Twenty years ago today, an Argentinian newspaper, Clarin, published accusations that British soldiers had committed war crimes during the Falklands war (which, incidentally, began thirty-two years ago today, when Argentine forces invaded). The accusation was one that has been made against soldiers all through history: that when the enemy surrendered, they were not dealt with according to the laws of war. Instead, they were simply murdered.
Normally this would be treated with derision by the UK media and denial by the UK government. But an investigation was already nearing completion into accusations of British war crimes during the battle of Mount Longdon, instigated by a memoir written by Vincent Bramley, a veteran of the the third batallion of the Parachute Regiment. He claimed to have seen Argentine POWs gunned down, and a British soldier cutting ears from the bodies of the dead.
Scotland Yard had already finished their work and handed the case to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Barbara Mills, who was still deciding whether or not to press charges. There was predictable opposition in the press. The Daily Mail described it as 'a betrayal of our fallen heroes', while the editor of the Daily Telegraph pleaded for the 'lunacy' to stop.
Mills decided not to prosecute in July 1994, since the evidence was 'not such as to afford a realistic prospect of conviction of any person for any criminal offence' (although the police who investigated had thought otherwise). Vincent Bramley was relieved; he was of the opinion that these things happen in the heat of battle - so why bother prosecuting? Others took it as a complete exoneration of the soldiers, and that no crimes had taken place at all. The Argentine War Veterans' Federation had another opinion: they called it a cover-up.
This was not the last accusation of war crimes during the Falklands War, although it's a conflict that produced relatively few such incidents. In 2012 another veteran, Tony Banks, wrote of crimes on both sides: Argentinians who shot British soldiers approaching under a flag of truce, followed by his own side killing Argentinians trying to surrender. This time, the Daily Mail serialised the book, seemingly oblivious to their opinion of such accusations twenty years earlier. Or maybe they just agreed with Vincent Bramley that such things happen in war and there's no sense gnashing teeth over it.
And now if you'll excuse me, I'll just point out the obvious: yep, war crimes happen in war. They're virtually impossible to stop. When pissed off people are facing each other with guns, they won't always follow nice little rules when using them. The same overabundance of weapons, contempt and blind hatred means that civilians will also be injured, killed and raped in war crimes that can and have been even more horrific than anything done to soldiers.
We've been trying to regulate war since at least the Middle Ages, a time when looting, murder and rape was often regarded as a soldier's right after victory (and was the whole point of many conflicts). But all the regulations, from the codes of Chivalry to the Geneva Conventions to the International Criminal Court, have done precious little to stop atrocities from happening.
So let's stop fussing about war crimes and do the obvious thing: call war itself a crime, and stop bloody doing it.
But somehow, I don't think that's going to happen any time soon.