As tensions with Iran rise, Donald Trump today threatened to retaliate against 52 potential Iranian targets should that country strike the United States. Evidently included on that list are non-military targets such as cultural sites. This has been harshly (and correctly) criticized by numerous military figures and political rivals as a war crime.
Here is Trump’s justification, as quoted in news reports: “They’re allowed to kill our people, they’re allowed to torture and maim our people, they’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people and we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way,” Trump told reporters.
Intuitively it makes sense
Intuitively, his logic does make some sense. Without going into the question of who started the current conflict between the U.S. and Iran or who is right and who is wrong, countries have a basic right to self-defense. The right of self-defense is even included in the U.N. charter. So if a country can defend itself by killing enemy soldiers, shouldn’t it be permitted (or even preferable) to attack archaeological ruins, museums, and so forth rather than killing people? Isn’t it more humane to bomb the deserted ruins of ancient Persepolis and Arg-e Bam than to target military installations where soldiers will perish and civilians may be harmed as well?
Where The Concept of War Crimes Comes from
To understand why Trump has gone wrong we have to take a look at where the modern concept of war crimes comes from.
All the way back to ancient history there have been attempts to constrain the violence of war. For example, in 400 BCE the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu wrote of the importance of caring for captives, and Chinese warriors were instructed not to kill wounded enemies. But as the extent of military power increased dramatically in the 20th century with the introduction of airplanes, missiles, chemical, and nuclear weapons just to name a few, the matter of restraint took on crucial new importance.
Today, even without resorting to nuclear weapons, armies have the power to destroy whole cities and kill by the millions. And using those most potent weapons could destroy large swaths of the entire earth.
So in the Geneva conventions and various subsequent treaties, we’ve agreed that war must be limited only to soldiers. Deliberately attacking anything other than a military target, or causing disproportionate harm to anything non-military while attacking a military target, is forbidden and considered a war crime.
Why trump is so dangerously wrong
Of course a new era of peace without warfare altogether would be the best solution. But short of that, this principle is the only way we can fight wars with the weapons currently at our disposal and survive.
What stops a country from simply annihilating an enemy’s population by destroying enemy cities if its grievances aren’t answered? What the allies did to Dresden, Germany, killing tens of thousands with hundreds of bombers, is tiny compared to the slaughter that could be easily accomplished today. While the Romans spread salt to make enemy land infertile for crops, today chemical agents could ruin all of a country’s farm land or water, causing mass plague and starvation. The only thing standing in the way of this is our international commitment to refrain from these types of attacks and regard them as war crimes.
If countries go from targeting just military installations to whatever they believe their enemy holds near and dear, as Trump proposes to do, think where it will lead us. What starts with targeting archaeological treasurers will undoubtedly escalate to destroying natural resources, architectural accomplishments such as skyscrapers and bridges, infrastructure such as facilities to generate power and treat waste, and the list goes on. And does anyone think when that starts to happen wholesale destruction of the population won’t follow?
In sum, When Trump says he will target cultural sites, he undermines this fragile legal compact upon which our very ability to survive war depends.
The Torah tells us that when laying siege to a city, it is forbidden to destroy its fruit trees (Devarim 20:19-20). Even though there may be a tactical advantage in cutting down fruit trees, as that would make it harder for the residents of the city to forage for food to resist the siege, it is still not allowed. Those fruits will be needed later, when the war is over. The Torah tells us that we must limit the destructiveness of our wars so that we will have resources available later to live in peace.
In our times, much more than fruit trees are threatened. Trump needs to understand that respecting restrictions on war crimes is the only way to make us safe.
News coverage of Trump’s intention to target Iranian cultural sites from CNN
Further explanation of why destruction of cultural sites should be legally considered a war crime from CNN
Information on the historical development of war crimes from the Law and Legal Reference Library