Let me start with a confession: I no longer read all the way through newspaper stories about the war in Ukraine. After years of writing about war and torture, I’ve reached my limit. These days, I just can’t pore through the details of the ongoing nightmare there. It’s shameful, but I don’t want to know the names of the dead or examine images caught by brave photographers of half-exploded buildings, exposing details—a shoe, a chair, a doll, some half-destroyed possessions—of lives lost, while I remain safe and warm in San Francisco. Increasingly, I find that I just can’t bear it.
And so I scan the headlines and the opening paragraphs, picking up just enough to grasp the shape of Vladimir Putin’s horrific military strategy: the bombing of civilian targets like markets and apartment buildings, the attacks on the civilian power grid, and the outright murder of the residents of cities and towns occupied by Russian troops. And these aren’t aberrations in an otherwise lawfully conducted war. No, they represent an intentional strategy of terror, designed to demoralize civilians rather than to defeat an enemy military. This means, of course, that they’re also war crimes: violations of the laws and customs of war as summarized in 2005 by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
The first rule of war, as laid out by the ICRC, requires combatant countries to distinguish between (permitted) military and (prohibited) civilian targets. The second states that “acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population”—an all-too-on-target summary of Russia’s war-making these last 10 months—“are prohibited.” Violating that prohibition is a crime.