Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Redefining the Conventions

The global war on terror has forced Americans to think a lot about our role as the world’s sole super power, history’s leading light of human rights and self determination, and how we reconcile these exceptional positions with the need to win a war that not all of our citizens are willing to acknowledge exists. Of course this is not the first time that global conflict has forced this debate, as we saw a similar dynamic between the political left and right during the cold war. Indeed, I would be stunned at the level of self delusion the left has employed to deny the evil goals of Islamic terrorists had I not been witness to the left’s denial when it came to the Communism’s goals during the second half of the 20th century. The more things change, they say, the more they stay the same.

Normally, I would think that it goes without saying that nobody is happy to go to war. I say normally because in some of the debates that have arisen around our tactics, members of the left, who are the first to cry foul when they think their patriotism is being challenged, have been quite willing, even eager perhaps, to impute the most nefarious of motives on those of us who see things differently. We’ve been accused of revoking the civil rights of citizens, sanctioning war crimes, and worst of all, desiring to turn the U.S. into a “torture state”. Such charges are obscene in both their exaggeration of legitimate war time tactics, and in what they say about the left’s willingness to politicize the debate for their own selfish goals. The great irony, of course, is that those on the left who look to gain politically by employing the aforesaid distortions, ultimately have the most to lose should we fail to win this, the battle of our generation.

Having said that, there has been, in recent weeks an honorable debate over how the U.S. will interpret the Geneva Conventions. Unlike the irresponsible left, a group of Republican Senators has led a principled charge against the administration’s attempts to more explicitly define what constitutes, “outrages against human dignity” in the treatment of prisoners. Because I believe in the senators’ good intent and concern for their country, I’ve thought quite a bit about what is and is not right in this new kind of war.

Their arguments, it seems to me are built around two basic premises. The first is concern that if we change our interpretation of the Conventions we will put our soldiers at risk in future wars with enemies who will use our precedent to justify their poor treatment of our POWs. While I fully understand the concern, I find myself unpersuaded after a simple review of the facts. The struggle for freedom that this country has led for over 200 years is replete with battles that had to be fought to turn back the spread of fascism and communism in foreign lands and to ensure our citizens’ basic human rights. It is a simple historical fact that in every single war since the Conventions were adopted (or before for that matter) our enemies not only violated the Conventions, but did so egregiously. Be it Vietnam, Korea, Japan, Germany, or virtually any other opponent, violations of the Conventions were sanctioned by the highest levels of government. No justification was required for the awful policies these countries followed, they did what evil regimes do when they want to win, and the “rules” were not even remotely considered.

To suggest that a more specific defining of the conventions to something more clear than “outrages against human dignity” will cause countries to torture our uniformed soldiers in future battles is not supported by historical fact or by application to today’s war. We must be clear here and remember that the Conventions are applicable to uniformed combatants fighting for legitimate countries. Terrorists are neither. They do not serve as a precedent justification for future countries engaged in battle, nor as evidenced by their own behavior, do they feel any particular need to follow the conventions themselves.Whether they are attacking civilian targets or mutilating the bodies of our soldiers who died from their pointless torture the terrorists’ very existence and modus operandi is an open defiance of the conventions.

The second argument that the Republican Senators employ is the suggestion that if we more clearly define the Conventions we will “become just like the enemy”. Forgetting the bizarre logic stream that suggests that a more specific set of rules, makes us less moral, I think it is fair to say that this argument relies on a very dim appreciation for what this country stands for, and for what we’ve contributed to the human experience throughout our relatively short history. Simply put, given our legacy of human rights, expansion of civil liberties and indeed our humane treatment of the worst of the terrorists captured in this war, to suggest that some extreme treatment in the pursuit of battlefield intelligence is a non-starter.Senator McCain is in fact deeply inconsistent on this point in that he has already suggested that we will need to violate the conventions from time to time, when the need for information is urgent. The difference, in his view, is that when you do, you will have to “do what you have to do. But you take responsibility for it”. This is a high price to ask our men and women in the field to pay so that a group of Senators in Washington can sleep better at night.

Having said that, I respect the Republican Senators’ views, and for the most part, am grateful for the dignity and honor that they’ve brought to the debate. I do not agree with them, and after lengthy consideration will not agree with them. I’ve read the hysterical descriptions of waterboarding temperature extremes, forced standing and other methods. Clearly none of this stuff is pleasant, but just as clearly, none of it is torture either.

More to the point, the suggestion by opponents of the administrations’ redefinition, is that in the past we never engaged in any extreme treatment of prisoners. While I have only anecdotal evidence to suggest that this view is both hopelessly naïve and absolutely wrong I cannot say with absolute certainty that this is not the case. Still anecdotal evidence suggests that in the past the approach that McCain outlines, (You do what you have to do) was exactly our policy.

The difference between past conflicts and this one is that in the past the left was not spending their time during the war talking about bringing war crime charges for our men and women in the field and members of the administration as they are today. In past conflicts we did what we had to do; we won the war, and then welcomed our enemies back into the brotherhood of nations. In winning those wars we pressured our prisoners for information, and I suspect treated some quite harshly. The difference is that we didn’t talk about it, and we didn’t suggest that those who were willing to put their lives on the line might have to spend some time in the hoosegow if they broke a few rules. The very reason the administration now suggests that our soldiers cannot live with a Convention that is quite “gray”, is because members of our society have decided to ignore the understanding that we had in the past.

Redefining the Conventions then is not an option, but instead our obligation, as a moral society to our men and women in the field. We must as a country agree on what we can and cannot do in order to gain intelligence from an enemy that has sworn to destroy us. Doing so is the only way we can stand behind our men and women in the field and ask them to do the things so many of us have chosen not to do.

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