Gas, Gas, Gas!In Europe, the same spirit of reform touched governments and royal courts, as a series of diplomatic conferences set about codifying the centuries-long tradition of ''laws and customs of war.'' The most important result was the 1907 Hague Convention, which in 56 short articles covers vast legal terrain on the conduct of warfare -- including surrender and flags of truce, obligations to wear uniforms, treatment of prisoners of war, sieges and bombardments, protection of cultural property, prohibitions against pillage and terms of occupation. Its general rules are still applicable, at least in principle, today. Indeed, most of the matters that coalition forces raise as violations of the laws of war by Iraqi forces -- perfidious surrender, fighting out of uniform or mistreatment of P.O.W.'s -- can be found somewhere in the Hague regulations. Optimism was swept away a few years later, however, by the guns of August. During World War I, in which mustard gas, aerial warfare, tanks and, above all, the machine gun, were introduced, old rules were clearly no longer enough, and existing humanitarian organizations were simply unable to cope with suffering on a scale never before seen. Following the Great War, there was a resurgence of interest in the fields of jus ad bellum and jus in bello. The Red Cross built on its earlier work in fostering treaties for sick and wounded soldiers and moved directly into promoting humanitarianism in war through legal rules, convening meetings between states that eventually resulted in the Geneva Conventions of 1929. These conventions, along with the 1907 Hague Convention, were the primary codified laws of war in effect when World War II broke out. In addition, states negotiated the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting gas weapons -- a ban that held with few exceptions, even during World War II, for 60 years, until Saddam Hussein broke it in the Iran-Iraq war and again in his genocidal 1988 Anfal campaign against the Kurds. World War II brought its own violations, partly owing to the new technology of air war against civilians. The carpet bombing of Dresden, for instance, inevitably swept civilians in with soldiers as targets. The conclusion of World War II brought about two signal developments in the laws of war. The first was the holding of criminal trials by the victors of those deemed to be chiefly responsible for the war. We tend to think of the Nuremberg trials as war-crimes trials, but in fact Nuremberg was principally about trying German leaders for the crime of aggressive war, for making war itself, crimes of jus ad bellum, rather than for the manner of its conduct. The chief American prosecutor, Robert Jackson, was content to leave what he regarded as the legally less-cutting-edge matters, the war's atrocities, to prosecutors from other countries.
To the frontpage of The Heritage of the Great War
Click here if you want to read more about the origins and causes of the Great War.
Click here for a challenging opinion why America should have stayed out of World War I.
Click here for pictures of the American Expeditionary Force in the Great War.