Does Nuremberg Matter? American Military Ethics in the Age of Empire

Qualifying as an American hero has always been a slippery proposition. Slave owners such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington are recognized for their contributions to political liberty. Conversely, the righteous struggles for justice waged by others such as socialist leader Eugene Debs and farm worker organizer Caesar Chavez go, for the most part, unnoticed. More often than not, their disqualification is based on being perceived as insubordinate or spreading disunity — of not being willing to abide by rules and norms that support injustice. Add Lawrence P. Rockwood to this category of potential candidates.

Rockwood presented his book, Walking Away from Nuremberg, at an event last Sunday sponsored by the Socialist Party of New York City. The author had previously been a US Army Counterintelligence Officer sent along with US occupation forces to the island of Haiti. As part of their mission to restore order, out the disorder they had helped to produce, the Army signed an agreement of cooperation with the Haitian police. Once in-country, Rockwood witnessed multiple human rights violations being carried out by right-wing militias and the police against civilian supporters of the exiled president Jean Bertrand Aristide. Rockwood held the US military command responsible for these acts began to document the atrocities and called for the US military to stop the violence. When he lodged a formal complaint and went AWOL in order to expose secret prisons run by the Haitian right-wing, he was arrested, whisked out of the country and placed before a court martial.

Ultimately, Rockwood was sentenced to the equivalent of a dishonorable discharge from the army. But, he argues in his book and the presentation, he also discovered, as a result of this remarkable journey that the US military had strayed far from the norms of Command Responsibility encompassed in the post-WW II Nuremberg Principles. Following the war, the US and other nations organized trials of Nazi officers and officials that produced principles about how war should be conducted. These principals include strong human rights provisions regarding the safe treatment of civilians as non-combatants by invading or occupying armies.

This is a vital distinction to Rockwood and one that he offers to both the military and the peace movement. The question of just war should, he argued, be divided into two pieces. The first is justice before war and the second justice in war. Justice before war is determined by just war advocates by evaluating whether the current peace represents an unjust social order. Justice in war, Rockwood emphasized, should be guided by principles, such as those expressed at Nuremberg.

While the peace movement often tends to focus on issues related to how war will affect the lives of fellow American citizens, the military, Rockwood proposes, faces difficult ethical questions about the treatment of civilians once war is declared. As a result, the movement places emphasis on high-profile military operations, such as the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, but often misses or disregards the manner in which American military intervention extends beyond the actual invasion and seizure of territory. Rockwood offered, for instance, the fact that millions of civilians had already died in Afghanistan, prior to the direct US military operation in the country in 2001, as a result of a long history of war and militarism sponsored, in part, by the US government.

Rockwood offered one example — the Mai Lai massacre during the Vietnamese War — of how the everyday reality of war tests the ethical code of the US military. The village of Son My was inhabited almost entirely by women and children since the adult males had gone to fight for the Vietcong. Clearly, the village was hostile to the US military in that it provided support — material, political and emotional — to the Vietcong. Yet, this is not enough for Rockwood to support any military action against its 500 inhabitants. The question, he emphasized, was not whether or not the civilian villagers supported what the US perceived as its enemy. The point of fact is that the Nuremberg principles classify them as non-combatants and they are thereby sheltered from any military action.

Such ideas are not foreign importations. They are, Rockwood argued, the bedrock foundation of what had been modern US military ethics. The key document in this tradition is US General Order No. 100, more commonly known as the Leiber Code, which placed restrictions on the actions of Union soldiers during the US Civil War. Ironically enough, Rockwood noted, this order was necessitated by the fact that the North understood the Southern soldiers as illegal combatants. Quite a different approach than the one employed by the administration of George W. Bush against the “illegal combatants” housed at the Guantanamo facility in Cuba.

The ethics of the Leiber Code became standard fare for military ethics into the 20th c. and were reinforced by events such as the Nuremberg Trials. Yet, Rockwood identified a disturbing trend. The US government would participate in the formation of the ethical principles of war, such as those developed in Nuremberg, but would refuse to sign the resulting treaties that would bind their own military to such codes of conduct. This pattern continued during the formation of the International Crimes Court (ICC). The US participated in its formation, but refused to sign. Eventually, the US went so far as to pass the American Service Members Protection Act, which makes it effectively illegal to file charges against American servicemen or officials. The US had, as the title of Rockwood’s book suggests, walked away from Nuremberg.

This movement away from what the author understands as bedrock military ethics opened the door for larger abuses such as Mai Lai and, more recently, the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and the creation of the Guantanamo detention facility. It is this removal of command responsibility for abuses that drove Rockwood to challenge his superiors in Haiti and to pen his book.

Near the end of his presentation, Rockwood stated that he remained, culturally, a part of the military: “I am not embarrassed by that.” Simultaneously, “I am now committed to non-violence,” and through his writings and activism, “to bring an end to the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Ultimately, he offered, the gross inequality that operates throughout the world is the engine that drives war. Solving this larger problem, and Rockwood proposes democratic socialism, will be a fundamental part of transcending war.

If subversion in the name of justice becomes a quality sought after in American heroes, Lawrence Rockwood may be candidate. First, with a bold act in Haiti and now with a book that amounts to a stinging rebuke of US military operations since WW II, Rockwood has carved out a place for himself as a voice for justice in the wilderness of an increasingly violent US empire. Americans would do well to listen.

Lawrence Rockwood’s book is entitled Walking Away from Nuremberg: Just War and the Doctrine of Command Responsibility (University of Massachusetts Press, 2007). It can be purchased at most retail book outlets. Lawrence Rockwood can be contacted at gro.cginull@reidlos.

Billy Wharton is a writer, activist and co-chair of the Socialist Party USA. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Billy, or visit Billy's website.

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  1. MichaelKenny said on January 12th, 2010 at 12:42pm #

    Interestingly, just about everybody now accepts that the Nuremberg trials were illegal, essentially because they applied ex post facto laws. The same applies, of course, to the ex-Yugoslavia tribunal, which everyone (in Europe, at least) is trying to find an excuse to wind down. That is why the ICC was set up: lay down the law first, try people for breaking it afterwards. That’s also why none of the communist leaders were prosecuted after the the fall of the dictatorships: practically nothing that they did was illegal in their countries at the time that they did it. So, other than on the ICC, the US is not really out of step.
    As for democratic socialism, it works very well in Europe, in spite of US attempts to force us to dismantle it. But I don’t subscribe to the idea of a universal ideology. That’s precisely the error that US neo-liberals continue to make, with their “one (American!) size fits all” mentality. Let people find their own political salvation, in accordance with their own civilisation and traditions.