered its very conduct questionable. Hence the attempt to expose crimes allegedly committed by Israeli soldiers.

There is nothing inherently wrong with historians, journalists, and filmmakers trying to discover unpleasant truths about warfare. But we should not hold unpopular conflicts to a different and higher standard than wars that enjoy greater public support. At some level, all war is hell. Nor should we lose sight of the bigger picture: by historical or global norms—and certainly when compared with their adversaries—the conduct of both the Israel Defense Forces and the U.S. armed forces, notwithstanding inevitable abuses, has been exemplary.


More about: History & Ideas, Israel & Zionism, Six-Day War, Vietnam War