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War Crimes and the Asymmetry Myth

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 October 2021


The “asymmetry myth” is that war crimes are committed by one's enemies but never, or hardly ever, by one's own combatants. The myth involves not only a common failure to acknowledge our own actual war crimes but also inadequate reactions when we are forced to recognize them. It contributes to the high likelihood that wars, just or unjust in their causes, will have a high moral cost. This cost, moreover, is a matter needing consideration in the jus ante bellum circumstances of preparedness for war as well as of conduct within it. As part of the symposium on Ned Dobos's book, Ethics, Security, and the War-Machine, I will argue that the strength of the asymmetry myth is sustained by certain forms of romantic nationalism linked to the glamorization of military endeavor.

Book Symposium: Ethics, Security, and the War-Machine
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs

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1 Dobos, Ned, Ethics, Security, and the War-Machine: The True Cost of the Military (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), p. 95CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 For media reports on these episodes, see Nick McKenzie and Chris Masters, “SAS Murder Probe Intensifies as Federal Police Speak to Afghan Eyewitnesses,” Age, September 20, 2019, See also the investigative report “Killing Field” produced for the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) television program Four Corners: “Killing Field,” video, 44:31, updated October 15, 2020,

3 See Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry Report (Commonwealth of Australia, 2020), The published report is heavily redacted, but damaging details of the credible allegations of war crimes are contained in chapter 2, and in both chapters 1 and 2 the denial of heat of battle circumstances and the use of the expression “credible information” occur. The full report has not been released.

4 Crompvoets's full report apparently remains secret, but a version of her investigation can be found on the Australian Government Department of Defence website at: Samantha Crompvoets, “Special Operations Command (SOCOMD) Culture and Interactions: Insights and Reflection,” January 2016, At the time of writing, a book has just been published on these alleged war crimes by investigative reporter Mark Willacy with interviews conducted in Afghanistan with Afghanis. It assumes a particular importance given that the Taliban victory in that country will pose acute problems for the formal Australian investigation in situ of the allegations. The Taliban may be anxious to have any such crimes exposed, but this very fact will cast legal shadows on the value of interviews subsequently conducted. Hence the added significance of this book: Mark Willacy, Rogue Forces: An Explosive Insiders’ Account of Australian SAS War Crimes in Afghanistan (Cammeray, New South Wales: Simon and Schuster, 2021).

5 Scott Morrison, quoted in Daniel Hurst, “Australia to Appoint Investigator to Consider Alleged War Crimes by Special Forces in Afghanistan,” Guardian, November 12, 2020.

6 Peter Dutton, quoted in “Defence Minister Peter Dutton Overturns Decision to Strip Veterans of Military Decorations,” ABC News, updated April 19, 2021,

7 See, for instance, Philip Dwyer, “It's Time for Australia's SAS to Stop Its Culture of Cover-Up and Take Accountability for Possible War Crimes,” Conversation, July 23, 2020.

8 Paul Daley, “Australia Has Never Been Good at Acknowledging Its Troops Have Been Guilty of Acts of Inhumanity,” Guardian, September 4, 2020.

9 Graves, Robert, Good-Bye to All That (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1960), p. 154Google Scholar.

10 A defense of Morant and Handcock is attempted in George Witton, Scapegoats of the Empire: The True Story of Breaker Morant's Bushveldt Carbineers (1907; Melbourne: Angus & Robertson, 2008). Witton, an Australian soldier, was a colleague of Morant and Handcock and was also convicted and sentenced to death with them, but his sentence was commuted and he served only three years in prison. A sharp critique of Witton's thesis can be found in Wilcox, Craig, Australia's Boer War: The War in South Africa, 1899–1902 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)Google Scholar. Common Australian attitudes to Morant are indicated by former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer's urging the Australian government “to take steps to render a measure of honour to these two iconic soldiers” in his preface to Nick Bleszynski's book Shoot Straight, You Bastards! The Truth behind the Killing of ‘Breaker’ Morant (intro. Tim Fischer [Milsons Point, New South Wales: Random House Australia, 2011]).

11 See, for instance, “Japan's Refusal to Acknowledge Its War Guilt and Atrocities,” Pacific War, See also Mariko Oi, “What Japanese History Lessons Leave Out,” BBC News, March 14, 2013,

12 Coady, C. A. J., The Meaning of Terrorism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. I discuss and criticize seven such justifications in chapters 5 and 6 of my book. In earlier chapters, I define a terrorist act in such a way as to include states as being capable of terrorist acts, and discuss the terrorist status of the Allied (and Axis) city bombing campaigns of World War II.

13 Dave Philipps, “Trump Clears Three Service Members in War Crimes Cases,” New York Times, updated November 22, 2019,

14 Beevor, Antony, Berlin: The Downfall, 1945 (London: Penguin Books, 2003), pp. 326–27Google Scholar, 409–12.

15 George C. Patton, quoted in Antony Beevor, Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge (New York: Viking, 2015), p. 333.

16 Neta Crawford, quoted in Dobos, Ethics, Security, and the War-Machine, p. 95.

17 Crawford, Neta C., Accountability for Killing: Moral Responsibility for Collateral Damage in America's Post-9/11 Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 158CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 Neta C. Crawford and Catherine Lutz, Human Cost of Post-9/11 Wars: Direct War Deaths in Major War Zones, Afghanistan and Pakistan (October 2001–October 2019)[;] Iraq (March 2003–October 2019); Syria (September 2014–October 2019); Yemen (October 2002–October 2019); and Other, Costs of War research series (Providence: Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University, November 13, 2019), The reference to direct killing is meant to exclude deaths caused by other effects of war such as starvation, homelessness, and disease.

19 Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama's Principles and Will,” New York Times, May 29, 2012.

20 Colm Kelpie, “Ballymurphy Inquest: Coroner Finds 10 Victims Were Innocent,” BBC News, May 12, 2021. Nine of the ten civilians were declared to be killed by British troops, while it is unclear whether the troops are also responsible for killing the remaining civilian.

21 Some Australian historians have recently argued, rightly in my view, that the national adulthood produced by that wartime experience is largely an influential but contrived political fantasy. Not only does it distort the grim significance of that experience but it obscures the importance of more positive events for Australian identity, such as the triumph of the women's rights movement, in which the country was seen as a world leader in granting women the “universal” right to vote in 1902 (though sadly not to aboriginal women). In 1894, the South Australian parliament even legislated that all its adult citizens, including aboriginal women, could vote and stand for parliament. For arguments about the malign influence of the military coming of age story, see, for instance, Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, with Joy Damousi and Mark McKenna, What's Wrong with ANZAC? The Militarisation of Australian History (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010).

22 For Dobos's discussion of moral injury, see Ethics, Security, and the War-Machine, pp. 22–27. For an impressive account of the moral effect of recognizing the war crimes of one's own side, see Erik Edstrom, Un-American: A Soldier's Reckoning of Our Longest War (New York: Bloomsbury, 2020). Edstrom served as an officer in Afghanistan.

23 May, Larry, War Crimes and Just War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 45, 40CrossRefGoogle Scholar. May sharply distinguishes crimes against peace from war crimes for this reason.

24 For an extended discussion of the debate, see Coady, Meaning of Terrorism, ch. 4.

25 See Coady, C. A. J., “Escaping from the Bomb: Immoral Deterrence and the Problem of Extrication,” in Shue, Henry, ed., Nuclear Deterrence and Moral Restraint (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 163227CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 Dobos, Ethics, Security, and the War Machine, pp. 35–36.

27 See Milgram, Stanley, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), p. 36Google Scholar. Pages 32–36 describe the differing circumstances of the range of experiments.

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