Category Archives: rules of war

Saying Good-bye to Geneva?

Since the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11 in 2001, The Geneva Convention and the rules for humane treatment of war criminals have taken not just one big hit, but have been undermined on a number of fronts by us, the United States of America. Although we did declare war on terrorists, we did not actually declare war on sovereign nations until we went into Iraq and then Afghanistan so we were technically not in a traditional war when some of these abuses occurred, but the end result will probably be the same. We will, I am thinking, live to regret abandoning the rules of civilized treatment of prisoners of war because we will no longer be able to ask the world to treat our captured soldiers in a humane fashion.

The prison at Guantanamo Bay is one of the biggest new black holes in the Geneva rules. It is not that the prisoners are not clothed and fed (although they are refusing to eat). It is that they have not been formally charged with anything and they have not been given a trial. One could argue that this unorthodox war on terrorism is not over and that prisoners are not released until the war ends and that argument might carry some weight, but what has happened at Guantanamo Bay does not sit well with most Americans. If we add stones to a jar of shame for not acting like our best selves then Guantanamo adds quite a few stones to our jar.

The exposure of the mistreatment of war prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq made us blush once again and added a good number of stones to our jar of shame. From 2003 to early 2004 detainees were subjected to physical, psychological and sexual abuse including torture, reports of rape, sodomy and homicide. We saw some of the pictures and they weren’t pretty.

Learning that America used waterboarding (torture) to get information from at least 3 al Qaida big wigs did not sit well with many Americans and added a few more stones to that jar of shame.

Killing an American Taliban leader without a trial and from a distance by targeting him with a drone has allowed the Republicans to get the Democrats back for the blame laid on them for waterboarding. In fact they imply that we should be afraid, be very afraid, that we have given our government permission to go around killing suspect Americans willy-nilly and that now none of us is safe. Although I don’t think Obama has plans to target unsuspecting Americans, this action does need discussion and policy decisions relative to future drone activities because an unscrupulous leader could exploit the precedent. A few more stones go in the jar for drone activity without exploration of a national policy.

And then there are those two Navy Seals (unnamed) who are having a public fight about which soldier on the Seal team actually shot Osama bin Laden when it is contrary to tradition for a team of Seals to pinpoint a member of the team as being responsible for an action. Will money and fame eventually destroy the lofty image of the Navy Seals? Will we need to add more stones to our shame jar?

The Geneva Convention may end up being an antique artifact of the last World War which will have to be renegotiated as wars change and morph and our enemies are not necessarily nations but rebel groups and leaders of religious or ideological “jihads”. It is important that we keep the rules of war in mind and that we examine where we are in relation to treatment of captured enemy combatants and terrorists and activists. If a group could begin such an exploration it might offer all Americans some peace of mind and help us empty out that jar of shame.





Abandoning the High Road

There is no doubt that America’s “high road” has eroded since 9/11. Americans have long been proud of our humane behavior in times of war and in our treatment of war criminals. We liked to believe that our American “rule of law” could be extended to embrace our enemies in times of war. Our reasons were part idealism, part chauvinism, and part a belief in our “exceptionalism”.

Since the events of 9/11, our moral approach that once extended the rights of most Americans to our enemies has taken quite a hit and is part of the “America is slipping” dialogue we have been hearing everywhere. As far as I can see 9/11 is the event that caused America to abandon our principled treatment of those who oppose America and which has even turned American citizens into terrorist suspects. Guantanamo, a prison where terrorists have been incarcerated without trial for over a decade, stands as the physical symbol of this erosion. G. W.’s Patriot Act, which basically allowed all sorts of domestic spying, hit a sour note with many Americans and further eroded our past idealistic code of war. Enhanced interrogation techniques like water boarding, used extensively at the height of our fears about terrorists, are once again considered beyond the pale.

Obama is not immune from adding to the erosion of our 20thcentury war codes either. He has used drones for targeting enemies, which many feel is putting war at too far a remove in that the attacker (us) is not physically present at the site of the attack and the person targeted has no warning that the attack will occur. This challenges our sense of fair play but saves the lives of many American soldiers.

Obama also allowed an American “turncoat” who joined al Qaeda to be assassinated without a trial and, just recently a white paper has come to light that discusses the rationale that allows our government to assassinate “traitors” without trial.

As we circumvent more and more of our traditional rules of war, we find ourselves in the midst of an American identity crisis, and while we must weigh our values against the tactics we must adopt to survive as a nation in a hostile world, it doesn’t sit well with us. We liked being on the high road in war, even though we, apparently, were often taking a much lower road in “diplomacy”. We will probably have to get over ourselves for the most part and accept that a new style of war requires new rules. That doesn’t mean that anything goes and we must continue to push back against rules that undermine the philosophies we hold dear.