Sunday, January 25, 2009

Perfidy and Max Manus

I saw a movie recently. A very recommendable one: Max Manus. The Norwegian movie is about the hero Max Manus in the Norwegian underground resistance movement during World War II. We follow Manus and his friends from the start in 1940, through different sabotage operations and emotional stress in the war against Germany, till the end of the war in 1945.

The movie is very trustworthy, as it is a true story. The acting is great, especially by Norwegian standards, and the script is brilliant. The movie is thrilling, and has also its humoristic moments. The film makes me proud to be a Norwegian; but I assume that every freedom-loving man that watches this masterpiece would be proud of Manus, despite his obvious shortcoming in certain areas.

But what struck me as I saw this movie, were the many obvious violations against the Geneva Conventions that Manus and his friends committed. This is a man we hold, and I think we ought to hold, as a great hero in the war for freedom, yet an undisputable war criminal.

For instance, Manus did not wear a uniform during his warfare, even though he was a lieutenant in the Norwegian Independent Company 1 (Norisen), a special operations (SOE) group in the British Army. This would be a clear violation of the distinction principle in the Geneva Conventions.

The Principle of Distinction states that “The parties to the conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and combatants.” This principle is made to protect the civilians in a zone of war. “Attacks may only be directed against combatants. Attacks must not be directed against civilians.”

The principle presupposes that the enemy does not use civilian clothing as camouflage. If the enemy looks exactly like the civilians, you would not know the difference, and the Principle of Distinction would be almost meaningless. The Geneva Conventions gives civilians a protected status. The civilian clothing should give the same protection as a white flag or a red cross; and any misuse of these symbols is considered perfidy. In that sense, Max Manus was treacherous.

However, when we consider Manus a hero, we may not have completely forgotten that he broke the conventions; we rather find, as he did, that the goal sanctifies the means (I can’t really believe I just wrote that – it is more likely that I meant “the goal is worth the consequences” or something). He thought that it was more important to fight for freedom in the most efficient manner, than it was to honour the laws of war. The laws of war, made to reduce unnecessary sufferings, are all great, but not greater than freedom. Lasting freedom is more important than temporary sufferings of the people.

The Max Manus film is released to DVD in June 2009, and can be pre-ordered in Norway from

Read more:
IMDB: Max Manus (2008)
Wikipedia: Max Manus
Wikipedia: Perfidy
Cambridge University Press: The Principle of Distinction
Red Cross: International Humanitarian Law

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