War is ugly, dehumanizing, cruel, and destructive in more than one sense. We know that terrible things will happen during war, but there are some acts that are so horrible that society calls for justice and revenge. After World War II, the Allies decided to put as many of the surviving Nazi high command as they could capture on trial for their crimes against humanity. Decades later, international tribunals would seek to indict, try, and sentence war criminals from the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Sudan. The real story of international justice is incredibly complex and, at times, distinctly unjust. In Hiding in Plain Sight: The Pursuit of War Criminals from Nuremburg to the War on Terror, authors Eric Stover, Victor Peskin, and K. Alexa Koenig explain how the path of justice never runs smoothly.
Stover, Peskin, and Koenig begin in 1945, with the Nuremburg Tribunals. The magnitude of the crimes committed by the Nazis was to vast, so unthinkably evil, that the Allies had to cobble together the laws and mechanisms necessary to try people like Albert Speer, Hermann Göring, Julius Streicher, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and the rest. The Allies used previous treaties, like the Geneva Conventions, and other laws regarding the treatment of noncombatants and prisoners to create a new class of crimes: crimes against humanity. Twelve of the accused were sentenced to death. Other defendants were acquitted or given prison sentences. This part, at least, is not complicated. The complications cam shortly after. Instead of pursuing more war criminals—camp guards, bureaucrats, SS troops, soldiers—the Americans stopped taking such a hard line against former Nazis. Instead, they started to whitewash the past crimes of some criminals, including the notorious Klaus Barbie, to use the skills and knowledge of Nazi personnel in what would become known as the Cold War.
As Stover, Peskin, and Koenig turn their attention to war crimes in later decades, this theme keeps resurrecting itself. After atrocities, there is an outcry for justice on behalf of victims and survivors. Indictments and arrest warrants might actually be issued. But realpolitik keeps getting the way. In the former Yugoslavia, there were worries that arresting people like Ratko Mladić or Radovan Karadžić would destabilize the fragile peace between Bosnians and Serbs or that arresting them would cause reprisals. In Rwanda, the International Tribunal had to agree not to pursue Tutsis who committed reprisals for the Hutu-led Rwandan Genocide in order to gain custody of Hutu war criminals. Currently, the International Criminal Court is unable to pursue its indictment of Omar al-Bashir for crimes committed in Darfur, because al-Bashir is the sitting president of Sudan. It seems that the stars must align perfectly for criminals to even be brought to trial.
Hiding in Plain Sight is a chilling and infuriating book. It has to be because of its subject matter. The last third of the book was the most outrageous (in the sense that I was outraged) because it takes a hard look at the actions of the American government since September 11. There have always been critics who call international war crimes tribunals “victor’s justice,” even as far back as Nuremberg. After all, the Allies firebombed cities like Dresden and Tokyo, killing thousands of civilians. The Soviets massacred prisoners of war at Katyn. Yet none of the Allies were officially accused of war crimes. In the War on Terror, the CIA and US Army personnel tortured people, detained them indefinitely without due process, and killed civilians with drones. Stover, Peskin, and Koenig revealed that the US Government required the governments of other nations to sign treaties that indemnify US forces from legal action. I am appalled that my country, which led the battle for the Nuremburg Tribunals, has decided that it is above the laws it holds other nations to.
Hiding in Plain Sight is an important book for many reasons. First, it reminds of history that we have, for whatever reason, chosen to forget. Second, it shines a light on the hypocrisy and politicking that hampers the process of international justice. The prosecutors of the International Criminal Court have to be diplomats more than anything else, just to see warrants served and criminals brought to justice. Third, it asks us to consider the very notion of international justice. If we can agree that there are some acts that are truly crimes against humanity, why can we not agree that the people who commit them should face justice? Why do some countries consider themselves to be above these laws? Hiding in Plain Sight gives no answers, of course. Instead, it leaves us with unsettling but necessary questions.
I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 12 April 2016.