United States Army Field Manual, The Law of Land Warfare, 1956
Purposes of the Law of War
conduct of armed hostilities on land is regulated by the law
of land warfare which is both written and unwritten. It is inspired
by the desire to diminish the evils of war by:
a. Protecting both combatants and non-combatants from unnecessary
b. Safeguarding certain fundamental human rights of persons
who fall into the hands of the enemy, particularly prisoners
of war, the wounded and sick, and civilians; and
c. Facilitating the restoration of peace....
3. Basic Principles
Effect. The law of war places limits on the exercise of a belligerent's
power in the interests mentioned in paragraph 2 and requires that
belligerents refrain from employing any kind or degree of violence
which is not actually necessary for military purposes and that
they conduct hostilities with regard for the principles of humanity
effect of the law of war is not minimized by "military necessity"
which has been defined as that principle which justifies those
measures not forbidden by international law which are indispensable
for securing the complete submission of the enemy as soon as possible.
Military necessity has been generally rejected as a defense for
acts forbidden by the customary and conventional laws of war inasmuch
as the latter have been developed and framed with consideration
for the concept of military necessity.
b. Binding on States and Individuals. The law of war is binding
not only upon States as such but also upon individuals and,
in particular, the members of their armed forces....
Under International Law
person, whether a member of the armed forces or a civilian.
who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international
law is responsible thereof and liable to punishment....
499. War Crimes
term "war crime" is a technical expression for violation
of the law of war by any person or persons, military or civilian.
Every violation of the law of war is a war crime....
for Acts of Subordinates
some cases, military commanders may be responsible for war crimes
committed by subordinate members of the armed forces, or other
persons subject to their control. Thus, for instance, when troops
commit massacres and atrocities against the civilian population
of occupied territory or against prisoners of war, the responsibility
may rest not only with the actual perpetrators but also with
the commander. Such a responsibility arises directly when the
acts in question have been committed in pursuance of an order
of the commander concerned. The commander is also responsible
if he has actual knowledge, or should have knowledge, through
reports received by him or through other means, that troops
or other persons subject to his control are about to commit
or have committed a war crime and he fails to take the necessary
and reasonable steps to insure compliance with the law of war
or to punish violators thereof....
. . b. Persons Charged with War Crimes. The United States normally
punishes war crimes as such only if they are committed by enemy
nationals or by persons serving the interests of the enemy State.
Violations of the law of war committed by persons subject to
military law of the United States will usually constitute violations
of the Uniform Code of Mlitary Justice and, if so, will be prosecuted
under that Code.... Commanding officers of United States troops
must insure that war crimes committed by members of their forces
against enemy personnel are promptly and adequately punished.
punishment imposed for a violation of the law of war must be
proportionate to the gravity of the offense. The death penalty
may be imposed for grave breaches of the law....
of Superior Orders
a. The fact that the law of war has been violated pursuant to
an order of a superior authority, whether military or civil,
does not deprive the act in question of its character as a war
crime, nor does it constitute a defense in the trial of an accused
individual, unless he did not know and could not reasonably
have been expected to know that the act was unlawful. In all
cases where the order is held not to constitute a defense to
an allegation of war crime, the fact that the individual was
acting pursuant to orders may be considered in mitigation of
b. In considering
the question of whether a superior order constitutes a valid defense,
the court shall take into consideration the fact that obedience
to lawful military orders is the duty of every member of the armed
forces; that the latter cannot be expected, in conditions of war
discipline, to weigh scrupulously the legal merits of the order
received; that certain rules of warfare may be controversial;
or that an act otherwise amounting to a war crime may be done
in obedience to orders conceived as a measure of reprisal. At
the same time it must be borne in mind that members of the armed
forces are bound to obey only lawful orders.
fact that a person who committed an act which constitutes a
war crime acted as the head of a State or as a responsible government
official does not relieve him from responsibility for his act.