Research: Understanding war crimes and soldier loyalty.

Every Saturday, I offer insight about my current research, or answer reader-submitted questions.

The opening scene of Music of the Spheres presents a soldier ordered to perform a despicable act: Slaying an infant.

Such an order would not be tolerated by American soldiers. I have several friends in the armed forces, and I know their integrity is such they would not obey this order. They are the most upstanding and honorable individuals I know.

Unfortunately, not all soldiers have such integrity. The majority of war crimes committed by the United States involve the murder or mistreatment of POWs. While this can be viewed as unethical, it is at least understandable; POWs, whatever their current circumstances, were the enemy.

Crimes against civilians are a little more chilling, and I discovered two noteworthy incidents:

  • During the Allied invasion of Sicily in World War 2, eight civilians were killed, including an eleven-year-old girl.
  • In March of 1968, a US army platoon led by Lieutenant William Calley killed as many as 504 unarmed civilians, including women and children. This horror was compounded by rape, beating, and torture.

As tragic as these incidents are, they pale in comparison to some of the atrocities committed by other cultures. For instance, into 1971, thousands of civilians were killed in Bangladesh by invading Pakistani forces. Though figures vary, the most conservative estimate is 26,000 deaths.

In scholarly works about the violence against women who were tortured, raped, and killed, however, some sources cite a figure as high as 200,000 women raped. Others have still higher estimates.

Though we regard these as atrocities, there is a more formal term we can now drape over them:

War crimes.

According to The Law of Armed Conflict: International Humanitarian Law in War, War Crimes can be defined as:

Violations of the laws or customs of war…murder, the ill-treatment or deportation of civilians…slave labor camps…the murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war…[or] the wanton destruction of cities, towns, and villages, and any devastation not justified by military or civilian necessity.

Seems pretty clear, right? Don’t kill civilians, and don’t mistreat anyone — including prisoners.

However, the end of that definition is what assists the clever writer. The words “not justified…by necessity” beg the question: What’s justified? What’s necessary?

A soldier in the line of duty, or an officer with a clearer picture might have an idea what’s necessary or justified that doesn’t agree with what you think in the comfort of your living room.

Let’s take the example of infant-killing from my scene. Clearly an immoral order, right?

However, what if the infant is a biological weapon? What if it is known to be the carrier of the most horrific disease imaginable? Furthermore, what if the child’s survival is impossible, whereas any contact with other life will infect a whole population?

Suddenly things are different. The fact that the weapon is contained in a human life is troublesome, but it doesn’t change the fact that for a military unit, the child is a weapon and must be treated as such.

What’s the ethical answer under those circumstances?

A compassionate enough officer might be tempted to just leave the child be, in essence killing it by inaction — leaving it aboard a dying ship out in space. However, this presents several problems.

First, if there’s a bomb threatening your unit, you don’t just sweep it under the table of the neighbor’s tent and hope it still doesn’t go off. That’s irresponsible and dangerous. Second, allowing the child to come to harm by inaction really doesn’t get you off the hook for its destruction; that was still your choice. And third, leaving the baby alive unnecessarily risks additional lives.

What if the ship lasts long enough to fall planetside, and has enough protection systems that the baby makes it to the surface alive? Inaction allows genocide.

I don’t know that it’s necessary in the opening scene to address all these possibilities. History has proven that immoral orders have been issues. And fiction has shown us all manner of evil empires who would blatantly disregard our “rules of war”.

In the end, the order must be believable, and the fact that it was issued in a civilized society must be addressed in a way that would make infanticide not a war crime, but a necessity. The commanding officer knows that unless this child is killed, many million more people will die.


The other point in the scene that needed research is soldier mentality. The scene (and therefore the book) rely heavily on the idea that Sergeant Balance refused a direct order and is now AWOL. A traitor and a deserter.

Not being a soldier myself, I turn to other soldiers for input.

The thing I need to emphasize is Balance’s loyalty to his unit and his nation. Whatever governing body his unit serves, Balance is probably a patriot and a defender. So while his action was revealed as mutiny, his thoughts did not address the ultimate cost of his decision: That he may very well die a traitor’s death for his actions. The threat of death itself is less of a deterrent than the shame that comes with being thought a traitor for a cause and country that you in fact adore.

Special thanks to alpha reader and American soldier William West for particular feedback on this scene. Even bigger thanks to West and his comrades for defending our great nation.

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