Trying to Find Perspective on Aleppo and Mosul

Reflections from Volgograd.

As the bombing of Aleppo continues and the fighting around Mosul intensifies, Western leaders and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have denounced blatant violations of international humanitarian law. Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the High Commissioner, recently condemned the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in eastern Aleppo as possible war crimes. While no official figures are available, the United Nations has said that nearly 200 civilians have been killed by the Islamic State outside Mosul. A photographer for The New York Times wrote almost a full-page story in the October 27 edition about being wounded while accompanying Iraqi counterterrorism forces pushing towards Mosul. The horrors of the wars in Iraq and Syria are being more than documented.

Sensitivity to indiscriminate bombing and shooting is praiseworthy. They are clear violations of international humanitarian law. Using civilians as human shields is also a clear violation. As journalists and cameras recount these scenes, we spectators are filled with horror, indignation and a sense of futility about what can be done. The haunting image of the young Syrian boy pulled from the rubble in Aleppo reinforces our perception of man’s inhumanity to man and the incivility of modern warfare.

Is there any possibility for optimism while reading the headlines or watching videos of these events? A recent visit to Volgograd, the site of the Battle of Stalingrad, can change one’s perspective. The city of Volgograd today is a rather dismal industrial town with its major center of interest a museum dedicated to the battle. The German attack was meant to control the area around the Volga River and then the Caspian Sea and then on to the Caucasus to control oil production necessary for the troops. Often described as “the Verdun of World War II,” the battle began in July 1942 followed by a massive, indiscriminate bombardment on August 23 by the German 6th Army.

 As with so many political and military decisions, huge egos were involved, and civilians paid the price. Soviet leader Stalin issued the order “Not a step backwards!” and Hitler followed with a fight-to-the-death directive. Starvation set in with the winter months. Almost all factories and buildings were destroyed. The statistics are overwhelming although not definitive. The Germans began with 14 divisions including 270,000 soldiers. The Red Army started with 160,000 soldiers, with up to one million casualties including civilians at the end.

Two thousand plane flights a day struck the city. Buildings were reduced to rubble. Cold winter set in; the Volga River froze. The fighting was so fierce that the Russians executed 13,000 of their own men for desertion or cowardice. A counteroffensive by the Red Army finally retook the city and the famous Mamay Hill, the highest point and the scene of the fiercest fighting. Of the 90,000 Germans taken prisoner and sent to Siberia only 6,000 returned.
On February 2, 1943, the Germans surrendered, ending 200 days and nights of fierce fighting, today enshrined in a startling panorama in a Volgograd museum. 

The fighting for Aleppo and Mosul are quite different from the Battle of Stalingrad. There are no two armies confronting one another in Iraq or Syria. The opposing forces are complex. (See Andres Allemand Nov. 2 tdg). And the laws of war have changed. While all the rules are not being followed in Aleppo and Mosul, there is, at least, some sensitivity to what is permitted, if only in calls for criminalizing what is taking place. Cries of indignation are forthcoming, training in humanitarian law is being taught to many sides, although not always respected. The number of deaths from battle has been reduced, nonetheless accompanied by a dramatic increase in displaced persons.

Does history matter? Are we consigned to repeating the past? Each generation has its own forms of conflict. Cyber wars are different from military battles. Guerrilla fighting is not the same as full-scale military action. Intra-state confrontation is not the same as interstate war. While we watch in horror, frustration and indignation about what is happening in Aleppo and Mosul, reminiscing about the Battle of Stalingrad gives slight, very slight, signs that at least we can say that there are norms that are not being followed.

The Nuremberg trials and the Geneva Conventions of 1949 set a higher threshold for what became known as war crimes and crimes against humanity. Setting norms and thresholds are important. That said, implementation is the obvious necessary next step.

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