The notion that war can be carried on without crime is as novel, I suppose, as the companion notion that the crime should afterwards be punished by legal process: the first idea has encouraged the second, or, more probably, the desire for the second has promoted the illusion of the first. Both are in any case gaining support. 'lt is not too late,' Britain's chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, Lord Shawcross, was writing the other day, in the tone of those who state the self-evident, since when other voices have echoed him, 'to insist on the surrender of Saddam to be tried for his crimes.' I am all for getting rid of the malodorous Saddam, but would trying him for his crimes of war, however monstrous these have been, constitute a good thing for the world, morally: meting out punishment while assuaging pain and anger? Is there in answer to this a useful guide to be drawn from war crimes' trials already held, or currently projected? British law, as Shawcross reminds us, although with what sounds like regret, is about to be altered 'so as to permit the trial of a handful of old men' long resident here but now accused of war crimes in the Europe of half a century ago. Do the Nuremberg trials therefore constitute a precedent to be followed to the world's advantage? Doesn't the concept of war crimes rather go to reinforce the conceptual possibility of crimeless war, and is this to be welcomed?
LRB 27 June 1991 | PDF Download