American Military Personnel and International Law

One of my responsibilities here at ASU is to teach military history and act as an expert in response to media inquiries.  Over time I’ve changed the description of military history to encompass an approach I call “war and society,” which emphasizes issues other than strategy, the operational art,tactics, and technology, although I also address those subjects (and I address them in somewhat more detail in the Civil War and Reconstruction course).

Part of being a media contact includes admitting what you don’t know as well as what you know, and admitting what you know well as opposed to what you don’t know well.  While I have been doing work on how military commissions operated on civilian populations during and after the American Civil War (including their use during Reconstruction), I have had the opportunity (and in some cases the necessity) of delving more into the world of military law, including international law, when it comes to the conduct of military operations.

As part of that research, I’ve come across cases from the last fifty years in which American military personnel took actions on the battlefield that appear to have violated international law (specifically the Geneva Convention).  In many cases those individuals have been subject to court martial for violating the American implementation of the Law of Armed Conflict (for a convenient summary, see this).  However, the United States does not want its own military personnel subject to prosecution by international tribunals, and this exception arose again recently regarding Libya.

So, folks, here’s something I think worth discussing, in part because I want to learn from others.  Let me pose the questions I get.  Why aren’t American military personnel subject to international prosecution?  Is it the case that if they are subject to American military prosecution that they cannot be subject to international prosecution?  Do you think that should be the case?  How can American leaders emphasize the importance of international law in prosecuting violations of the Laws of Armed Conflict if the United States exempts its own personnel from such prosecutions by international tribunals?  How would one better explain the situation so that an interested general public would understand the issues at stake?

Welcome to my world.  Let’s see what you have to say.