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Nurmeberg Trials: Justice Jackson's Report to the President on Atrocities and War Crimes

(June 7, 1945)


I have the honor to report accomplishments during the month since you named me as Chief of Counsel for the United States in prosecuting the principal Axis War Criminals. In brief, I have selected staffs from the several services, departments and agencies concerned; worked out a plan for preparation, briefing, and trial of the cases; allocated the work among the several agencies; instructed those engaged in collecting or processing evidence; visited the European Theater to expedite the examination of captured documents, and the interrogation of witnesses and prisoners; coordinated our preparation of the main case with preparation by Judge Advocates of many cases not included in my responsibilities; and arranged cooperation and mutual assistance with the United Nations War Crimes Commission and with Counsel appointed to represent the United Kingdom in the joint prosecution.


The responsibilities you have conferred on me extend only to "the case of major criminals whose offenses have no particular geographical localization and who will be punished by joint decision of the governments of the Allies," as provided in the Moscow Declaration of November 1, 1943, by President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill and Premier Stalin. It does not include localized cases of any kind. Accordingly, in visiting the European Theater, I attempted to establish standards to segregate from our case against the principal offenders, cases against many other offenders and to expedite their trial. These cases fall into three principal classes:

1. The first class comprises offenses against military personnel of the United States-such, for example, as the killing of American airmen who crash-landed, and other Americans who became prisoners of war. In order to insure effective military operation, the field forces from time immemorial have dealt with such offenses on the spot. Authorization of this prompt procedure, however, had been withdrawn because of the fear of stimulating retaliation through execution of captured Americans on trumped-up charges. The surrender of Germany and liberation of our prisoners has ended that danger. The morale and safety of our own troops and effective government of the control area seemed to require prompt resumption of summary dealing with this type of case. Such proceedings are likely to disclose evidence helpful to the case against the major criminals and will not prejudice it in view of the measures I have suggested to preserve evidence and to prevent premature execution of those who are potential defendants or witnesses in the major case.

I flew to Paris and Frankfort and conferred with Generals Eisenhower, Smith, Clay, and Betts, among others, and arranged to have a representative on hand to clear questions of conflict in any particular case. We also arranged an exchange of evidence between my staff and the Theater Judge Advocate's staff. The officials of other countries were most anxious to help. For example, the French brought to General Donovan and me in Paris evidence that civilians in Germany had beaten to death with wrenches three American airmen. They had obtained from the German Burgomeister identification of the killers, had taken them into custody, and offered to deliver them to our forces. Cases such as this are not infrequent. Under the arrangements perfected, the military authorities are enabled to move in cases of this class without delay. Some are already under way; some by now have been tried and verdicts rendered. Some concentration camp cases are also soon to go on trial.

2. A second class of offenders, the prosecution of which will not interfere with the major case, consists of those who, under the Moscow Declaration, are to be sent back to the scene of their crimes for trial by local authorities. These comprise localized offenses or atrocities against persons or property, usually of civilians of countries formerly occupied by Germany. The part of the United States in these cases consists of the identification of offenders and the surrender on demand of those who are within our control.

The United Nations War Crimes Commission is especially concerned with cases of this kind. It represents many of the United Nations, with the exception of Russia. It has been usefully engaged as a body with which the aggrieved of all the United Nations have recorded their accusations and evidence. Lord Wright, representing Australia, is the Chairman of this Commission, and Lieutenant Colonel Joseph V. Hodgson is the United States representative.

In London, I conferred with Lord Wright and Colonel Hodgson in an effort to coordinate our work with that of the Commission wherever there might be danger of conflict or duplication. There was no difficulty in arriving at an understanding for mutual exchange of information. We undertook to respond to requests for any evidence in our possession against those listed with the Commission as criminals and to cooperate with each of the United Nations in efforts to bring this class of offenders to justice.

Requests for the surrender of persons held by American forces may present diplomatic or political problems which are not my responsibility. But so far as my work is concerned, I advised the Commission, as well as the appropriate American authorities, that there is no objection to the surrender of any person except on grounds that we want him as a defendant or as a witness in the major case

3. In a third class of cases, each country, of course, is free to prosecute treason charges in its own tribunals and under its own laws against its own traitorous nationals-Quislings, Lavals, "Lord Haw-Haws," and the like.

The consequence of these arrangements is that preparations for the prosecution of major war criminals will not impede or delay prosecution of other offenders. In these latter cases, however, the number of known offenses is likely to exceed greatly the number of prosecutions, because witnesses are rarely able satisfactorily to identify particular soldiers in uniform whose acts they have witnessed. This difficulty of adequately identifying individual perpetrators of atrocities and crimes makes it more important that we proceed against the top officials and organizations responsible for originating the. criminal policies, for only by so doing can there be just retribution for many of the most brutal acts.


Over a month ago the United States proposed to the United Kingdom, Soviet Russia and France a specific plan, in writing, that these four powers join in a protocol establishing an International Military Tribunal, defining the jurisdiction and powers of the tribunal, naming the categories of acts declared to be crimes, and describing those individuals and organizations to be placed on trial. Negotiation of such an agreement between the four powers is not yet completed.

In view of the immensity of our task, it did not seem wise to await consummation of international arrangements before proceeding with preparation of the American case. Accordingly, I went to Paris, to American Army Headquarters at Frankfort and Wiesbaden, and to London, for the purpose of assembling, organizing, and instructing personnel from the existing services and agencies and getting the different organizations coordinated and at work on the evidence. I uniformly met with eager cooperation.

The custody and treatment of war criminals and suspects appeared to require immediate attention. I asked the War Department to deny those prisoners who are suspected war criminals the privileges which would appertain to their rank if they were merely prisoners of war; to assemble them at convenient and secure locations for interrogation by our staff; to deny them access to the press; and to hold them in the close confinement ordinarily given suspected criminals. The War Department has been subjected to some criticism from the press for these measures, for which it is fair that I should acknowledge responsibility. The most elementary considerations for insuring a fair trial and for the success of our case suggest the imprudence of permitting these prisoners to be interviewed indiscriminately or to use the facilities of the press to convey information to each other and to criminals yet uncaptured. Our choice is between treating them as honorable prisoners of war with the privileges of their ranks, or to classify them as war criminals in which case they should be treated as such. I have assurances from the War Department that those likely to be accused as war criminals will be kept in close confinement and stern control.

Since a considerable part of our evidence has been assembled in London I went there on May 28 with General Donovan to arrange for its examination, and to confer with the United Nations War Crimes Commission and with officials of the British Government responsible for the prosecution of war criminals. We had extended conferences with the newly appointed Attorney General, the Lord Chancellor, the Foreign Secretary, the Treasury Solicitor and others. On May 29, Prime Minister Churchill announced in the House of Commons that Attorney General Sir David Maxwell Fyfe had been appointed to represent the United Kingdom in the prosecution. Following this announcement, members of my staff and I held extended conferences with the Attorney General and his staff. The sum of these conferences is that the British are taking steps parallel with our own to clear the military and localized cases for immediate trial, and to effect a complete interchange of evidence and a coordination of planning and preparation of the case by the British and American representatives. Despite the fact that the prosecution of the major war criminals involves problems of no mean dimensions, I am able to report that no substantial differences exist between the United Kingdom representatives and ourselves, and that minor differences have adjusted easily as one or the other of us advanced the better reasons for his view.

The Provisional Government of the French Republic has advised that it accepts in principle the American proposals for trials before an International Military Tribunal. It is expected to designate its representative shortly. The government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, while not yet committed, has been kept informed of our steps and there is no reason to doubt that it will unite in the prosecution. We propose to make provision for others of the United Nations to become adherents to the agreement.


The time, I think, has come when it is appropriate to outline the basic features of the plan of prosecution on which we are tentatively proceeding in preparing the case of the United States.

1. The American case is being prepared on the assumption that an inescapable responsibility rests upon this country to conduct an inquiry, preferably in association with others, but alone if necessary, into the culpability of those whom there is probable cause to accuse of atrocities and other crimes. We have many such men in our possession. What shall we do with them? We could, of course, set them at large without a hearing. But it has cost unmeasured thousands of American lives to beat and bind these men. To free them without a trial would mock the dead and make cynics of the living. On the other hand, we could execute or otherwise punish them without a hearing. But undiscriminating executions or punishments without definite findings of guilt, fairly arrived at, would violate pledges repeatedly given, and would not set easily on the American conscience or be remembered by our children with pride. The only other course is to determine the innocence or guilt of the accused after a hearing as dispassionate as the times and the horrors we deal with will permit, and upon a record that will leave our reasons and motives clear.

2. These hearings, however, must not be regarded in the same light as a trial under our system, where defense is a matter of constitutional right. Fair hearings for the accused are, of course, required to make sure that we punish only the right men and for the right reasons. But the procedure of these hearings may properly bar obstructive and dilatory tactics resorted to by defendants in our ordinary criminal trials.

Nor should such a defense be recognized as the obsolete doctrine that a head of state is immune from legal liability. There is more than a suspicion that this idea is a relic of the doctrine of the divine right of kings. It is, in any event, inconsistent with the position we take toward our own officials, who are frequently brought to court at the suit of citizens who allege their rights to have been invaded. We do not accept the paradox that legal responsibility should be the least where power is the greatest. We stand on the principle of responsible government declared some three centuries ago to King James by Lord Chief Justice Coke, who proclaimed that even a King is still "under God and the law."

With the doctrine of immunity of a head of state usually is coupled another, that orders from an official superior protect one who obeys them. It will be noticed that the combination of these two doctrines means that nobody is responsible. Society as modernly organized cannot tolerate so broad an area of official irresponsibility. There is doubtless a sphere in which the defense of obedience to superior orders should prevail. If a conscripted or enlisted soldier is put on a firing squad, he should not be held responsible for the validity of the sentence he carries out. But the case may be greatly altered where one has discretion because of rank or the latitude of his orders. And of course, the defense of superior orders cannot apply in the case of voluntary participation in a criminal or conspiratorial organization, such as the Gestapo or the S.S. An accused should be allowed to show the facts about superior orders. The Tribunal can then determine whether they constitute a defense or merely extenuating circumstances, or perhaps carry no weight at all.

3. Whom will we accuse and put to their defense? We will accuse a large number of individuals and officials who were in authority in the government, in the military establishment, including the General Staff, and in the financial, industrial, and economic life of Germany who by all civilized standards are provable to be common criminals. We also propose to establish the criminal character of several voluntary organizations which have played a cruel and controlling part in subjugating first the German people and then their neighbors. It is not, of course, suggested that a person should be judged a criminal merely because he voted for certain candidates or maintained political affiliations in the sense that we in America support political parties. The organizations which we will accuse have no resemblance to our political parties. Organizations such as the Gestapo and the S.S. were direct action units, and were recruited from volunteers accepted only because of aptitude for, and fanatical devotion to, their violent purposes.

In examining the accused organizations in the trial, it is our proposal to demonstrate their declared and covert objectives, methods of recruitment, structure, lines of responsibility, and methods of effectuating their programs. In this trial, important representative members- will be allowed to defend their organizations as well as themselves. The best practicable notice will be given, that named organizations stand accused and that any member is privileged to appear and join in their defense. If in the main trial an organization is found to be criminal, the second stage will be to identify and try before regular military tribunals individual members not already personally convicted in the principal case. Findings in the main trial that an organization is criminal in nature will be conclusive in any subsequent proceedings against individual members. The individual member will thereafter be allowed to plead only personal defenses or extenuating circumstances, such as that he joined under duress, and as to those defenses he should have the burden of proof. There is nothing novel in the idea that one may lose a part of or all his defense if he fails to assert it in an appointed forum at an earlier time. In United States war-time legislation, this principle has been utilized and sustained as consistent with our concept of due process of law.

4. Our case against the major defendants is concerned with the Nazi master plan, not with individual barbarities and perversions which occurred independently of any central plan. The groundwork of our case must be factually authentic and constitute a well-documented history of what we are convinced was a grand, concerted pattern to incite and commit the aggressions and barbarities which have shocked the world. We must not forget that when the Nazi plans were boldly proclaimed they were so extravagant that the world refused to take them seriously. Unless we write the record of this movement with clarity and precision, we cannot blame the future if in days of peace it finds incredible the accusatory generalities uttered during the war. We must establish incredible events by credible evidence.

5. What specifically are the crimes with which these individuals and organizations should be charged, and what marks their conduct as criminal?

There is, of course, real danger that trials of this character will become enmeshed in voluminous particulars of wrongs committed by individual Germans throughout the course of the war, and in the multitude of doctrinal disputes which are part of a lawyer's paraphernalia. We can save ourselves from those pitfalls if our test of what legally is crime gives recognition to those things which fundamentally outraged the conscience of the American people and brought them finally to the conviction that their own liberty and civilization could not persist in the same world with the Nazi power.

Those acts which offended the conscience of our people were criminal by standards generally accepted in all civilized countries, and I believe that we may proceed to punish those responsible in full accord with both our own traditions of fairness and with standards of just conduct which have been internationally accepted. I think also that through these trials we should be able to establish that a process of retribution by law awaits those who in the future similarly attack civilization. Before stating these offenses in legal terms and concepts, let me recall what it was that affronted the sense of justice of our people.

Early in the Nazi regime, people of this country came to look upon the Nazi Government as not constituting a legitimate state pursuing the legitimate objective of a member of the international community. They came to view the Nazis as a band of brigands, set on subverting within Germany every vestige of a rule of law which would entitle an aggregation of people to be looked upon collectively as a member of the family of nations. Our people were outraged by the oppressions, the cruelest forms of torture, the large-scale murder, and the wholesale confiscation of property which initiated the Nazi regime within Germany. They witnessed persecution of the greatest enormity on religious, political and racial grounds, the breakdown of trade unions, and the liquidation of all religious and moral influences. This was not the legitimate activity of a state within its own boundaries, but was preparatory to the launching of an international course of aggression and was with the evil intention, openly expressed by the Nazis, of capturing the form of the German state as an instrumentality for spreading their rule to other countries. Our people felt that these were the deepest offenses against that International Law described in the Fourth Hague Convention of 1907 as including the "laws of humanity and the dictates of the public conscience."

Once these international brigands, the top leaders of the Nazi party, the S.S. and the Gestapo, had firmly established themselves within Germany by terrorism and crime, they immediately set out on a course of international pillage. They bribed, debased, and incited to treason the citizens and subjects of other nations for the purpose of establishing their fifth columns of corruption and sabotage within those nations. They ignored the commonest obligations of one state respecting the internal affairs of another. They lightly made and promptly broke international engagements as a part of their settled policy to deceive, corrupt, and overwhelm. They made, and made only to violate, pledges respecting the demilitarized Rhineland, and Czechoslovakia, and Poland, and Russia. They did not hesitate to instigate the Japanese to treacherous attack on the United States. Our people saw in this succession of events the destruction of the minimum elements of trust which can hold the community of nations together in peace and progress. Then, in consummation of their plan, the Nazis swooped down upon the nations they had deceived and ruthlessly conquered them. They flagrantly violated the obligations which states, including their own, have undertaken by convention or tradition as a part of the rules of land warfare, and of the law of the sea. They wantonly destroyed cities like Rotterdam for no military purpose. They wiped out whole populations, as at Lidice, where no military purposes were to be served. They confiscated property of the Poles and gave it to party members. They transported in labor battalions great sectors of the civilian populations of the conquered countries. They refused the ordinary protections of law to the populations which they enslaved. The feeling of outrage grew in this country, and it became more and more felt that these were crimes committed against us and against the whole society of civilized nations by a band of brigands who had seized the instrumentality of a state.

I believe that those instincts of our people were right and that they should -guide us as the fundamental tests of criminality. We propose to punish acts which have been regarded as criminal since the time of Cain and have been so written in every civilized code.

In arranging these trials we must also bear in mind the aspirations with which our people have faced the sacrifices of war. After we entered the war, and as we expended our men and our wealth to stamp out these wrongs, it was the universal feeling of our people that out of this war should come unmistakable rules and workable machinery from which any who might contemplate another era of brigandage would know that they would be held personally responsible and would be personally punished. Our people have been waiting for these trials in the spirit of Woodrow Wilson, who hoped to "give to international law the kind of vitality which it can only have if it is a real expression of our moral judgment."

Against this background it may be useful to restate in more technical lawyer's terms the legal charges against the top Nazi leaders and those voluntary associations such as the S.S. and Gestapo which clustered about them and were ever the prime instrumentalities, first, in capturing the German state, and then, in directing the German state to its spoliations against the rest of the world.

(a) Atrocities and offenses against persons or property constituting violations of International Law, including the laws, rules, and customs of land and naval warfare. The rules of warfare are well established and generally accepted by the nations. They make offenses of such conduct as killing of the wounded, refusal of quarter, ill treatment of prisoners of war, firing on undefended localities, poisoning of wells and streams, pillage and wanton destruction, and ill treatment of inhabitants in occupied territory.

(b) Atrocities and offenses, including atrocities and persecutions on racial or religious grounds, committed since 1933. This is only to recognize the principles of criminal law as they are generally observed in civilized states. These principles have been assimilated as a part of International Law at least since 1907. The Fourth Hague Convention provided that inhabitants and belligerents shall remain under the protection and the rule of "the principles of the law of nations, as they result from the usages established among civilized peoples, from the laws of humanity and the dictates of the public conscience."

(c) invasions of other countries and initiation of wars of aggression in violation of International Law or treaties.

The persons to be reached by these charges will be determined by the rule of liability, common to all legal systems, that all who participate in the formulation or execution of a criminal plan involving multiple crimes are liable for each of the offenses committed and responsible for the acts of each other. All are liable who have incited, ordered, procured, or counseled the commission of such acts, or who have taken what the Moscow Declaration describes as "a consenting part" therein.


The legal position which the United States will maintain, being thus based on the common sense of justice, is relatively simple and non-technical. We must not permit it to be complicated or obscured by sterile legalisms developed in the age of imperialism to make war respectable.

Doubtless what appeals to men of good will and common sense as the crime which comprehends all lesser crimes, is the crime of making unjustifiable war. War necessarily is a calculated series of killings, of destructions of property, of oppressions. Such acts unquestionably would be criminal except that International Law throws a mantle of protection around acts which otherwise would be crimes, when committed in pursuit of legitimate warfare. In this they are distinguished from the same acts in the pursuit of piracy or brigandage which have been considered punishable wherever and by whomever the guilty are caught. But International Law as taught in the Nineteenth and the early part of the Twentieth Century generally declared that war-making was not illegal and is no crime at law. Summarized by a standard authority, its attitude was that "both parties to every war are regarded as being in an identical legal position, and consequently as being possessed of equal rights."

This, however, was a departure from the doctrine taught by Grotius, the father of International Law, that there is a distinction between the just and the unjust war-the war of defense and the war of aggression.

International Law is more than a scholarly collection of abstract and immutable principles. It is an outgrowth of treaties or agreements between nations and of accepted customs. But every custom has its origin in some single act, and every agreement has to be initiated by the action of some state. Unless we are prepared to abandon every principle of growth for International Law, we cannot deny that our own day has its right to institute customs and to conclude agreements that will themselves become sources of a newer and strengthened International Law. International Law is not capable of development by legislation, for there is no continuously sitting international legislature. Innovations and revisions in International Law are brought about by the action of governments designed to meet a change in circumstances. It grows, as did the Common-law, through decisions reached from time to time in adapting settled principles to meet situations. Hence I am not disturbed by the lack of precedent for the inquiry we propose to conduct. After the shock to civilization of the last World War, however, a marked reversion to the earlier and sounder doctrines of International Law took place. By the time the Nazis came to power it was thoroughly established that launching an aggressive war or the institution of war by treachery was illegal and that the defense of legitimate warfare was no longer available to those who engaged in such an enterprise. It is high time that we act on the juridical principle that aggressive war-making is illegal and criminal.

The re-establishment of the principle of unjustifiable war is traceable in many steps. One of the most significant is the Briand-Kellogg Pact of 1928, by which Germany, Italy and Japan, in common with ourselves and practically all the nations of the world, renounced war as an instrument of national policy, bound themselves to seek the settlement of disputes only by pacific means, and condemned recourse to war for the solution of international controversies. Unless this Pact altered the legal status of wars of aggression, it has no meaning at all and comes close to being an act of deception. In 1932, Mr. Stimson, as Secretary of State, gave voice to the American concept of its effect. He said, "War between nations was renounced by the signatories of the Briand-Kellogg Treaty. This means that it has become illegal throughout practically the entire world. It is no longer to be the source and subject of rights. It is no longer to be the principle around which the duties, the conduct, and the rights of nations revolve. It is an illegal thing.... By that very act, we have made obsolete many legal precedents and have given the legal profession the task of reexamining many of its codes and treatises."

This Pact constitutes only one in a series of acts which have reversed the viewpoint that all war is legal and have brought International Law into harmony with the common sense of mankind, that unjustifiable war is a crime. Without attempting an exhaustive catalogue, we may mention the Geneva Protocol of 1924 for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes, signed by the representatives of forty-eight governments, which declared that "a war of aggression constitutes . . . an international crime." The Eighth Assembly of the League of Nations in 1927, on unanimous resolution of the representatives of forty-eight member nations, including Germany, declared that a war of aggression constitutes an international crime. At the Sixth Pan-American Conference of 1928, the twenty-one American Republics unanimously adopted a resolution stating that "war of aggression constitutes an international crime against the human species."

The United States is vitally interested in recognizing the principle that treaties renouncing war have juridical as well as political meaning. We relied upon the Briand-Kellogg Pact and made it the cornerstone of our national policy. We neglected our armaments and our war machine in reliance upon it. All violations of it, wherever started, menace our peace as we now have good reason to know. An attack on the foundations of international relations cannot be regarded as anything less than a crime against the international community, which may properly vindicate the integrity of its fundamental compacts by punishing aggressors. We therefore propose to charge that a war of aggression is a crime, and that modern International Law has abolished the defense that those who incite or wage it are engaged in legitimate business. Thus may the forces of the law be mobilized on the side of peace.

Any legal position asserted on behalf of the United States will have considerable significance in the future evolution of International Law. In untroubled times, progress toward an effective rule of law in the international community is slow indeed. Inertia rests more heavily upon the society of nations than upon any other society. Now we stand at one of those rare moments when the thought and institutions and habits of the world have been shaken by the impact of world war on the lives of countless millions. Such occasions rarely come and quickly pass. We are put under a heavy responsibility to see that our behavior during this unsettled period will direct the world's thought toward a firmer enforcement of the laws of international conduct, so as to make war less attractive to those who have governments and the destinies of peoples in their power.


I have left until last the first question which you and the American people are asking-when can this trial start and how long will it take. I should be glad to answer if the answer were within my control. But it would be foolhardy to name dates which depend upon the action of other governments and of many agencies. Inability to fix definite dates, however, would not excuse failure to state my attitude toward the time and duration of trial.

I know that the public has a deep sense of urgency about these trials. Because I, too, feel a sense of urgency, I have proceeded with the preparations of the American case before completion of the diplomatic exchanges concerning the Tribunal to hear it and the agreement under which we are to work. We must, however, recognize the existence of serious difficulties to be overcome in preparation of the case. It is no criticism to say that until the surrender of Germany the primary objective of the military intelligence services was naturally to gather military information rather than to prepare a legal case for trial. We must now sift and compress within a workable scope voluminous evidence relating to a multitude of crimes committed in several countries and participated in by thousands of actors over a decade of time. The preparation must cover military, naval, diplomatic, political, and commercial aggressions. The evidence is scattered among various agencies and in the hands of several armies. The captured documentary evidence-literally tons of orders, records, and reports-is largely in foreign languages. Every document and the trial itself must be rendered into several languages. An immense amount of work is necessary to bring this evidence together physically, to select what is useful, to integrate it into a case, to overlook no relevant detail, and at the same time and at all costs to avoid becoming lost in a wilderness of single instances. Some sacrifice of perfection to speed can wisely be made and, of course, urgency overrides every personal convenience and comfort for all of us who are engaged in this work.

Beyond this I will not go in prophecy. The task of making this record complete and accurate, while memories are fresh, while witnesses are living, and while a tribunal is available, is too important to the future opinion of the world to be undertaken before the case can be sufficiently prepared to make a creditable presentation. Intelligent, informed, and sober opinion will not be satisfied with less.

The trial must not be protracted in duration by anything that is obstructive or dilatory, but we must see that it is fair and deliberative and not discredited in times to come by any mob spirit. Those who have regard for the good name of the United States as a symbol of justice under law would not have me proceed otherwise.

May I add that your personal encouragement and support have been a source of strength and inspiration to every member of my staff, as well as to me, as we go forward with a task so immense that it can never be done completely or perfectly, but which we hope to do acceptably.

Respectfully yours,

Sources: United States Department of State BulletinWords of Peace-Words of War.