Most Americans like to think their military is a tool for preserving the freedom and well-being of people throughout the world. Generations of American soldiers have indeed performed noble and heroic feats in defense of these values. However, since the earliest days of the nation, encounters with the US military have often meant death and destruction, as opposed to freedom and justice. From the American Revolution to the War on Terror, soldiers from every generation have taken part in atrocities of one form or another. If there is any hope for preventing American war crimes in the future, the past transgressions of the US military must be acknowledged and, when possible, the perpetrators brought to justice.
The Balinga Massacre, Philippine-American War
During the Spanish-American War in 1898, American forces captured the Philippines. Although the Americans viewed themselves as liberators, Filipinos had been struggling against Spanish imperialism for years. They did not take kindly to one imperial power being replaced with another. What followed was the Philippine-American War, a savage exercise in jungle combat.
After suffering heavy casualties from Philippine insurrectionists in the Samar Province, General Jacob H. Smith sought revenge against the civilian population. He stated, “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn: the more you kill and burn, the better you will please me.”
General Smith’s troops proceeded to carry out a genocidal campaign in the countryside. He ordered anybody over ten years of age and capable of bearing arms to be executed, and herded thousands more into concentration camps.
Unfortunately, these actions were only a microcosm of the larger brutality of America’s occupation of the Philippines. It is estimated that at least 34,000 Filipinos were killed as a direct result of the war, and another 200,000 by the cholera epidemic among refugees and those in concentration camps.
When North Korean forces launched a surprise attack on South Korea on June 25, 1950, poorly trained American soldiers from Tokyo were rushed to the peninsula. The invasion created a massive refugee crisis, as civilians fled the oncoming armies. Fearing infiltration by spies posing as civilians, US command forces ordered that no civilians were to be allowed to cross battle lines at any time.
On the same day these orders were issued, up to 400 refugees gathered at a bridge near the village of No Gun Ri were indiscriminately massacred by American forces.
US forces initially denied involvement, stating that no American troops were in the vicinity at the time of the massacre. However, details of the slaughter have emerged in recent years, thanks to the testimonies of both the survivors and perpetrators. As one American veteran recalls, “There was a lieutenant screaming like a madman, fire on everything, kill ’em all … Kids, there was kids out there, it didn’t matter what it was, eight to 80, blind, crippled or crazy, they shot ’em all.”
Unfortunately, this was only the first of many such massacres by American forces in Korea that have come to light in recent years. There has been no justice for the surviving South Koreans either, as the only person to face charges for the crime, Captain Ernest Medina, was court martialed but later acquitted.
Life as a settler on the frontier during the American Revolution was an isolated, brutish, and violent place to scrape out an existence. Front lines were non-existent, and there was no chivalry in frontier warfare. There are certainly countless atrocities history will never uncover, but one that stands out is the Gnadenhutten Massacre.
On March 8, 1782, 160 Pennsylvania militiamen surrounded the village of Gnadenhutten in Eastern Ohio. Although the residents of the village were Indians, they were peaceful Christians and neutral in the fight. Nevertheless, the militiamen accused them of conducting raids throughout Pennsylvania, and voted to execute every inhabitant.
The Indians were split into to huts, one for men and the other for women and children, and then bludgeoned to death before being scalped. In all, ninety-six of the one hundred Indians were scalped and killed, and the entire village was set ablaze. One survivor hid in the woods, and others actually survived their scalping and escaped to warn surrounding villages.
Andersonville Prison, Civil War
You might think this NSFW picture is that of a newly liberated prisoner from the Nazi concentration camps. But this man was actually a Union captive held at the POW camp in Andersonville, Georgia during the Civil War.
Life for soldiers on either side of the conflict was a harrowing experience, no matter where they were stationed. Yet arguably the worst place to end up in the entire war was the Camp Sumter military prison in Andersonville. As the largest Confederate prison, the camp was designed with a maximum capacity of 10,000 prisoners. By August 1864, the number of prisoners had swelled to 33,000.
Conditions in the camp were nightmarish. The Confederates were desperately low on provisions for themselves, which meant the POWs got next to nothing. The men had no shelter from the blazing summer sun or the cold winter rain. The small stream flowing through the camp became both a communal toilet and the only source of drinking water. Consequently, the death toll from disease and starvation was staggering. Of the 45,000 men held at the prison throughout its existence, approximately 12,000 died and were buried in mass graves around the camp.
When the war ended, Andersonville commander Henry Wirz was arrested, tried by a military tribunal, and hanged. He was the only person on either side to be executed for war crimes in the Civil War.
Dachau Massacre, World War II
The Dachau concentration camp in Bavaria was one of the most notorious death camps from World War II. At least 32,000 documented killings occurred there, along with unknown thousands that went undocumented. When it was liberated on April 12, 1945, American troops came across hundreds of bodies littering the grounds of Dachau, and the horror of the scene caused many to snap.
During the course of the camp’s liberation, American soldiers killed at least fifty German guards. Some were killed trying to flee, and others were summarily executed. While these killings are obviously indefensible within the modern rules of war, this atrocity is arguably the most understandable on this list. This is but one of many instances of Americans executing Nazi prisoners during the Allied Invasion, and no soldiers were ever prosecuted for their role in the killings.
The War on Terror
Since 2001, Afghanistan has continually seen the deaths of civilians at the hands of American ground forces, warplanes, and drone attacks. One of the most notorious took place in the village of Azizabad in the country’s Helmand Province on August 22, 2008.
American forces had received information that a Taliban commander, Mullah Sidiq, was on his way to Azizabad after ambushing American troops. During the night, American AC-130 warplanes carried out a deadly attack on the village. Their bombs killed about ninety civilians, many of whom were children. Although the US claimed to have killed Sidiq in the attack, and that most of the casualties were militants, Sidiq later emerged unharmed and independent investigations concluded there were few, if any, militants in the village.
Despite the carnage of this event, no Americans have been prosecuted for their role in the airstrike. However, a villager named Mohammed Nader was sentenced to death by Afghan authorities for supplying NATO forces with intelligence that led to the attack.
This attack is exceptional in that, unlike others on the list, it was carried out by a single US soldier. In the early hours of March 11, 2012, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales snuck away from his base in the Panjawi district in the Kandahar Province and entered a nearby house. He shot all ten residents, killing six. Bales returned briefly to the base before setting out again to another nearby home, where he killed twelve more and wounded two others. The sixteen people killed that day included nine children.
After the killings, Bales reportedly returned to his base and promptly confessed to his superiors by simply saying, “I did it.” He pleaded guilty in military court, and in August 2013 was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The Iraq War
Much like Afghanistan, America’s occupation of Iraq was witness to many atrocities by American forces. The most famous, if not deadly, of these crimes was the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. From October to December of 2003, US soldiers with little experience running a prison carried out shockingly sadistic acts on those they were meant to be guarding.
Many detainees were humiliated, tortured, raped, sodomized, and some even killed at the hands of guards. One military report, not meant for public release, outlined some of the forms of torture practiced by the troops: “Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees … beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair … sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick.” Detainees were forced to perform sexual acts on each other, and were strung up in embarrassing and painful positions for hours or days. There are also numerous allegations of detainees being beaten to death by US soldiers and private contractors.
Although there was similar activity occurring other Iraqi and Afghani prisons, the abuses at Abu Ghraib exploded into scandal largely because of photographic evidence (NSFW link) of the torture. These pictures of abuse were widely published, and publications like The New Yorker and 60 Minutes did detailed exposés. As a result of the scandal, eleven soldiers were sentenced to prison terms, but many of the soldiers and private contractors allegedly involved in the abuses have never faced trial.
Wounded Knee Massacre
This entire list could be made up of horrible injustices perpetrated by the US government against the country’s Native American population. One of the most significant was the massacre at Wounded Knee. This incident on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was the last major conflict of the American Indian Wars. Twenty Medal of Honor citations were granted after the engagement, the most for any single battle in American history.
On December 29, 1890, the American 7th Cavalry had surrounded a band of Sioux, including women and children, at the Wounded Knee Creek. The soldiers demanded the Sioux surrender their weapons, and were in the process of collecting them when the violence began. It is unclear who fired first, but close quarters combat among the Sioux and American soldiers in the encampment was quickly followed by indiscriminate fire into the camp from surrounding US forces. Rifle fire and shrapnel from Hotchkiss cannons raked through the encampment, and mounted soldiers cut down those attempting to flee.
It is estimated that at least 250 of the 350 Sioux were killed in the exchange. Twenty-five Americans died as well, but most are thought to have been killed by friendly fire.
My Lai Massacre
The My Lai Massacre is the most notorious war crime in US history, and has become the benchmark to which all acts of American military savagery is compared.
On March 16, 1968, the men of Charlie Company entered the village of My Lai in South Vietnam to conduct a “search and destroy” mission. Although there were no signs of enemy troops, the soldiers were ordered to enter the village firing. The incident quickly devolved into violence and chaos, as the men of Charlie Company opened fire on the village’s unarmed residents. Among them were many women, children, and elders. It is estimated that over 300 civilians were shot or bayoneted to death during the course of several hours.
Only one soldier, William Calley Jr., was convicted for participation in the massacre. He served three and a half years under house arrest. Perhaps even more chilling than the lack of culpability here is how commonplace this behavior was among American troops. As Colonel Oran Henderson remarked, “Every unit of brigade size has its My Lai hidden someplace.”