Warren Kozak has an excellent piece in today's WSJ explaining The Real Rules of War. After noting the curious case of the Navy SEALs Being Court-Martialed for Punching a Captured Terrorist, he reminds us that all wars--even the "good" ones--are uncivilized:
This incident and its twisted irony takes me back to an oddly serene setting many years ago. When I was in college, I joined my parents on a trip to retrace my father's wartime experience in Europe. We drove from France, through Holland and Belgium and on to Germany--the same route he had taken with the U.S. Army in 1944-45. At a field outside the Belgian town of Malmedy, we got out of our rented car where my father described something I had never heard before.
During the Battle of the Bulge, in the bleak December of 1944, the Germans had quickly overrun the American lines. They took thousands of prisoners as they pushed through in a last chance gamble to turn the war around. One unit, part of the First SS Panzer Division, had captured over a hundred GIs. They were moving fast, and they didn't care to be burdened by prisoners. So the SS troops put the American soldiers in that field and mowed them down with machine guns.
Around 90 Americans were killed in that barrage. The Germans then walked through the tangle of bodies, shooting those who were still alive in the back of the head. The few that survived were brought to where my father was located in the nearby town of Liege where word of the massacre quickly spread.
My father was never a talker. And in spite of the fact that we were on a trip to look at his past, he didn't open up much, or couldn't. When I asked him what the reaction was among the U.S. troops, he answered without emotion: "We didn't take prisoners for two weeks." I immediately understood what he meant, and had the sense not to press the issue any further. I just looked out at the field, now green and peaceful on a beautiful summer day, and realized he was looking at the same field and seeing something quite different.
In the weeks following the Malmedy massacre, U.S. troops clearly broke the rules of the Geneva Conventions. Justified or not, they were technically guilty of war crimes.
My guess is that the American correspondents imbedded with those troops knew all about this and chose not to report it. So did their officers. They understood the gravity of the war, as well as the absolute importance of its outcome. And they understood that disclosing this information might ultimately help the enemy. In other words, they used common sense. Was the U.S. a lesser country because these GIs weren't arrested? Was the Constitution jeopardized? Somehow it survived.