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April 10, 2006

Is This a War Crime?

I don’t know enough about international law to know whether this is or not:

Lt Col Glyn Harper, a professor at the New Zealand army's Military Studies Institute, who co-authored the book, In the Face of the Enemy, said that on one occasion Sgt Hulme donned a German paratrooper's smock, climbed up behind a nest of enemy snipers, and pretended to be part of their group.

"He shot the leader first, and as the other four snipers looked around to see where the shot had come from, Hulme also turned his head as if searching for the shooter," the book says.

"Then he shot and killed two more." He shot the other two as they tried to leave.

"Hulme deserved the VC for his outstanding bravery, but he shouldn't have done what he did in disguising himself."

Other academics have supported the book's claims. Peter Wills, the deputy director of the Centre for Peace Studies at Auckland University, said Sgt Hulme's actions were "unsanctioned murder".

Is fooling the people who are trying to kill you and your buddies a war crime?

April 10, 2006 in Military | Permalink


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yes; it's called "perfidy". It's one of those things that's considered a war crime simply because it's in everybody's interests to maintain a few conventions like white flags equalling surrender (which is why it's a war crime to wave a white flag and then start shooting) and opposite sides wearing different uniforms.

Posted by: dsquared | Apr 10, 2006 8:47:18 AM

which is why it's a war crime to wave a white flag and then start shooting

Which seems to happen regularly in Iraq. Odd that none of the anti-war crowd seems to mention these war crimes.

Posted by: Tim Newman | Apr 10, 2006 9:02:51 AM

I did, in fact, mention it, in the first week of the war. Even if I hadn't, of course, this would be a very, very weak response.

Posted by: dsquared | Apr 10, 2006 9:25:02 AM

But you're not one of the anti-war crowd, dsquared. You are the one-man anti-this-war-now crowd.

As to perfidy, you're clearly right but I wonder where the line is drawn between perfidy and legitimate ruses, like warships disguised as merchant ships or as ships of a neutral navy?

An interesting aspect of this case is that the victims were snipers - soldiers always seem to have a harsher attitude to snipers; in Normandy 1944 quite a few of them were shot when they tried to surrender.

Posted by: Kevin Donoghue | Apr 10, 2006 9:42:33 AM

Apologise for fighting Nazis in a slightly underhand way? You fucking fools. You stupid, stupid fucking fools.

If only Peter Wills had been there to remedy this evil! "No Sarge, I won't let you do this. I don't care that those Nazi snipers are shooting at us. It's a war crime. If you do it I'll report you". He would have been a popular man, that Man of Peace (Studies).

And Tim Newman's point is a good one. Whatever dsquared mentioned in the first week of the war, in general the anti-war crowd have applied double standards and acted as though the Western forces are the real baddies.

Posted by: Scott Campbell at Blithering Bunny | Apr 10, 2006 9:57:24 AM

No, Scott, you, in this case, are the stupid fucking fool and the Geneva Conventions are correct. If you start putting on misleading uniforms, then you encourage the opposition to do the same, with predictably disastrous consequences. The Conventions are there for a reason - to stop wars from being any more dreadful than they have to be - and there is also a reason why there is no get-out clause in them that says "but if your opponents are really nasty people, then anything goes". If Peter Willis had been a commanding officer at the time, he might not have been a "popular man" but he would have done exactly the right thing in not allowing his troops to wear enemy uniforms.

It's rather like, oh I don't know, making ludicrous straw man arguments like "in general the anti-war crowd have applied double standards and acted as though the Western forces are the real baddies". If you talk a line of shit like this, then it completely destroys your credibility if you wanted to make a sensible point later on, and it means you no longer have any grounds to object when someone else says something equally moronic to you. For example, if I were to point out that your logic of "the Nazis were really bad, so perfidy was acceptable" is precisely the kind of thinking that led to Abu Ghraib, then you no longer have any credibility if you were to try and claim that I was attacking a straw man.

See how this is working? Oh, and have an extra "you fucking fool" too, just for you, because it's Monday and I have a spare one left over from the weekend.

Kevin: Q-Ships were a very borderline case and there is quite a bit of debate about the borderline between a "ruse" and an act of perfidy. There is nothing in principle illegal about having a warship that looks less heavily armed than it actually is (because it's a converted merchant ship) because there is no requirement to advertise your positions to the enemy, but the fact that Q-ships did not fly normal naval colours while they were on patrol(they ran up the white Ensign shortly before opening fire) was regarded as very controversial even at the time.

Posted by: dsquared | Apr 10, 2006 10:22:41 AM

pp 189-194 of this Australian military academy textbook refer:


Apparently "fooling the people who are trying to kill your buddies" is not per se illegal; if this guy had used the German uniform to walk past them and get help, or something he would have been OK. The war crime is only committed if you fight while using enemy property with the insignia etc left on them.

Posted by: dsquared | Apr 10, 2006 10:30:19 AM

(actually it's an American textbook; I misread the URL and "au" refers to the Army University rather than Australia, sorry).

Posted by: dsquared | Apr 10, 2006 10:31:44 AM

If you weren't trying so hard to be patronizing, ds, you might stop and think that maybe we do in fact already know these arguments about how we don't want to encourage the enemy to adopt similar tactics.

But Geneva Conventions or not, if you're under fire from a nest of Nazi snipers you'd be mad to be worrying about such niceties and the possible consequences of tit-for-tat tactics. It's not like this guy was advocating this as a general tactic, which a commanding officer would no doubt have vetoed. It was probably a ruse he thought up on the spot while under incredible pressure. So I still think it's disgraceful to be casting slurs from this distance on this guy who helped save us from the Nazis by describing him as a murderer.

And your little "straw man" diatribe -- what a way with sarcasm you have! -- was premised entirely on the assumption that the anti-war crowd does not see things in the way I describe. I'm afraid an awful lot of it does. You don't see this, because you don't personally think in this simplistic way, and neither I expect do your intellectual anti-war friends. But a hell of a lot of the rest of this crowd does.

P.S. If I were a real knob I'd say something like "And I have one of my own 'fucking fools' left over from a night spent out on the town with Alistair Campbell for you", but in the spirit of not encouraging a procession of low tit-for-tat tactics I won't (besides, it was your joke to start with, and that would be kind of like stealing).

Posted by: Scott Campbell at Blithering Bunny | Apr 10, 2006 11:17:28 AM

War is the ultimate overturning of the values society usually holds dear. Particants are trained and ordered to kill, destroy property and bring pain and anguish to the enemy. Civilised countries have tried to impose certain codes of behaviour on those participating in battle with variable success. However, perhaps the most notable feature of warfare is that between enemies from similar cultures an informal code of conduct also seems to prevail.

Reading histories and memoirs from the NW Europe campaign a sense of these "battlefield rules" comes through. One can read of instances where prisoners have been found shot and there is a real sense of outrage and desire for revenge. However I have read the memoirs of one soldier, the commander of a Crocodile flamethrower tank, who witnessed the summary execution of the crew of another Crocodile and strangely there was no sense of outrage, simply a resolve never to be captured alive. In other words while flamethrowers were considered effective weapons, even their own crews had a sort of sense that the horror of fire rendered the users somehow "beyond the pale" and thus more likely to recieve summary justice.

Reading military history one gets the same sense about snipers. Very useful to have on one's own side, but hated if an enemy. And bound up in this soldiers' sense of right and wrong an acceptance that captured snipers would recieve much harsher treatment than ordinary soldiers. Sgt Hulme probably understood this when he undertook to deal with the group of enemy snipers. He would also have known that by bending the rules he was also putting himself beyond the pale and would in all likelyhood be shot himself if captured.

Lefties can try as hard as they like to impose peacetime rules on the coinduct of war, but I suspect that any soldier who has actually served on a battlefield (a group I doubt includes Lt. Col. Harper) would not see anything wrong with Sgt. Hulme's actions and they should probably be the final arbitrators on this issue.


Posted by: The Remittance Man | Apr 10, 2006 11:33:22 AM

It seems to me that Scott's argument has been used to justify attacks targeting Israeli civilians: We're told that that's okay, because Israelis are just so darned evil (even as infants -- the "nits breed lice" theory).

I wouldn't put Sgt Hulme's offense in the same class of atrocities as Hamas (or the Einsatzgruppen, for something more contemporary), but it's not okay.

The trouble with the "law of war", though, is that you're asking people to potentially lose for the sake of it, which not a lot of people are willing to do. In practice it's more like laws against speeding than like laws against, say, murder in a civilian context: There's a welcome moderating effect there, on the whole, and that's about it.

Posted by: P. Froward | Apr 10, 2006 12:17:10 PM

Where does this place a modern day special forces soldiers who wears local dress?

Posted by: US | Apr 10, 2006 12:26:15 PM

Scott: (the rule is, give a thump, get a thump; as soon as you can it with the personal insults btw, so will I)

[ It was probably a ruse he thought up on the spot while under incredible pressure]

So were all manner of things. It was, however, a war crime. You twat. It can never be disgraceful to tell the truth and the truth is that, on this occasion, he was a murderer.

[I'm afraid an awful lot of it does]

so much of it that you can't provide any examples, I see. Bullshit.


[I suspect that any soldier who has actually served on a battlefield (a group I doubt includes Lt. Col. Harper) would not see anything wrong with Sgt. Hulme's actions]

I don't think your suspicions are right. It is not as if the Geneva Conventions, including the law with respect to perfidy, were exclusively or even mainly drawn up by civilians. This law is there for the protection of soldiers rather than anything else.

[ and they should probably be the final arbitrators on this issue.]

well no, they almost certainly shouldn't. What on earth would Northern Ireland have turned out like if the British Army had been the final arbitrators of what it was permissible to do? As Kevin correctly notes, if you took a straw poll of soldiers, you would probably end up banning snipers altogether.


[Where does this place a modern day special forces soldiers who wears local dress?]

According to that manual, they are to be treated as spies for the purposes of the Geneva Conventions; they are not guilty of a war crime even if they fight (so long as they don't try to exploit general conventions aimed at protecting civilians, for example by hiding in a dwelling), but it is not a protected activity and they are not entitled to be treated as prisoners of war if captured.

Posted by: dsquared | Apr 10, 2006 12:52:49 PM

dsquared - according to the above quoted manual (sorry, too lazy to look it up in the actual rules)special forces soldiers in local dress would be committing a crime if they actually fought in that dress (as perfidy covers not fighting while wearing an 'enemy' uniform, but of fighting while posing as a civilian).

Posted by: Andy | Apr 10, 2006 1:14:33 PM

I think that "posing as a civilian" is a grey area; you're obviously right if they just pull out a machine gun in the marketplace, but if they're on a battlefield with their mujahedin allies like Sylvester Stallone in Rambo 3, I don't think they'd be considered to be posing as civilians just because they were wearing local dress.

Posted by: dsquared | Apr 10, 2006 1:28:34 PM

Well, D2, perhaps the ultimate arbiters (serving combat soldiers) have aleady spoken. The awarding of a Victoria Cross is not done lightly. In fact the benchmark for being considered is that a soldier has to have performed a near suicidal act of bravery. Alongside the courageous nature of the soldier's deeds there is also a strong sense that his conduct must have been "right".

There have been numerous instances when a soldier's actions were certainly brave enough to merit a VC and yet the honour has not been bestowed because the soldier was doing something he should not have been doing (often things far less heinous than alleged "war crimes"). The awarding of a Victoria Cross is never an off the cuff action. The citation must be ratified at all levels of command up to the political leadership of the services. Unlike politicians, the forces take the honour of all awards very seriously, especially that of the VC. In the eyes of the services, to award it to someone undeserving would be to belittle the names and deeds of all other VC holders.

That Sgt. Hulme's actions appear to have been general knowledge, and may even have formed part of his medal citation (I have not tracked it down yet), illustrates that his conduct was not deemed unsoldierly or demeaning to the memory of other holders of the Victoria Cross.

For people with no experience of battle and little concept of the nature of war to now sit in judgement is not only laughable, it is an insult to a man who has been judged by his fellow soldiers to be deserving of our country's highest award for bravery in the face of the enemy.

I'd say that history has already spoken and that Sergeant Hulme is not a "war criminal" by any stretch of the imagination.

Refering to the informal battlefield rules which seem to become established between combattants, nowhere did I say that they had to be logical or even consistent. They simply seem to develop to reflect the soldiers' own sense of right and wrong in a situation which by any measure the normal rules have been thrown out of the window and the rule of civilian law has certainly disappeared.

To use Northern Ireland as an example is a specious argument. Never, even at the worst times, did the troubles reflect a battlefield except in the eyes of journalists with no concept of war. That the army did not go out of control reflects both credit to the soldiers and the fact that even the dumbest squaddie realised that he was operating in an environment where the rule of law still pertained.

As some critics of the Nuremburg tribunal feared, the accusation of "War Crimes" appears to have become a common catchall phrase to describe any action deemed unacceptable by armchair critics. As such it should join other overused terms like "fascist", "racist" and "sexist" in the lexicon of hysterical name calling.


Posted by: The Remittance Man | Apr 10, 2006 1:49:05 PM

This is really not that complicated. If you violate the Geneva Conventions by wearing the wrong uniform, or by wearing no uniform at all, you lose your entitlement to the protections of that Convention, and they don't have to accept your surrender or treat you like a prisoner of war. (That is, you are an 'unlawful combatant.') This does not make you a war criminal. You just don't get Geneva protections, and they can summarily shoot you as a spy.

This should only be an issue if you are captured. If your side wins the war, then good for you. Here's your VC.

Posted by: Dan | Apr 10, 2006 2:24:20 PM

Dsquared - I think, in the case you mention, you are right - it is a bit of a grey area. In a civil war such as in Afghanistan where neither side had a uniform as such, then you could say that that special forces are, in effect, wearing a uniform. Equally, today, when fighting against Taliban / al_Qaeda, who also wear no specific uniform, you could - assuming they are accepted as guerilla groups - fight in civilian clothing, as that would be the expected dress of the battlefield. It would be difficult to prove perfidy.

However, in the case of, say covert operations in Iraq during the 2003 invasion, there would be a pretty clear violation, in my opinion. The Iraqi army was still in existence, thus providing a uniformed opposition. The Iraqi government was also still the soveriegn power, so any attempt to dress as an Iraqi civilian would be a clear deception.

Posted by: Andy | Apr 10, 2006 2:27:40 PM

RM: As far as I can tell, it was well-known that Hulme was in the habit of wearing a German paratrooper's smock during the Battle of Crete. Nobody disputes this, and nobody (including Lt Col Harper) disputes that he was incredibly brave and deserves his VC. The new allegation in the book is that he fought while wearing enemy uniform, which is something that is steadfastly denied in the official account and in his regimental history.

I really don't see how it can be "disgusting" or disgraceful to tell the truth, and the truth appears to be that this man a) was a war hero and b) committed war crimes. Nobody is suggesting taking his VC back, but it is appropriate to recognise that he should not have shot people in disguise; quite apart from anything, it is necessary for our own reputation for honesty and decency that we don't cover up these things. Otherwise, we're on the slippery slope that leads to people like Oliver North being whitewashed (North was another soldier was definitely a war hero and also definitely a war criminal).

Posted by: dsquared | Apr 10, 2006 2:31:22 PM

Sgt Hulme was used by his CO for anti-sniping work during the Battle of Crete. I would imagine that this is dangerous and difficult work so it is hardly surprising that he made use of whatever aids he could find to make his job easier.

Although my researches have yet to define the alleged "smock" I suspect it is more likely to be the windproof jacket issued to the gebirgsjager who formed the follow up wave to the initial airborne assault on Crete. This was a thin, reversible jacket, white on one side (for snow conditions) and camoflaged on the other. None of the photos I have ever seen of this item of clothing indicate any distinguishing badges.

Even if my identification is wrong, German kit was generally better than that issued to Commonwealth troops so one can assume that their snipers were better kitted out with non-descript camoflage gear. The infamous article may even have been some sort of German version of the ghillie suit now commonly worn by snipers. Strangely enough, snipers tend not to wear badges when out hunting.

By your own statement above provided the article bore no distinguishing badges there would be no breach of the Geneva Convention.

Methinks someone is trying to transform a camoflage smock into something more akin a full parade uniform with medals and shiny badges in order to fulfill some agenda or simply to create a more "shock horror" headline and sell more books.


Once again "war criminal" seems to be being overused. Ollie North may be a criminal (didn't he commit fraud by syphoning money to the Contras as well as breaking the arms embargo on Iran) but the last time I looked these were "normal" civilian crimes not "war crimes". You really don't serve your case well by resorting to hysterical namecalling.

Posted by: The Remittance Man | Apr 10, 2006 3:36:41 PM

By the way D2. Kevin doesn't note that "if you took a straw poll of soldiers, you would probably end up banning snipers altogether". He simply makes the same point that I did, that the "unofficial code of conduct" phenomenon seems to condone harsher treatment of certain types of soldier.

I cannot explain this phenomenon, but it does seem to happen almost by the mutual agreement of both sides. From what I have read, even the snipers and other "undesirables" seem to accept this state of affairs. I'm sure someone far cleverer than I might be able to explain this. All I can do is comment on something I have observed from reading history.


Posted by: The Remittance Man | Apr 10, 2006 3:53:36 PM

I was never arguing about whether his Hulme's actions went against the Geneva Convention (and of course you can't have explicit exceptions to the laws that allow you to break them if you think the enemy is evil enough). My point was that it is very foolish to go around making a big deal of this.

Hulme may have bent or even broken the laws, but what is to be gained from demanding that the New Zealand government apologizes to the family of those he killed at this stage? What kind of a message does it send for this Mills guy to call him a murderer? So many terrible things have happened in wars, why focus on a guy who was a genuine war hero? It isn't just a matter of "telling the truth", it's a matter of getting things in perspective.

Also, the charge that he is a murderer -- made by Wills and seconded, I notice, by D2 -- is bollocks. Morally, he isn't a murderer. He was supposed to kill those snipers. The fact that he used a method that may have been illegal doesn't make him a murderer, any more than policeman who shoots a gunman who is running amok in a crowd is a murderer because he uses a gun that hasn't been properly registered.

You may say that Hulme's breakage of the laws was a more serious one that that example; maybe so, but it still doesn't make him a murderer. Perhaps he should have been court-martialled, even jailed -- not that I would agree with that -- but it would clearly be ridiculous to put the guy on trial for murder, which is what you would have to demand if you were serious in calling him a murderer.

(And what would say to the surviving relatives? "We're sorry your grandfather was killed in the wrong way. We did want to kill him, but we shouldn't have done so in that way". Pointless.)

Is he legally a murderer? I don't know -- perhaps the Geneva Conventions make it murder, but I notice he wasn't prosecuted.

Posted by: Scott Campbell at Blithering Bunny | Apr 10, 2006 3:57:06 PM

On the subject of Special Forces, they never wear local dress. They might stick some local rags over the top of their uniform, but they wear a uniform of some description underneath. Otherwise they run the risk of being shot as spies.

Posted by: Tim Newman | Apr 10, 2006 5:16:24 PM

Tim - I must confess I'm not the world's biggest special forces expert, but I'd imagine they wear enough of a disguise to be convincing. Whether they wear uniforms underneath their clothing, I think, should be irrelevant, as the legal emphasis in combat is on visible insignia and identification.

Scott, by the way, has an interesting point, which I'd not really considered before. Even if we say that what I've described above is illegal, how how should we compare them to other crimes?

Every state that signs the Geneva convention is required to enact local laws that make breaching the conventions a criminal offence. But is it appropriate to necessarily treat killing someone while 'wearing the wrong clothes' the equivalent of killing someone in cold blood in a civilian context? What should the level of punishment be? Should there be some consideration given to the circumstances under which these crimes are committed?

No answers, just curious.

Posted by: Andy | Apr 10, 2006 5:43:19 PM

[My point was that it is very foolish to go around making a big deal of this.]

ahhh, our old friend moral relativism. Since the publication of a single book, correcting an apparently untrue regimental history, plus one request for the New Zealand government to acknolwedge evidence of a crime with an apology is not really a "big deal" (a big deal would be stripping the guy of his medals posthumously or something), I rather suspect that by "not make a big deal", you mean "cover it up entirely", which is not on.

[What kind of a message does it send for this Mills guy to call him a murderer? ]

It sends the message that we are serious about war crimes, a message which I would have thought to be rather important in these days of "illegal enemy combatants". On the issue of whether someone who kills people through perfidy in a war is a "murderer", if you don't mind I will take the word of someone who knows a bit about the subject and has written a book on it rather than you.

RM: (with respect to perfidy) [By your own statement above provided the article bore no distinguishing badges there would be no breach of the Geneva Convention.]

That isn't quite right. It is the act of trying to pass yourself off as being on the enemy side while fighting that is perfidy; the allegation in Glyn Harper's book is that Hulme purposefully did this.

(with respect to Oliver North) [but the last time I looked these were "normal" civilian crimes not "war crimes"]

I was actually referring to North's well-documented participation in the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, which involved large scale assassinations (North was not actually present at the Son Thang massacre, but spoke as a "character witness" at the trials of those responsible) North was also the effective commander of the Contras in Nicaragua and was in fact formally accused of responsibility for war crimes on this part. North (and Senator Bob Kerrey got away with them precisely because people didn't want to prosecute a "hero".

Posted by: dsquared | Apr 10, 2006 5:50:33 PM