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Is Werner Von Braun a war criminal?

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It would be difficult to find a better example than Wernher von Braun of the impact of a society' s choices on the moral behavior of an individual. Von Braun repeatedly visited the Dora-Mittelwerk facility in the Harz Mountains near Nordhausen, where concentration camp laborers were forced to assemble V-2 ballistic missiles under deplorable conditions that resulted in staggering mortality.(1) It has been estimated that ~20,000 workers died in V-2 production, as contrasted with the comparatively minuscule 2,541 (documented) people who died from the use of the V-2 as a weapon during World War II.(2) Von Braun acknowledged, in writing, that he personally selected workers for Mittelwerk from camp inmates at Buchenwald, who he described as in 'pitiful shape,' and he acknowledged that by 1944 he was aware that many of the slave laborers at Mittelwerk had been executed, that many others had succumbed to malnourishment and dysentery, and that the environment at Mittelwerk was "repulsive."(3) Under the proper definition of the term, von Braun was not a war criminal, per se, (4) but it is hard to argue that he was not a party to 'crimes against humanity' as defined today by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court Explanatory Memorandum. (5) After immigrating to the US under the auspices of Operation Paperclip, von Braun became a US citizen and led a life that might best be described as mirroring the morality of his new masters. Aside from modest amounts of work on the exploitation of space as a (thermonuclear) weapons delivery platform, the vast body of his career was focused on efforts to colonize space. (6) Arguably, not unlike most men (consider the Milgram Experiment), von Braun was a moral chameleon who behaved as was needed to advance his own interests and survival; in his case the conquest of space. While there is evidence that he was not indifferent to the human suffering and murderous exploitation he observed at Mittelwerk (7), there is even more evidence that he was unwilling to take any action, direct or indirect, to change the status quo, or even to withdraw from participation in the Nazi rocket development program (incapacitating illness is always a viable excuse). Throughout his long career his only recorded incidents of insubordination or disobedience to orders are those that occurred when the interests of his prime directive, the exploration of space, conflicted with those of his masters. Notable examples are his disobedience of direct orders to destroy remaining V-2s as well as all drawings and documentation pertaining to the German rocketry program in the closing days of WWII, his forging of (contrary) orders to move him and his team into Allied hands (8), and his collaboration with Army General John Medaris who headed the US Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, AL (again in direct violation of orders) to assemble and secrete a Redstone launch vehicle and its satellite payload (the Jupiter-C, a modified Redstone intercontinental ballistic missile that launched America's first satellite, the Explorer probe) in anticipation of the failure of the US Vanguard effort to orbit an 'artificial moon.'(9) In short, he appears to have been committed to the realization of space flight at any cost. This may rightly be considered as unforgivable, but it should be remembered that countless others in human history have participated in such atrocities with nothing more grandiose at stake than the prospect of a better job, a little more money, higher standing in the community, or simply because they enjoyed the power and authority that accompanied their execrably inhumane jobs. Had humanity chosen to pursue space flight, instead of war and genocide, von Braun would almost certainly have been the man for the job; and a model citizen and untarnished hero in the bargain. 1) Jaroff, Leon (2002-03-26). 'The Rocket Man's Dark Side.' Time. onhttp://www.time.com/time/columnist/jaroff/article/0,9565,220201,00.html Retrieved: 05-23-2009. 2) Neufeld, MJ. The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemünde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era. The Free Press, New York, 1995. 3) "Excerpts from "Power to Explore"". MSFC History Office. NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. http://history.msfc.nasa.gov/vonbraun/excerpts.html. Retrieved: 05-23-2009. 4) Fourth Geneva Convention "relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War" (first adopted in 1949, based on parts of the 1907 Hague Convention IV) 5) Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, opened for signature 17 July 1998, [2002] ATS 15 (entered into force 1 July 2002), UN Doc A/CONF 183/9: 6) Neufeld, MJ. Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2007. ISBN 978-0-307-26292-9 7) 'Biography of Wernher Von Braun.' MSFC History Office. NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. http://history.msfc.nasa.gov/vonbraun/bio.html. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Library/Giants/vonBraun/. Retrieved: 05-23-2009. 8) Cadbury, Deborah (2005). "Space Race". BBC Worldwide Limited. ISBN 0-00-721299-2. 9) Brzezinski, M. Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age, Times Books, New York, 2007.
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