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With ‘Dead Reckoning…,’ PBS Shines a Light on Attempts to Prosecute War Criminals
March 28, 2017  | By David Hinckley

Back in the 1960s, the Firesign Theater comedy troupe did a short bit in which a German accused of Nazi war crimes is tracked down in Argentina and swears he knew nothing about anything.

“During der war,” he says in an exaggerated German accent, “I was a gaucho on the Pampas.”

PBS’s disturbing new documentary Dead Reckoning: War, Crime and Justice From WW2 to the War on Terror, which premieres Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET, suggests most war criminals don’t even need that much of a denial to escape punishment.

The three-hour documentary, written, directed and produced by Jonathan Silvers, spends much of its first hour on World War II cases, primarily those involving ex-Nazis.

The second hour focuses on justice during the Cold War and the third on the challenges in the modern era.

Dead Reckoning suggests the world took an extraordinary step in the wake of World War II by establishing the principle of punishment for those who cross accepted boundaries of military conduct.

It paints a far darker picture of the world’s collective success in calling perpetrators to account.

Silvers and his experts trace the concept of accountability to the trial of Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita almost immediately after the surrender of Japan in World War II.

Japanese troops in the Philippines, making what they knew was a last stand against Americans retaking Manila, went on a rampage of slaughter, butchering thousands of civilians.

These troops were nominally under the command of Yamashita, though there was a mitigating factor: Yamashita had left himself and ordered his troops to leave. A few thousand stayed, against his orders, because the Japanese Navy, under separate command, remained behind.  

Yamashita (below, center, at trial) was still charged with failing to prevent his troops from committing atrocities, and victorious American General Douglas MacArthur handpicked the tribunal to ensure Yamashita would be found guilty.

His conviction established the principle of “command responsibility,” which has subsequently been widely accepted around the world.

It was employed, for instance, at the subsequent Nuremberg trials (top, the trial of Dr. Karl Brandt), where high-ranking Nazis were tried and mostly sentenced to hang for crimes against humanity.

Prosecutors and war crimes experts repeatedly note in Dead Reckoning, however, that the high-profile officials prosecuted at Nuremberg were a miniscule speck in the system that perpetrated the Holocaust.

After the war, the Allies compiled a list of more than 60,000 Germans suspected of inhumane conduct. Only a relative handful were prosecuted, and that has been the pattern ever since.

During the Cold War, Silvers finds, there was little will or opportunity to prosecute offenders. In modern times, where terrorizing civilians has become a widely employed military technique in conflicts like Bosnia, it has proven almost impossible to cast a net around those who are most guilty.

Dead Reckoning acknowledges that logistics aren’t the only obstacle to justice. National and international alliances can be a deterring factor, even beyond the obvious concern that war crimes punishment can be seen as a political act, a perk of victory for the winners.

Had the Axis won World War II, the actions for which the Nuremberg defendants were hung would have enshrined them in Nazi history books as founding heroes of the Thousand-Year Reich.

Perhaps the most optimistic postulation in Dead Reckoning is that most nations, and most peoples, still agree there should be rules for war. Civilians should be off-limits. Medical personnel should be allowed access to the wounded. Things like that.

(French Resistance member, Marcel Stourdze, at left, who survived torture by the "Butcher of Lyon," Klaus Barbie.)

That doesn’t mean all fighting groups or nations respect such guidelines. The great open question of Dead Reckoning is whether members of such groups can be identified and sanctioned, or whether war itself is so brutal and anarchistic that attempting to parse conduct within war will almost always become an exercise in futility.

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