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War Trophies

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Updated August 20, 2003

GUIDE NOTE: The below story is from the Marine Corps News Service, but War Trophy Guidance is derived from DOD Directives and apply to all of the services.

Some war trophies are downright sadistic - for example, enemy teeth or body parts. Needless to say, they're banned by military law.

But the law doesn't stop there. Some trophies that might seem legitimate also are barred - for example, weapons, ordnance and personal items of enemy soldiers.

Even if Marines returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom are sure their trophy is legal, they need command approval to bring it home.

"War trophies, per se, are not against the law," said Maj. Matthew W. Cord, the director of the Criminal Law Division for Marine Corps Base. "The definition of a war trophy is something we take from the enemy - not (from) enemy personnel. ... When I say we, I mean the Marine Corps. Individuals do not take it; it's done as an institution, the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense."

Cord says laws regarding war trophies are strict.

"Before we can seize and bring back to America what we consider war trophies, it has to be approved through the chain of command ... ," said Cord. "This isn't something where a platoon commander or a company commander can just decide 'wow, I think that Iraqi tank would make a great war trophy' - they can't do that."

War trophies are a very old military tradition, Cord said. He said the tradition goes back "even before there was an America."

"The idea is that when two nations fight a war, the tools and instruments of war can be captured and taken and kept by the opposing force - but that's all that can be taken," said Cord.

Among contraband items:

  • Personal effects of enemy fighters or prisoners. U.S. troops returning with such items could face larceny charges under military law, along with international, federal and state laws and general orders.
  • Weapons, pieces of weapons and ordnance, according to Lt. Col. Thomas G. Scully, the staff judge advocate for the 1st Marine Division rear element.

 Marines were briefed prior to deployment on what souvenirs were appropriate, said Scully.

"Everyone who went over there was given ample time to study and understand the policy," said Scully. "They were also given the opportunity to drop off weapons in dumps. So they had the opportunity to clear themselves before they left."

Nonetheless, a few Marines have returned from Operation Iraqi Freedom with forbidden items, he said.

"There have been cases were Marines have brought back pistols and ordnance," said Scully. "I suspect that those cases will be prosecuted.

"We're treating cases of ordnance brought back more severely than with weapons," said Scully. "They'll (undergo) Article 32 investigations. ... We're treating them all seriously, but more so in cases of ordnance."

Violations involving ordnance and weapons also will be subject to state and federal prosecution, Cord said.

Both men encouraged individual Marines to use their chain of command if they come across a legal war trophy they'd like to keep.

"If the Marines anticipate bringing back a war trophy, they should run it up the chain of command to make sure it is in compliance with the commanding general's policy," said Scully.

War trophies that might pass muster, based on 1st Marine Division guidance:

  • Uniform items - military blouses, trousers, berets, helmets, belts, sashes, boots and gloves.
  • Uniform accoutrements - military rank insignia, shoulder patches, shoulder straps, epaulets and buttons.
  • Individual equipment - gas masks, swagger sticks, cartridge belts, mess kits, canteens, ammunition pouches, map cases, compasses, binoculars and other optics.
  • Unit equipment - unit insignia, military photos, training manuals and training posters.
  • Other - nonlethal items conforming with the spirit and intent of expressed guidance.

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