It happened today - March 27, 2016
People sometimes lose their self-control in wars. There cannot be an army of any size, or a war of any size, in which someone somewhere did not kill a prisoner. And the laws of war permit the killing of combatants seeking to surrender if the opposing forces believe they cannot safely take them into custody. But significant massacres of men who have surrendered and who can be held securely tell you something about the combatants who perpetrated it.
For instance the Goliad Massacre of over 400 Texas POWs on March 27 of 1836 by the Mexican Army against Republic of Texas POWs on the express orders of the President of Mexico, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.
There is much to say about the Texas war of independence, and the subsequent Mexican-American War that ended with American annexation not just of Texas but of vast territories held by Mexico. Including various reasons why the Mexicans might feel aggrieved by some of what happened and resent the presence of foreigners in the desperate struggle then going on. But it is not possible, in justice, to uphold moral equivalency between the combatants or, worse, to say the Texans were in the wrong.
They believed in self-government and liberty, albeit within too narrow a circle that excluded blacks. Slavery existed in Texas. What’s more, although slavery existed in Mexico both before and after the Spanish conquest, it had been abolished in the 1820s. Indeed, abolition was a major reason the Texans sought independence. And that’s bad. Without altering the fundamental balance.
The problem with Texas was that its liberty wasn’t extended to everyone. The trouble with Mexico is that its liberty was fake. In a very real sense no one in Mexico was free, in 1836 or 1936 or indeed until very recently. Indeed, its war of independence resulted in the installation of a general as emperor, never a good sign or a good start.
In Mexico when it was independent, as when it was a colony, the rich and well-connected lorded it over everyone. But even they enjoyed absolutely no security if they fell from favour. And the regime still struggles mightily to extend the most elementary protections of property and security of the person to many of its inhabitants.
That Santa Anna de Lopez, 11-time president of Mexico and one of far too many strongmen to dominate its politics over many decades of stagnation, failure and repression, would expressly order the slaughter of innocents, and that its army would carry them out, under officers reluctant to carry them out but unwilling or unable to disobey, shows exactly why the Texans were right to revolt.
No president of the United States ever ordered a massacre of prisoners of war. And if he had, the citizen army would have refused to obey. And that difference in political culture matters enormously, including to the fundamental legitimacy of systems of government.