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Writers who know me know that I really admire my husband Rob as a thinker and a writer. Today, I thought I'd show you why. This is a paper he had to do for the joint warfighting course he's taking in Norfolk, VA. The assignment was a simple case study of the French Resistance shooting German POWs in retaliation for the execution of some of their members in WWII.
(Before we begin: Just a reminder that this Thursday, March 8, at 8 PM Eastern Time, Tara Maderino chats about psychics in fiction and her book Soul Guardian. http://www.geocities.com/tjmanderino/
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Is Retaliation Justified?
In 1944 it became known to the Free French Partisan fighting forces that the Germans had executed 80 partisans and planned to execute more. The Partisans thus decided they would shoot 80 German prisoners who had recently surrendered to them. At this point the Red Cross intervened, won a postponement of the executions, and sought an agreement from the Germans to treat captured partisans as prisoners of war, who may not be shot. The Partisans waited 6 days and the Germans did not reply. The Partisans then shot 80 German prisoners. After these shootings the Nazis executed no more Partisans.
Was the shooting of the 80 German prisoners by the Partisans morally justifiable?
While it might be easy to give a glib response that the deaths of 80 German soldiers purchased the lives of many more captured Partisans, I do not believe that this is the correct answer. A true examination of the morality of the Partisans’ actions requires us to expand our scope and consider the issue of morality in war in general, rather than in one specific case. When considered in the bigger picture, I find that, while their actions were arguably effective in this case, they are not morally justifiable.
The concept of reprisal is a long established facet of the laws of war. If one belligerent breaks those laws, their opponent is free to do likewise. In theory this serves as a deterrent to future violations. Francis Lieber, author of the Code for the Government of Armies in the Field, a document written to guide Union forces in the U.S. Civil War that later served as a foundational document for future conventions of the conduct of war, used the term “protective retribution” to address the idea. His term highlights the intent of the concept – to protect against future violations of the laws of war.
As outlined in the case, the Partisans’ action was a simple case of reprisal, despite the Partisans’ questionable status as belligerents under the Hague Convention. Essentially, they used the Germans POWs as hostages to guarantee the fair treatment of captured Partisans. Under the laws of war, it would arguably have been ethical. That is, it complied with the accepted standards of conduct of the day, the laws of war. However, I do not believe it was morally justifiable for two reasons; first, reprisals are generally ineffective, and second, that it blurred the line between combatant and non-combatant and so undermined the moral justification for conducting war.
While the case study asserts no more Partisans were executed, there are many documented cases of Nazi atrocities against French Partisans throughout World War II, including the execution of the entire village of Oradour-sur-Glane. Historically, reprisals have not been effective in stopping violations of the laws of war. Instead, they invite counter-reprisals, which, in turn, invite more reprisals. Lieber summed it up nicely when he wrote that “Unjust or inconsiderate retaliation removes the belligerents farther and farther from the mitigating rules of regular warfare, and by rapid steps leads them farther to the internecine wars of savages.”
Aside from the “slippery slope” argument, the execution of prisoners as a reprisal could easily become counterproductive. If German soldiers believed that the partisans would execute them, then they would be less likely to surrender and more likely to fight to the death, costing more Partisan lives in the process. In short, despite the background of the case study, the Partisan’s actions cannot be justified on the grounds that they were effective in saving lives.
Furthermore, once we set aside the argument of effectiveness, there remains a deeper problem with this specific example of reprisal. When the German soldiers surrendered, they became non-combatants under the protection of the Partisans. One common thread throughout the various just war traditions is the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. This is the line between war and murder. While non-combatants may be killed through collateral damage, only combatants may be killed deliberately. Killing prisoners of war blurs this distinction and so undermines the moral justification for war in general, putting the soldier and the murderer on equal footing. This cannot be morally justified.
Thus, while the execution of prisoners in reprisal for German executions may arguably have had some short-term benefit for the Partisans, when seen from a wider perspective, it cannot be justified morally. It is ineffective and strikes at the moral basis of war itself.