Scott Graber

No excuse for the war crimes in Ukraine


In the fall of 1970 — newly graduated from law school — I drove myself and my wife through the main gate at Ft. Benning, Ga., and reported for duty at the US Army’s Combat Infantry School.

While I was in studying torts at George Washington, I had been promoted (to 1st Lt.) and thus arrived slightly senior to many of my instructors at the school.

“Would you like, Lt. Graber, to fire a round or two?” my instructors would ask, pointing to a jeep-mounted recoilless rifle.

“You know what, Lt. Briscoe, I’d just as soon you let one of the other young officers fire the 40mm.”

At the end of the course there was a live-fire demonstration — called the “Mad Minute” — of all the weapons then available to the newly minted platoon leaders now hunkered in several large bunkers. These included the combined fire of machine guns, mortars, 105 mm howitzers and, at the very end, napalm dropped a couple hundred yards from our bunker by F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers flown from nearby Warner Robins Air Force Base.

In a different part of the post, and under very different circumstances, a young captain was being tried for war crimes that had taken place in a small Vietnamese village called My Lai. Captain William Calley was accused of killing 109 South Vietnamese civilians. I wasn’t able to attend the trial but my wife, Susan, did attend. And at night, sometimes at the Officer’s Club, we would compare notes.

This morning I’m reminded of those long-gone days by the fighting in Ukraine. And this morning the Wall Street Journal tells us more about the executions in small suburb called Bucha.

“They’ve turned into beasts,” said Maria Pusyn, a 48 year old who said two people were executed in front of her garage. Blood stains are still visible on the garage door.”

“Civilian deaths piled up so quickly in Bucha that the morgue ran out of space, according to local officials.”

It is an unfortunate fact of war that civilians are going to be killed in every fight that uses modern weapons. When artillery, cluster bombs and cruise missiles are brought onto the battlefield there is no way for shrapnel to distinguish between an enemy combatant and unarmed priest.

But in the United States, and the Western world, there is a code of conduct designed to diminish what is called “collateral damage.” In the case of the U.S. Army, that behavior is published in Field Manual 6-27 which is also titled the Commander’s Hand Book on the Law of Land Warfare, Army Regulation 350-1. The Hand Book specifically talks about “targeting methodologies.”

The manual sets out three things a young officer must do before pulling the lanyard on a 155mm howitzer; or the trigger of a shoulder-fired Javelin anti-tank missile. He or she must “decide,” “detect,” and “deliver” before “engaging.” The “decide” stage requiring that the young soldier determine if he is looking at a “military objective.”

At first glance this sounds simple, obvious. Certainly a T-80 Russian tank, or an array of SA-21 Growler anti-aircraft missiles presents a “military objective” worthy of “partial or total destruction.”

But sometimes these targets are located near houses, hospitals and schools that necessarily complicate the “decide” phase of the firing sequence. And in the recent past we have seen hospitals hit and destroyed by our bombers.

Into to this calculation comes “proportionality” — which is to say the soldier who is considering collateral harm must decide how to minimize that harm. In addition to “proportionality” there’s also a requirement for “humanity” — the avoidance of gratuitous violence against the enemy soldiers themselves.

It is my understanding that many of the drones operated in cerulean skies of Afghanistan were controlled by airmen in Tampa, Fla. And I suppose that consensus around “proportionality” is easier when one is sitting in a carpeted, air-conditioned room with several JAG lawyers standing nearby.

But it’s a harder decision when you have a young lieutenant in the field trying to decipher indistinct, blurred images on a screen coming down to him from a drone.

But none of these difficulties excuse the systematic executions of civilians — by Russian troops — that are happening in Ukraine as I write this column.

If the Russian Army has an equivalent to Field Manual 6-27, there is certainly no chapter called “humanity.” This unspeakable behavior reminds us what their grandfathers did (to German women) when they occupied Berlin in 1945.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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