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John Harvard's Journal

War, and Women

January-February 2006

In November 1945, the International Military Tribunal began its prosecution of Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg, Germany. Nuremberg and subsequent trials, in which dozens of party leaders, doctors, judges, and generals were convicted of war crimes, defined genocide as a crime against humanity. For the first time, the global legal community had codified morality.

But mass atrocities still occur around the world, in and out of war zones. What, then, are the lasting effects of Nuremberg? On the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the trials, more than 300 teachers, students, lawyers, academics, and others met in November at Harvard Law School to discuss this and other questions at a two-day conference, “Pursuing Human Dignity: The Legacies of Nuremberg for International Law, Human Rights, and Education.” The law school co-hosted the event with Facing History and Ourselves, a Boston-based organization that provides curricula and other resources for teachers in middle-schools through college (www.facinghistory.org).

It took nearly half a century after Nuremberg before another international criminal tribunal took place, in the former Yugoslavia. There have since been similar tribunals in Rwanda, a truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa, and now, a domestic-international hybrid court in Iraq trying Saddam Hussein. All of these have been ad hoc actions that took place only after crimes were committed. Hence it is arguable the tribunals have done little to deter future violence. “None of them is perfect,” said Ben Ferencz, J.D. ’43, chief prosecutor in the U.S.-led trial at Nuremberg against Nazi death squads. (There were 12 Nuremberg trials, with separate chief prosecutors for each and Telford Taylor, J.D. ’32, acting as overall chief prosecutor.) “But they’re newborn babes. We can’t throw them out. Their defects can be fixed.”

Discussing Nuremberg: former war crimes prosecutor Ben Ferencz, Holocaust survivor and reporter Ernie Michel, and St. John's University law professor John Barrett.
Rinze von Brug / Facing History and Ourselves

One “fix” could be the model of the International Criminal Court (ICC), a permanent court established in 2002 with 100 member nations (the United States has declined to participate). The ICC is the first to build cases and indict leaders while conflicts are in progress. “This makes it difficult [to work] but raises the possibility of deterrence,” said ICC prosecutor Christine Chung. Several speakers noted, for example, that it is extremely difficult to balance Rwandan genocide survivors’ desire for retribution against murderers with their need to reconcile with their neighbors, who may have committed murder. And how far down the chain of command should courts attempt to prosecute—given time, budget, and political constraints? “Everyone expects [the court] to grow into Einstein or Gandhi,” said Chung. “The expectations are enormous.” Those hopes will be tested: the ICC is now working on cases against leaders in northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Darfur region of Sudan.

After it gains more experience convicting criminals, the ICC will work on preventing crimes, said Luis Moreno Ocampo, the chief prosecutor. Many conference speakers admitted that the law can do only so much—that education is just as important in ensuring such crimes don’t happen again. But how do teachers interest adolescents in the often remote topic of human rights? Most educators spoke of the need to teach history through individual cases, to get students to ask plenty of questions, to show them there aren’t always answers, and to incorporate hands-on learning. Professor of practice in public policy Samantha Power, founding executive directorof the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government, suggested that students role-play both bystanders and “upstanders”—those who speak out against violence.


That same weekend, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study convened its fourth annual conference on women, gender, and society. This year’s theme was “In the War Zone: How Does Gender Matter?” Scholars, doctors, military officers, journalists, and aid workers gathered to discuss how women and men experience war differently.

During World War I, presenters explained, war was considered solely the business of men. Shell shock was seen as a weakness, and its victims called “feminine.” The trenches were clearly distinct from the home front, where wives and daughters dutifully waited, providing moral support.

Things weren’t so different during World War II, even when women worked in the region of conflict. Take Martha Gellhorn, a writer for Collier’s Weekly magazine, said Geraldine Brooks, a journalist and current Institute fellow. After Gellhorn married Ernest Hemingway in 1940, he offered his services to the magazine, effectively taking her job as lead correspondent. While Gellhorn sneaked onto a hospital ship and landed in Normandy during the D-Day invasion, Hemingway never went ashore, yet Collier’s put Hemingway’s dispatch—which Brooks called a “self-aggrandizing account of how he directed the landing and saved the day”—on the cover and gave it six pages inside while substantially cutting Gellhorn’s piece and relegating it to the back. The resulting one-page article “gives no sense [that Gellhorn] left Britain,” Brooks said. (The marriage, not surprisingly, did not survive the war.)

Duke literature professor Alice Kaplan drew from her new book, The Interpreter, which describes the experiences of Americans in France during World War II. She noted in her talk that an official handbook for U.S. soldiers made such claims as, “The race of Breton women is naturally erotic.” What effect did the handbook have on U.S. men in the field? asked Kaplan. Did it incite rape?

Though rape was a crime during World War II, international tribunals now prosecute its perpetrators on charges of torture, crimes against humanity, and even genocide. In a discussion of rape and international law, professor of law Janet Halley addressed the tension between feminism and nationalism: can a person be a feminist and a supporter of her country’s war efforts? “Armies are presumed to intimidate, punish, and coerce,” she said. “So why should they not [rape]?”

The American military is still a masculine environment. It “feminizes” (labels as effeminate) both the enemy and those who fail in its military training, said Lorry Fenner, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force. And women are still a small minority, making up only 15 percent of military personnel. Their needs, however, have changed. Before 9/11, military women were mostly concerned with managing their families and careers and such issues as how to breastfeed in the field, said Elspeth Cameron Ritchie ’80, a U.S. Army colonel who is a psychiatry consultant to the army’s surgeon general. Now, they’re getting injured or killed in combat zones like Iraq. So far, said Ritchie, men coming home from Iraq have a slightly higher incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder than women. But living in a war zone has long-term psychological effects on women that aren’t yet known. 

~Katharine Dunn