On 10 June, 1944, 642 men, women and children were massacred in the small French village of Oradour-sur-Glane. Although an SS Panzer unit was responsible for the massacre, this was no crack division with Tiger tanks and hardened soldiers. They had a few armoured personnel carriers, some machine guns, and for the rest hand grenades, rifles, and, it would seem, some explosives. The men were largely inexperienced German recruits or Alsatian conscripts ("volunteers"); only a few had seen any real fighting on the Eastern front.
The reason for the massacre remains a mystery: a reprisal, a mistake…?
Why does the massacre seem so terrible? Because of the children (many babies)? Because of the women? Because most of the women and children were killed in the church and many were probably burned alive?
Or is it, perhaps, just a case of the victor being the judge and jury? It seems to be that when "our side" wins, any "atrocities" are committed only by the defeated enemy. Indeed, even as a struggle is going on, reports of atrocities seem limited to those of the enemy.
Does "our side" never commit atrocities? Or are these atrocities somehow acceptable, simply because they are carried out in our name and their victims are, after all, only the inevitable casualties of war?
Consider the atomic bombs dropped in 1945 on the hundreds of thousands of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: did the crews of the planes that dropped these bombs not commit an atrocity?
Consider the deliberate fire-bombing by the allies that same year of Dresden, where some 25,000 civilians were killed. Did the airmen who were told to fly over this peaceful city in 1249 bombers not commit an atrocity?
Consider the massacre of Bézier in 1209 when the crusaders slaughtered 10,000 or more men, women and children in an attempt to wipe out Catharism, on the orders of the pope, so presumably not regarded as an atrocity.
Consider the massacre of Jerusalem in 1099 when the crusaders slaughtered more than 10,000 people and blood flowed ankle-deep. Of course the people they slaughtered were Muslims and they did it all in the name of Christianity, so presumably that was not an atrocity.
Consider… and so it goes on.
The point is, war is an atrocity in itself. It is usually carried out with the sole purpose of maintaining the power of the few over the many, and instilling a doctrine (sometimes political, often religious, usually with a financial basis) over those same minions. The average soldier does what he is ordered to do; if he doesn't, he's likely to be shot himself, so his choice is kill or be killed. Which would you choose?
I'm not trying to offer excuses for what happened at Oradour-sur-Glane; I'm trying to make sense of it. And trying to make sense of something where there quite simply is no sense is very, very difficult.