The Moral Ambiguity of War Crimes

By James R. Watkins

Let me ask you a question. 

Let’s say you were 17 years old and your country was at war. There were no jobs, buildings in your home town were blown to smithereens and most of your family had either joined the army or fled the country, leaving you and your boyfriend behind to fend for yourself. 

Then, one day your boyfriend gets shot as a sympathizer to the enemy and you are now stuck, living alone in an apartment with little food or money and someone asks you if you would like a job. Your typing is pretty good so you take the job because you might just end up on the streets if you don’t.

The next day you are taken to your new job and you find out it is an internment camp for the enemy. Your job is to type execution orders for processing and record keeping, and to not ask too many questions. As a young lady with absolutely no interest in politics, you keep your mouth shut and do your work.

How many of us, in the same situation, would stand up and protest, knowing full well such action would end with you having a bullet in your head, or worse, you might become a prisoner and the prison you are in for work now becomes your home. 

How many of us, in that same situation, and during wartime, would be bold and brave enough to stand up and protest against those who you thought your whole life were decent people. After all, its war, you don’t know that much accept everyone you know is gone or dead and you have to survive.

Time passes and finally the war ends and you go back to your life having survived.

Fifty year laters you get charged for war crimes because you aided and abetted the enemy, the NAZIS, by being a secretary typing up forms in a concentration camp for Jews.

Turn the page.

Let’s say you are living in a country that is at war and the people fighting are people who would keep you enslaved if they were in power, and so you help “the enemy” because if you don’t you will be killed, and if you do, you might survive. 

Then one day the war ends and the enemy you helped by being a secretary loses and decides to leave the country, leaving you behind to be slaughtered by those who are now in charge, the very people who are now charging you with a war crime for aiding and abetting an enemy.

In the first case a 96 year old former secretary named Irmgard Furchner is being charged with NAZI war-crimes from 50 years ago while she was employed by her country’s rulers; in the second case a secretary is charged with helping the enemy (the U.S. and Afghan Government) and is hung by the neck by the Taliban for “helping the enemy.” 

Can you see the moral dilemma in both cases?

Both cases are true, both people did what they could to survive the war, so how is it in the German case a secretary, who would have been killed if she disobeyed, is she more guilty than the woman in Afghanistan who was killed for her crime of disloyalty by her country’s people for aiding and abetting the enemy?

The enemy truly is in the eye of the beholder, and in both cases both secretaries just wanted to stay alive during war time and did what they could to survive.

The real crime is in our inability to understand what really constitutes an immoral act in times of war when people will do anything just to survive. The answer is not so clear.

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