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"All commanders are authorized to order the instant death of any soldier that fails in his duty at this time."
                                                                                                                               - General Meade at the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863 [The Civil War, DVD-3, 17:23]
I was wondering if people think that General Meade should have been sent to the Hague and tried as a war criminal for issuing such an order?

Consider for a moment what this order says: It says someone with a rank as low as lieutenant, and possibly in his early twenties can order the summary execution of someone even younger for the "crime" of losing his nerve while being shot at. No trial. No due process. No appeal. And he's not even the enemy.

Now consider the circumstances: The Battle of Gettysburg was the most decisive battle of the American Civil War. It was the largest land battle ever to take place on the North American continent. For three days in the gentle farmland of Pennsylvania, General Meade's Union Army of 85,000 locked horns with General Lee's racist army of 65,000. More than any other armed struggle in our history, this one shaped the country we live in now. Considering that Lee's army captured free blacks and sent them south into slavery as they moved north, I would very likely not even be here had Meade's army not prevailed.

And this battle was by no means a sure thing for the Union. Victory was saved from defeat by the thinest of threads, that's why it went on for three days. So we must also consider this: What would have been the consequences of Meade not issuing that order?

I pose these questions because in the context of the Syrian Civil War, the Free Syrian Army has been almost universally condemned for executing, in the field, seven members of a notorious Berri shabiha gang after they broke their word on a ceasefire. This, after they captured 56 members of this family, held some sort of make-shift field trial and found that those seven warranted immediate execution while 49 others would be held pending further investigation.

Because if the exigencies of war don't allow for that, I don't see how they can allow for General Meade's order. At least the Berri clan were enemy soldiers.

And there are other parallels that can be drawn between the two battles: Like the Battle of Gettysburg, the Battle of Aleppo is probably the most decisive battle in their civil war, only the Battle of Aleppo has already gone on for more weeks than Gettysburg went in days.

This story, complete with video,  about the FSA execution of the leaders of the Berri clan is most often repeated by those that are looking to an excuse for doing nothing about Bashar al-Assad's slaughter of 25,000 Syrians and counting. Their excuse goes something like this:

"See both sides commit war crimes. Both sides commit human rights violations."
And that platitude is just about the most stupid, most lame reason I have ever heard for not taking a stand and picking a side in this fight.

When isn't that true in a war? Especially if the person defining what is and isn't a human rights violation is doing it from the civilized comfort of Geneva, Los Angeles or New York. Because if General Meade's order is not a "human rights violation,"  I don't know what it is!

I'm normally not a betting man but I'm so sure of myself on this that, here and now, I offer $100 to the first person that can show me a war were both sides didn't commit human rights violations. For example, I already know, without consulting Wikipedia, that this shamelessly used truism could equally well be used to disavow any support for the Jews fighting the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Here are my related diaries on Syria:
Tell US gov't to stop endangering Syrian activists
UPDATED: #Obama "green lights" #Assad's slaughter in #Syria
Syria: Turning Battlegrounds into Playgrounds
BREAKING: Bashar al-Assad is alive as deaths in Syria reach 25,000
The Left and the Arab Spring
Iran increasing its intervention in Syria
Syria: Images from the Battle of Aleppo
Fears grow of WMD attack in Syria
UPDATED: FSA says it killed Russian General in Syria
BREAKING: Syria releases new images of Bashar al- Assad | Are they fakes?
NOT BREAKING NEWS: Just another massacre in Syria
UPDATED: Syrian prime minister defects
Syria: FSA says Iranian pilgrims really Republican Guard
Syria: Aleppo under Siege!
BREAKING: UN votes to condemn Assad Regime as Reuters posts false story on Syria
BREAKING: Kofi Annan resigns as envoy to Syria
Syria: Bashar al-Assad not heard from on Armed Forces Day!
BREAKING: Senior Syrian diplomat to Armenia defects
BREAKING: Big Explosion hits #Damascus #Syria
UPDATED: Syria's Charge D'Affaires Quits London Post
BREAKING: Ground assault on Aleppo begins!
BREAKING: Protests across Syria in spite of Assad regime violence
ALEPPO: Step outside the Matrix and witness the Horror
UPDATED: US fears massacre in #Aleppo, #Syria
BREAKING: Reports of clashes between Jordan Army & Assad's Syrian army
BRAKING: Obama stops Putin from re-arming Assad in Syria
Syria: Foreign meddling increases as crisis builds
BREAKING: Aleppo, Syria bombed with fighter jets
BREAKING: Syria issues a correction, it has no WMD to use
BREAKING: Arab League asks Assad to step down!
Bashar al-Assad: New images released as slaughter continues in Syria
no blood for oil
BREAKING: Activists report toxic gas attack in Deir ez-Zor, Syria
Glenn Greenwald sees Islamist Terrorism as main issue in Syria
Will Syria's Assad make a chemical attack in Damascus on Saturday?
BREAKING: I know where Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is!
BREAKING: Massive Fire near #Assad's Presidential Palace in #Damascus, #Syria
BREAKING: Is Syria's Bashar al-Assad dead or dying?
BREAKING: Damascus explosion kills Defense Minister, other key figures
The battle for Damascus is coming
BREAKING: General Strike in Damascus
BREAKING: Intense fighting reported in Damascus now!
BREAKING: Syrian defector spills beans as important new defection reported.
Does Syria's Assad have something on Kofi Annan?
Tremseh Massacre in Syria: What we know
BREAKING: ~227 reported massacred by Assad's forces in Tremseh, Syria today!
Syria: Is Assad regime on the verge of collapse?
BREAKING: Russian Warships reported in Syria
BREAKING: #Russia changing on #Assad but not as fast as conditions in #Syria
UN Observers say violence in Syria is ‘Unprecedented’
BREAKING: Defection of major Assad insider reported in Syria
BREAKING: WikiLeaks releases 2.4 million #Syria emails
When did "Never Again" become "Whenever?" | #Douma
BREAKING: Incredible mass rally in Aleppo, Syria today!
BREAKING: HRW releases torture report on Syria
BREAKING: Syrian General defects with 293 to Turkey
BREAKING: Items not in the MSM on Syria
My response to Phyllis Bennis: Where is the non-violent opposition in Syria?
BREAKING: Syrian Air Force attacks Douma, 10m from Damascus, thousands flee
BREAKING: As Syria Burns, UN Blows More Smoke
BREAKING: Kofi Annan to propose Syrian unity gov't sans Assad!
BREAKING: Douma, Syria under massive attack, another massacre feared
BREAKING: Another mass defection from Syrian army
BREAKING: #NATO says No War in #Syria shoot down of #Turkey jet
NATO meetup tomorrow as more defect from Syria
BREAKING: Turkey calls for NATO consult on downing of jet by Syria
BREAKING: Senior Syrian Officers Defect
UPDATED: Russia reported to be preparing to evacuate from Syria
BREAKING: Syria fighter pilot defects
BREAKING: Britain stops Russian ship carrying attack helicopters for Syria
BREAKING: Russian troops headed to Syria
Qaddafi forces Strike Back in Libya
BREAKING: UN suspends mission in Syria
Libya & Syria - two videos - no comment
BREAKING: Russia denies supplying Syria with NEW attack helicopters
Syrian people rise up against the massacre
Another "Houla style" massacre in Syria
Fake Houla Massacre Photo: Was the BBC set up?
Idlib, Syria protest today on anniversary of Kent State killings
BREAKING: Massive protests in Syria following Friday pray
Syria is bleeding
Syria: Ceasefire faltering as mass protests breakout

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ontheleftcoast, stlsophos, mookins

    Remember history, Clay Claiborne, Director Vietnam: American Holocaust - narrated by Martin Sheen

    by Clay Claiborne on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 02:22:14 PM PDT

  •  Did any of Meade's officers kill any soldiers (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    tytalus, grover, PrahaPartizan, mookins

    for failure to fulfill their duties?

    Yes, it was a horrible order, one that we'd condemn (well, at least if it was made by the other side) but did it result in any such actions being taken?

    And what should we do after the fact? If war atrocities are inevitable then what is our justification for prosecuting them? Do we just turn a blind eye to My Lai?

    You raise some difficult questions. But I have two for you, should the US go into Syria over the objections of China and Russia? And what do we do when our own soldiers have a failure to be moral and commit their own atrocities?

    Romney's religion is only an issue because he's a high priest in the Church of Mammon.

    by ontheleftcoast on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 02:30:31 PM PDT

    •  I don't know if Meade's orders were acted on. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I do know that Abe Lincoln pardoned almost every such case that got to his desk but of course, summary executions didn't.

      Frankly, I don't think the first question is:

      should the US go into Syria over the objections of China and Russia?
      if this is true:
      Over the past 10 months, a Syrian opposition official told The Sunday Times, the CIA has blocked shipments of heavy anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, which rebel units of the Free Syrian Army have long said are vital to their efforts to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

      At the same time they have approved supplies of AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles, and just over a month ago gave the green light to a shipment of 10,000 Russian-made rocket-propelled grenades.

      That is the most cynical and most criminal policy any country can have towards this war.

      To bring this slaughter of an end, what Syria needs more than anything is a quick resolution to this armed struggle.

      I believe that if Assad defeats the FSA there will be a lot more quiet executions while he wipes out anybody who even looked cross-eyed at him. But even so after maybe 100,000 deaths, things will "die down" to whatever ambient level of killing he finds necessary to maintain his rule - until the next uprising.

      Even if the opposition wins there will likely be some more violence while things sort themselves out.

      But either way, Syrian's won't keep dying at the current rate of a thousand a week.

      So, in my book, either you support the FSA, in which case you give them what they need if you can, but you certainly don't stop them from getting it from others.

      Or you support Assad, it which case you don't give the FSA one damn bullet!

      But to allow them just enough to continue the fight, but not enough to win it? If that is truly the policy of this country, we should all hang our heads in shame.

      Consider the effect of such a policy in the Battle of Aleppo. Clearly the FSA has been able to get [from Turkey, no doubt vetted by the CIA - if the NY Times report is true] just enough small arms to hang in there and keep fighting. So Assad, who obviously doesn't give a fuck about civilian causalities, keeps pounding away with his war planes. Meanwhile, here's the good old U.S. of A. making sure they don't get anything that could knock down those warplanes!

      Can you think of a more shameless approach to this war.

      This is what the US imperialist policy of endless war looks like in Syria and from what I can see, there are far too many Kossacks that support it.

      Remember history, Clay Claiborne, Director Vietnam: American Holocaust - narrated by Martin Sheen

      by Clay Claiborne on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 03:29:35 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  You're a mystery, Clay (10+ / 0-)

        I notice how you deflected my "should the US get involved" to an unsubstantiated "the CIA is already involved" and you completely ingnored the question about prosecuting atrocities. I want a quick end to the fighting in Syria but I don't see a way to make that happen without the OK from Russia and China. And if the US does get involved there is the very real possibility we'll kill civilians. So what then? And don't you dare think I support Assad, I support the Syrian people on this, Assad has to go. My questions are still valid and you haven't answered them.

        Romney's religion is only an issue because he's a high priest in the Church of Mammon.

        by ontheleftcoast on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 03:45:28 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Something is wrong with your analysis (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Quicklund, FG, grover, erush1345, elmo

    It is anachronistic.

    General Meade could not have been sent to Hague to be tried as a war criminal because neither the League of Nations, nor the UN existed at that time.

    From Wikipedia:

    The Permanent Court of International Justice, often called the World Court, was an international court attached to the League of Nations. Created in 1922
  •  War Crimes (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    markdd, PrahaPartizan, protectspice

    Read this:

    There is no evidence the M23 rebels, who are fighting the Congo government, have committed war crimes, a top US war crimes official has said.
    Do you believe this? If so, please make out my check to either Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch.

    If you don't believe it, it means war crimes are in the eye of the beholder.

  •  Meade's order was legal under the law then (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    FG, erush1345

    So the answer is, "no".

    •  Am I missing something? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      It's always seemed to me that war crimes are committed against the other side's civilians, prisioners of war, whole cities, etc.

      Meade's order was pretty horrific with all the hindsight and comfort of a century and half between us and what happened on the field that day.

      But would it qualify as a war crime? I thought the whole point of naming certain actions war crimes is to prevent armies and nations from using vulnerable, powerless, (often innocent) people from being used as cannon fodder to gain military advantage.

      This isn't an area of my expertise. I truly am curious --

      I trust that the UCMJ prohibits these things these days.

      © grover

      So if you get hit by a bus tonight, would you be satisfied with how you spent today, your last day on earth? Live like tomorrow is never guaranteed, because it's not. -- Me.

      by grover on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 03:28:00 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  So by your definition Assad hasn't committed (0+ / 0-)

        any war crimes. He would say those are his cities, civilians etc and in almost every army, the execution of deserters in time of war is legal.

        Remember history, Clay Claiborne, Director Vietnam: American Holocaust - narrated by Martin Sheen

        by Clay Claiborne on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 03:38:20 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  If you ignore what I said here: (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Shawn Russell, Quicklund
           I thought the whole point of naming certain actions war crimes is to prevent armies and nations from using vulnerable, powerless, (often innocent) people from being used as cannon fodder to gain military advantage.
          Then sure, you're right -- except that in the Civil War, things get a bit fuzzy, don't they?  I bet a lot of  Syrians  don't think they belong to Assad.

          Ok, before you pick apart my initial question further, I admit, I didn't mean literally cannons.

          I asked an honest question.  I was actually hoping to learn something.  

          Oh sheesh. The odds of having a respectful conversation around this place are about 40/60

          Forget I said anything.  

          © grover

          So if you get hit by a bus tonight, would you be satisfied with how you spent today, your last day on earth? Live like tomorrow is never guaranteed, because it's not. -- Me.

          by grover on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 03:47:58 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  No. It was entirely legal at the time (4+ / 0-)

        Small unit officers did not typically lead their men into combat. They placed themselves behind their troops. One reason was to stop men from retreating - at pistol or sword point sometimes. We cannot convict men today for acts the were not crimes in their day. Not only was it not a crime, it was considered the honorable thing to do.

  •  Execution for desertion was common (4+ / 0-)

    during the ACW.  Although it usually required a trial and Lincoln's signature before the sentence was carried out.  Once the legal obligations were completed, the troops were assembled on 3 sides of a square and the condemned man was led up to a gallows on the fourth side and hung as an object lesson to anyone contemplating desertion.

    “that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” Thomas Jefferson

    by markdd on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 03:24:20 PM PDT

    •  Not many got Lincoln's signature. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      He said he thought the poorest use for a soldier was to kill him.

      I also think that the execution of the leaders of the Berri clan was meant as an object lesson.

      The way I understand the story, the Berri clan agreed to a truce with the FSA, and then attacked them in the rear and killed 15 FSA soldiers.

      So more than anything, I think that they wanted to teach a lesson: That if you break your word with us, take advantage of our trust and kill anyway, there will be no mercy, [wrong - they killed only the leaders, not all] no pleading your case before the Hague, you will die here and now. Frankly, I approve of that lesson.

      That's why they video taped it and proudly released it. They knew it would be used against them by all the Assad supporters, but they needed to send that message.

      War itself is a crime. But this war has been force on the Syrian people by Bashar al-Assad.  

      Remember history, Clay Claiborne, Director Vietnam: American Holocaust - narrated by Martin Sheen

      by Clay Claiborne on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 03:50:35 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  My recollections don't seem to match the (0+ / 0-)


        Wiki quotes Fantina on Bounty Jumpers, men who enlisted for the bounty, deserted and re-enlisted for another bounty.  They then quote 141 men were executed, not clear if that's total desertions or just Bounty Jumpers.  

        If total, then it's way less that I thought.  I do remember one Lincoln story where he just couldn't stand the though of signing an execution order on Christmas Eve and pardoned the guy instead.

        “that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” Thomas Jefferson

        by markdd on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 04:25:26 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Both the Union and Confederate armies utilized (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    stlsophos, PrahaPartizan, Gordon20024

    "file closers" to maintain discipline of and keep the line of battle moving forward.  These were sergeants or lieutenants with bayoneted rifles and/or swords and pistols, and their duty was to keep soldiers from running away from battle.

    File closers primarily used verbal commands, blows with the flat side of a sword, threats with the bayonet to keep men from running, but did not as a general rule shoot men who ran.  There could have been instances of it, but if there were, they were not widely reported.

    Meade would not have referred to file closers as "commanders."  He would have been referring to senior officers, i.e., generals and possibly colonels, not sergeants or lieutenants.

    This order was almost certainly meant to be announced to soldiers in the ranks as a threat to prevent their running from battle, not to be carried out, unless soldiers actually deserted.

    Desertion was a capital crime, and it was not unusual for deserters to be executed, but running from battle did not per se constitute desertion.  Desertion required leaving one's post with intent not to return.  I doubt Meade had the authority to order his men to be executed for retreating, without a court martial.

    In fact had Lee issued such an order and meant for it to apply to running from battle, he would have had to shoot most of his army running from the battle after failure to take the Union position on the third day.

    An excellent movie ("Paths of Glory," starring Kirk Douglas) set in World War I deals with this subject, when a martinet - French General Mireau - orders his artillery to fire on his own retreating troops.  The artillery commander refuses to comply without a written order, which of course never materializes.

    Thwarted by an inferior officer, the indignant general orders company commanders to select a man from each of three companies that retreated, to be shot as examples.  Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) defends the three at court martial.  

    For those interested in military discipline, I recommend this movie, one of the finest anti-war movies ever produced.

    Because stupid people are so sure they're smart, they often act smart, and sometimes even smart people are too stupid to recognize that the stupid people acting smart really ARE stupid.

    by ZedMont on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 04:00:21 PM PDT

  •  Several observations.... (0+ / 0-)

    First, there is probably a certain amount of rhetorical flourish, here.  Bombastic writing was not uncommon.

    Second, this was a crucial battle the north could not afford to lose.  Lee was invading Pennsylvania, and if he could successfully trounce the Army of the Potomac there would be precious little that anyone could do from advancing on Washington or wherever he wanted.  A loss of sufficient severity at that juncture could have ended the war.  A loss of lesser severity still would have severely damaged the Union war effort and morale.

    Third, Meade had been commander of the army for less than a month, and had little time to establish his authority as the new commander...and in fact, the AoP had a history of a revolving door of failed commanders up to that point (McDowell, McClellan, Pope, McClellan again, Burnside, Hooker, and now, Meade was in the hot seat, and the Confederacy's best commander who had trounced the AoP repeatedly was roaming Pennsylvania with his army).

    All of these things probably contributed to Meade's order, and I have no doubt the order was to be publicly read to the troops.  A few men panicking and rushing to the rear could open a hole in a line or induce panic among other troops, and once enough men panic entire units dissolve into chaos.  Battles are lost that way.  This order was intended to put into the men's minds the possibility that if they ran, an officer might have them summarily shot.

    To my knowledge, the order was not carried out, but as others have pointed out, desertion WAS potentially a capital offense.

    Bear in mind some of the other punishments used during the Civil War.  "Bucking and Gagging", hanging by the thumbs, strapping a man spread-eagled across a spare wagon wheel on the back of a back of a cassion (imaging having the hub of a wooden wagon wheel jammed against the middle of your back while you're tied stretched out like that, bouncing down a crappy dirt road in the middle of a hot July afternoon for a few hours).  These were all punishments used, and there are recorded instances of men dying from them.

    Even if a man had been shot under this order, I doubt Meade himself would have been held responsible, rather the actions of the office ordering it would probably be reviewed to see if the situation was of sufficiently critical nature to warrant acting on it.

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