United States war crimes

United States war crimes are violations of the laws and customs of war committed by the United States Armed Forces since the signing of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. These have included the summary execution of captured enemy combatants, the mistreatment of prisoners during interrogation, and the use of violence against civilian non-combatants.

War crimes can be prosecuted in the United States through the War Crimes Act of 1996. However, the United States Federal Government does not accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) over its nationals, as the United States directly opposes the Court.[1]

Philippine–American War

Jacob Smith's retaliation during the Samar campaign

Following the end of the Spanish–American War in 1898, Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States as part of the peace settlement. This triggered a more than a decade-long conflict between the United States Armed Forces and the First Philippine Republic under President Emilio Aguinaldo.

War crimes committed by the United States Army include the March across Samar, which led to the court martial and forcible retirement of Brigadier General Jacob H. Smith.

Moro Rebellion

American troops slaughtered hundreds of Moro Muslim women and children in the Moro Crater massacre during the Moro Rebellion.[2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9][10][11][12][13][14][15][16][17][18][19][20][21][22][23]

World War II

Pacific theater

On January 26, 1943, the submarine USS Wahoo fired on survivors in lifeboats from the Japanese transport Buyo Maru. Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood asserted that the survivors were Japanese soldiers who had turned machinegun and rifle fire on the Wahoo after she surfaced, and that such resistance was common in submarine warfare.[24] According to the submarine's executive officer, the fire was intended to force the Japanese soldiers to abandon their boats and none of them were deliberately targeted.[25] Historian Clay Blair stated that the submarine's crew fired first and the shipwrecked survivors returned fire with handguns.[26] The survivors were later determined to have included Allied POWs of the Indian 2nd Battalion, 16th Punjab Regiment, who were being escorted by Japanese Army Forces from the 26th Field Ordnance Depot.[27] Of 1,126 men originally aboard Buyo Maru, 195 Indians and 87 Japanese died, some killed during the torpedoing of the ship and some killed by the shootings afterward.[28]

During and after the Battle of the Bismarck Sea (March 3–5, 1943), U.S. PT boats and Allied aircraft attacked Japanese rescue vessels as well as approximately 1,000 survivors from 8 sunken Japanese troop transport ships.[29] The stated justification was that the Japanese personnel were close to their military destination and would be promptly returned to service in the battle.[29] Many of the Allied aircrew accepted the attacks as necessary, while others were sickened.[30]

American servicemen in the Pacific War sometimes deliberately killed Japanese soldiers who had surrendered, according to Richard Aldrich (Professor of History at Nottingham University). Aldrich published a study of diaries kept by United States and Australian soldiers, wherein it was stated that they sometimes massacred prisoners of war.[31] According to John Dower, in "many instances ... Japanese who did become prisoners were killed on the spot or en route to prison compounds."[32] According to Professor Aldrich, it was common practice for U.S. troops not to take prisoners.[33] His analysis is supported by British historian Niall Ferguson,[34] who also says that, in 1943, "a secret [U.S.] intelligence report noted that only the promise of ice cream and three days leave would ... induce American troops not to kill surrendering Japanese."[35]

Ferguson states that such practices played a role in the ratio of Japanese prisoners to dead being 1:100 in late 1944. That same year, efforts were taken by Allied high commanders to suppress "take no prisoners" attitudes[35] among their own personnel (because they were affecting intelligence gathering), and to encourage Japanese soldiers to surrender. Ferguson adds that measures by Allied commanders to improve the ratio of Japanese prisoners to Japanese dead resulted in it reaching 1:7, by mid-1945. Nevertheless, "taking no prisoners" was still "standard practice" among U.S. troops at the Battle of Okinawa, in April–June 1945.[36] Ferguson also suggests that "it was not only the fear of disciplinary action or of dishonor that deterred German and Japanese soldiers from surrendering. More important for most soldiers was the perception that prisoners would be killed by the enemy anyway, and so one might as well fight on."[37]

Ulrich Straus, a U.S. Japanologist, suggests that Allied troops on the front line intensely hated Japanese military personnel and were "not easily persuaded" to take or protect prisoners, because they believed (not entirely incorrectly) that Allied personnel who surrendered got "no mercy" from the Japanese.[38] Allied troops were told that Japanese soldiers were inclined to feign surrender in order to make surprise attacks,[38] a practice which was outlawed by the Hague Convention of 1907.[39] Therefore, according to Straus, "Senior officers opposed the taking of prisoners on the grounds that it needlessly exposed American troops to risks ..."[38] When prisoners nevertheless were taken at Guadalcanal, Army interrogator Captain Burden noted that many times POWs were shot during transport because "it was too much bother to take [them] in".[40]

U.S. historian James J. Weingartner attributes the very low number of Japanese in U.S. prisoner of war compounds to two important factors, namely (1) a Japanese reluctance to surrender, and (2) a widespread American "conviction that the Japanese were 'animals' or 'subhuman' and unworthy of the normal treatment accorded to prisoners of war.[41] The latter reason is supported by Ferguson, who says that "Allied troops often saw the Japanese in the same way that Germans regarded Russians — as Untermenschen" (i.e. "subhuman").[42]


It has been claimed that some U.S. military personnel raped Okinawan women during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.[43]

Based on several years of research, Okinawan historian Oshiro Masayasu (former director of the Okinawa Prefectural Historical Archives) writes:

Soon after the U.S. Marines landed, all the women of a village on Motobu Peninsula fell into the hands of American soldiers. At the time, there were only women, children, and old people in the village, as all the young men had been mobilized for the war. Soon after landing, the Marines "mopped up" the entire village, but found no signs of Japanese forces. Taking advantage of the situation, they started "hunting for women" in broad daylight, and women who were hiding in the village or nearby air raid shelters were dragged out one after another.[44]

According to interviews carried out by the New York Times and published by them in 2000, multiple elderly people from an Okinawan village confessed that after the United States had won the Battle of Okinawa, three armed marines kept coming to the village every week to force the villagers to gather all the local women, who were then carried off into the hills and raped. The article goes deeper into the matter and claims that the villagers' tale - true or not - is part of a 'dark, long-kept secret' the unraveling of which 'refocused attention on what historians say is one of the most widely ignored crimes of the war': "the widespread rape of Okinawan women by American servicemen."[45] Although Japanese reports of rape were largely ignored at the time, academic estimates have been that as many as 10,000 Okinawan women may have been raped. It has been claimed that the rape was so prevalent that most Okinawans over age 65 around the year 2000 either knew or had heard of a woman who was raped in the aftermath of the war.[46]

Professor of East Asian Studies and expert on Okinawa, Steve Rabson, said: "I have read many accounts of such rapes in Okinawan newspapers and books, but few people know about them or are willing to talk about them."[46] He notes that plenty of old local books, diaries, articles and other documents refer to rapes by American soldiers of various races and backgrounds. An explanation given for why the US military has no record of any rapes is that few Okinawan women reported abuse, mostly out of fear and embarrassment. According to an Okinawan police spokesman: "Victimized women feel too ashamed to make it public."[46] Those who did report them are believed by historians to have been ignored by the US military police. Many people wondered why it never came to light after the inevitable American-Japanese babies the many women must have given birth to. In interviews, historians and Okinawan elders said that some of those Okinawan women who were raped and did not commit suicide did give birth to biracial children, but that many of them were immediately killed or left behind out of shame, disgust or fearful trauma. More often, however, rape victims underwent crude abortions with the help of village midwives. A large scale effort to determine the possible extent of these crimes has never been conducted. Over five decades after the war had ended, in the late 1990s, the women who were believed to have been raped still overwhelmingly refused to give public statements, instead speaking through relatives and a number of historians and scholars.[46]

There is substantial evidence that the US had at least some knowledge of what was going on. Samuel Saxton, a retired captain, explained that the American veterans and witnesses may have intentionally kept the rape a secret, largely out of shame: "It would be unfair for the public to get the impression that we were all a bunch of rapists after we worked so hard to serve our country."[46] Military officials formally denied the mass rapes, and all surviving related veterans refused the New York Times' request for an interview. Masaie Ishihara, a sociology professor, supports this: "There is a lot of historical amnesia out there, many people don't want to acknowledge what really happened."[46] Author George Feifer noted in his book Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb, that by 1946 there had been fewer than 10 reported cases of rape in Okinawa. He explained it was "partly because of shame and disgrace, partly because Americans were victors and occupiers. In all there were probably thousands of incidents, but the victims' silence kept rape another dirty secret of the campaign."[47]

Some other authors have noted that Japanese civilians "were often surprised at the comparatively humane treatment they received from the American enemy."[48][49] According to Islands of Discontent: Okinawan Responses to Japanese and American Power by Mark Selden, the Americans "did not pursue a policy of torture, rape, and murder of civilians as Japanese military officials had warned."[50]

There were also 1,336 reported rapes during the first 10 days of the occupation of Kanagawa prefecture after the Japanese surrender.[43]

European theater

SS concentration camp guards being executed at Dachau concentration camp during its day of liberation
(U.S. Army soldier photograph/National Archives)

The "Canicattì massacre" involved the killing of Italian civilians by Lieutenant Colonel George Herbert McCaffrey. A confidential inquiry was made, but McCaffrey was never charged with any offense relating to the massacre. He died in 1954. This fact remained virtually unknown in the U.S. until 2005, when Joseph S. Salemi of New York University, whose father witnessed it, reported it.[51]

In the "Biscari massacre", which consisted of two instances of mass murder, U.S. troops of the 45th Infantry Division killed roughly 75 prisoners of war, most of whom were Italian.[52][53]

According to an article in Der Spiegel by Klaus Wiegrefe, many personal memoirs of Allied soldiers have been willfully ignored by historians until now because they were at odds with the "Greatest Generation" mythology surrounding World War II. However, this has recently started to change, with books such as "The Day of Battle", by Rick Atkinson, where he describes Allied war crimes in Italy, and "D-Day: The Battle for Normandy," by Antony Beevor.[54] Beevor's latest work is currently discussed by scholars, and should some of them be proven right, it suggests that Allied war crimes in Normandy were much more extensive "than was previously realized".[55]

Historian Peter Lieb has found that many U.S. and Canadian units were ordered not to take enemy prisoners during the D-Day landings in Normandy. If this view is correct, it may explain the fate of 64 German prisoners (out of the 130 captured) who did not make it to the POW collecting point on Omaha Beach on the day of the landings.[54]

Near the French village of Audouville-la-Hubert, 30 German Wehrmacht prisoners were massacred by U.S. paratroopers.[55]

In the aftermath of the 1944 Malmedy massacre, in which 80 American POWs were murdered by their German captors, a written order from the Headquarters of the 328th U.S. Army Infantry Regiment, dated 21 December 1944, stated: "No SS troops or paratroopers will be taken prisoner but [rather they] will be shot on sight."[56] Major-General Raymond Hufft (U.S. Army) gave instructions to his troops not to take prisoners when they crossed the Rhine in 1945. "After the war, when he reflected on the war crimes he authorized, he admitted, 'if the Germans had won, I would have been on trial at Nuremberg instead of them.'"[57] Stephen Ambrose related: "I've interviewed well over 1000 combat veterans. Only one of them said he shot a prisoner... Perhaps as many as one-third of the veterans...however, related incidents in which they saw other GIs shooting unarmed German prisoners who had their hands up."[58]

"Operation Teardrop" involved eight surviving captured crewmen from the sunken German submarine U-546 being tortured by U.S. military personnel. Historian Philip K. Lundeberg has written that the beating and torture of U-546's survivors was a singular atrocity motivated by the interrogators' need to quickly get information on what the U.S. believed were potential missile attacks on the continental U.S. by German submarines.[59]

The "Dachau massacre" involved the killing of German prisoners of war and surrendering SS soldiers at the Dachau concentration camp.[60]

Among the American WWII veterans who admitted to having committed war crimes was former Mafia hitman Frank Sheeran. In interviews with his biographer Charles Brandt, Sheeran recalled his war service with the Thunderbird Division as the time when he first developed a callousness to the taking of human life. By his own admission, Sheeran participated in numerous massacres and summary executions of German POWs, acts which violated the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 and the 1929 Geneva Convention on POWs. In his interviews with Brandt, Sheeran divided such massacres into four different categories.

1. Revenge killings in the heat of battle. Sheeran told Brandt that, when a German soldier had just killed his close friends and then tried to surrender, he would often "send him to hell, too." He described often witnessing similar behavior by fellow GIs.[61]
2. Orders from unit commanders during a mission. When describing his first murder for organized crime, Sheeran recalled: “It was just like when an officer would tell you to take a couple of German prisoners back behind the line and for you to ‘hurry back’. You did what you had to do.”[62]
3. The Dachau massacre and other reprisal killings of concentration camp guards and trustee inmates.[63]
4. Calculated attempts to dehumanize and degrade German POWs. While Sheeran's unit was climbing the Harz Mountains, they came upon a Wehrmacht mule train carrying food and drink up the mountainside. The female cooks were first allowed to leave unmolested, then Sheeran and his fellow GI's "ate what we wanted and soiled the rest with our waste." Then the Wehrmacht mule drivers were given shovels and ordered to "dig their own shallow graves." Sheeran later joked that they did so without complaint, likely hoping that he and his buddies would change their minds. But the mule drivers were shot and buried in the holes they had dug. Sheeran explained that by then, "I had no hesitation in doing what I had to do."[64]


Secret wartime files made public only in 2006 reveal that American GIs committed 400 sexual offenses in Europe, including 126 rapes in England, between 1942 and 1945.[65] A study by Robert J. Lilly estimates that a total of 14,000 civilian women in England, France and Germany were raped by American GIs during World War II.[66][67] It is estimated that there were around 3,500 rapes by American servicemen in France between June 1944 and the end of the war and one historian has claimed that sexual violence against women in liberated France was common.[68]

Korean War

North Korean nurses captured by South Korean and US soldiers. Captured North Korean women were sometimes raped.[69]

No Gun Ri Massacre

The No Gun Ri Massacre refers to an incident of mass killing of an undetermined number of South Korean refugees conducted by U.S. soldiers of the 7th Cavalry Regiment (and in a U.S. air attack) between 26 July and 29 July 1950 at a railroad bridge near the village of Nogeun-ri, 100 miles (160 km) southeast of Seoul. In 2005, the South Korean government certified the names of 163 dead or missing (mostly women, children, and old men) and 55 wounded. It said that many other victims' names were not reported.[70] Over the years survivors' estimates of the dead have ranged from 300 to 500. This episode early in the Korean War gained widespread attention when the Associated Press (AP) published a series of articles in 1999 that subsequently won a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.[71]

Vietnam War

The Vietnam War Crimes Working Group Files is a collection of (formerly secret) documents compiled by Pentagon investigators in the early 1970s, confirming that atrocities by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War were more extensive than had been officially acknowledged.[72][73] The documents are housed by the United States National Archives and Records Administration, and detail 320 alleged incidents that were substantiated by United States Army investigators (not including the 1968 My Lai Massacre). (See also Winter Soldier Investigation).

My Lai Massacre

Main article: My Lai Massacre

The My Lai Massacre was the mass murder of 347 to 504 unarmed citizens in South Vietnam, almost entirely civilians, most of them women and children, conducted by U.S. soldiers from the Company C of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the 23rd (Americal) Infantry Division, on 16 March 1968. Some of the victims were raped, beaten, tortured, or maimed, and some of the bodies were found mutilated. The massacre took place in the hamlets of Mỹ Lai and My Khe of Sơn Mỹ village during the Vietnam War.[74][75] Of the 26 U.S. soldiers initially charged with criminal offenses or war crimes for actions at My Lai, only William Calley was convicted. Initially sentenced to life in prison, Calley had his sentence reduced to ten years, then was released after only three and a half years under house arrest. The incident prompted widespread outrage around the world, and reduced U.S. domestic support for the Vietnam War. Three American Servicemen (Hugh Thompson, Jr., Glenn Andreotta, and Lawrence Colburn), who made an effort to halt the massacre and protect the wounded, were sharply criticized by U.S. Congressmen, and received hate mail, death threats, and mutilated animals on their doorsteps.[76] Thirty years after the event their efforts were honored.[77]

War on Terror

Main article: War on Terror

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the U.S. Government adopted several new measures in the classification and treatment of prisoners captured in the War on Terror, including applying the status of unlawful combatant to some prisoners, conducting extraordinary renditions, and using torture ("enhanced interrogation techniques"). Human Rights Watch and others described the measures as being illegal under the Geneva Conventions.[78]

Activities and incidents characterized as war crimes

This list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it.

Command responsibility

Human Rights Watch claimed in 2005 that the principle of "command responsibility" could make high-ranking officials within the Bush administration guilty of the numerous war crimes committed during the War on Terror, either with their knowledge or by persons under their control.[80]

A presidential memorandum of February 7, 2002, authorized U.S. interrogators of prisoners captured during the War in Afghanistan to deny the prisoners basic protections required by the Geneva Conventions, and thus according to Jordan J. Paust, professor of law and formerly a member of the faculty of the Judge Advocate General's School, "necessarily authorized and ordered violations of the Geneva Conventions, which are war crimes."[81] Based on the president's memorandum, U.S. personnel carried out cruel and inhumane treatment on captured enemy fighters,[82] which necessarily means that the president's memorandum was a plan to violate the Geneva Convention, and such a plan constitutes a war crime under the Geneva Conventions, according to Professor Paust.[83]

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and others have argued that detainees should be considered "unlawful combatants" and as such not be protected by the Geneva Conventions in multiple memoranda regarding these perceived legal gray areas.[84]

Gonzales' statement that denying coverage under the Geneva Conventions "substantially reduces the threat of domestic criminal prosecution under the War Crimes Act" suggests, to some authors, an awareness by those involved in crafting policies in this area that U.S. officials are involved in acts that could be seen to be war crimes.[85] The U.S. Supreme Court challenged the premise on which this argument is based in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, in which it ruled that Common Article Three of the Geneva Conventions applies to detainees in Guantanamo Bay and that the military tribunals used to try these suspects were in violation of U.S. and international law.[86]

On April 14, 2006, Human Rights Watch said that Secretary Donald Rumsfeld could be criminally liable for his alleged involvement in the abuse of Mohammed al-Qahtani.[87] On November 14, 2006, invoking universal jurisdiction, legal proceedings were started in Germany – for their alleged involvement of prisoner abuse – against Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, George Tenet and others.[88]

The Military Commissions Act of 2006 is seen by some as an amnesty law for crimes committed in the War on Terror by retroactively rewriting the War Crimes Act[89] and by abolishing habeas corpus, effectively making it impossible for detainees to challenge crimes committed against them.[90]

Luis Moreno-Ocampo has told The Sunday Telegraph he is willing to start an inquiry by the International Criminal Court (ICC), and possibly a trial, for war crimes committed in Iraq involving British Prime Minister Tony Blair and American President George W. Bush.[91] Though under the Rome Statute, the ICC has no jurisdiction over Bush, since the U.S. is not a State Party to the relevant treaty—unless Bush were accused of crimes inside a State Party, or the UN Security Council (where the U.S. has a veto) requested an investigation. However, Blair does fall under ICC jurisdiction as Britain is a State Party.[92]

Nat Hentoff wrote on August 28, 2007, that a leaked report by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the July 2007 report by Human Rights First and Physicians for Social Responsibility, titled "Leave No Marks: Enhanced Interrogation Techniques and the Risk of Criminality", might be used as evidence of American war crimes if there was a Nuremberg-like trial regarding the War on Terror.[93]

Shortly before the end of President Bush's second term, newsmedia in countries other than the U.S. began publishing the views of those who believe that under the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the U.S. is obligated to hold those responsible for prisoner abuse to account under criminal law.[94] One proponent of this view was the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Professor Manfred Nowak) who, on January 20, 2009, remarked on German television that former president George W. Bush had lost his head of state immunity and under international law the U.S. would now be mandated to start criminal proceedings against all those involved in these violations of the UN Convention Against Torture.[95] Law professor Dietmar Herz explained Nowak's comments by opining that under U.S. and international law former President Bush is criminally responsible for adopting torture as an interrogation tool.[95]

See also


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Further reading


  • Jeremy Brecher; Jill Cutler; Brendan Smith, eds. (2005). In the name of democracy: American war crimes in Iraq and beyond. Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-8050-7969-2. 
  • Michael Haas (2008). George W. Bush, war criminal?: the Bush administration's liability for 269 war crimes. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-0-313-36499-0. 
  • Jordan J. Paust (2007). Beyond the law: the Bush Administration's unlawful responses in the "War" on Terror. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-71120-3. 
  • Mark Selden; Alvin Y. So, eds. (2004). War and state terrorism: the United States, Japan, and the Asia-Pacific in the long twentieth century. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0-7425-2391-3. 
  • Frederick Henry Gareau (2004). State terrorism and the United States: from counterinsurgency to the war on terrorism. Zed Books. ISBN 978-1-84277-535-6. 
  • Vincent Bugliosi (2008). The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder. Vanguard. ISBN 978-1-59315-481-3. 
  • "Leave No Marks: Enhanced Interrogation Techniques and the Risk of Criminality" (PDF). Physicians for Human Rights / Human Rights First. August 2007. 

By nation

  • Greiner, Bernd; Anne Wyburd (2009). War Without Fronts: The USA in Vietnam. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-15451-8. 
  • Deborah Nelson (2008). The war behind me: Vietnam veterans confront the truth about U.S. war crimes. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-00527-7. 
  • Nick Turse (2013). Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. New York: Metropolitan Books. ISBN 0-8050-8691-9. 
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