Sunday 20 January 2002

Do not they bleed?

A passionate essay titled Warmongering at Earlier in the week I wrote that “it’s difficult to see how a state can commit its armed forces to a ‘war against terrorism’ while denying that captured enemy soldiers are prisoners-of-war.” However, seeing a discussion between two “experts” on a current affairs program a couple of nights ago swayed my opinion against captured Taliban and Al-Quaeda fighters being classified as prisoners-of-war according to the 1949 Geneva Convention.

They weren’t in uniform, they didn’t wear badges of rank, there wasn’t any legally constituted chain of command… if anything, they most resemble mercenaries who, along with spies, are specifically excluded from the provisions of the Geneva Convention. This is crucial for the US Government because prisoners-of-war are entitled to be repatriated to their own countries after the cessation of hostilities. The idea of punishing Al-Quaeda fighters with a slap on the wrist then sending them back to Afghanistan is laughable.

So I agree with Meryl that “terrorists get fewer rights” and that “anyone who thinks a single American POW would have been treated well [by the Taliban] is lying to us and to himself.” But she concludes with the statement: “the terrorists lost their claim to humanity long ago. If you ask me, human rights are for humans.” From where I stand, that looks like the top of a long and slippery slope. The finest soldiers balance ruthlessness with compassion.

I’ve spent the last couple of years doing research for a book about, in part, the Pacific War. When I read Meryl’s final sentence I recalled a message that Admiral Nimitz sent out to the US Pacific Fleet immediately upon the conclusion of the war:

It is incumbent on all officers to conduct themselves with dignity and decorum in their treatment of the Japanese and their public utterances in connec­tion with the Japanese. The Japanese are still the same nation which initiated the war by a treacherous attack on the Pacific Fleet and which has subjected our brothers in arms who became prisoners to torture, starvation and murder. However, the use of insulting epithets in connection with the Japanese as a race or as individuals does not now become the officers of the United States Navy. Officers in the Pacific Fleet will take steps to require of all personnel under their command a high standard of conduct in this matter. Neither fa­miliarity nor abuse and vituperation should be permitted.

Admittedly, Nimitz was referring to verbal abuse, but the subtext of his message was clear: despite the inhuman behavior of the Japanese towards American prisoners-of-war, it was the duty of American personnel to treat the Japanese humanely.

In Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, from which I’ve quoted Nimitz’s order, Richard B. Frank writes that “this message also proved to reflect on the character of President Truman. Of the dozens of messages and hundreds of operational reports he received from theater commanders, he took particular care to see that this message was culled out and preserved separately in his papers.”

Permalink | Technorati


i think you should reconsider again. the facility
that classifies prisoners of war as those who have
uniforms, rank and chains of command simply fortifies
the position that 'justifiable' violence is commited
by soldiers in a theatre that the powerful west
is dominant. a terrorist may be simply someone
who commits acts of war like any other soldier.
what is frightening to western powers (paritcularily
the u.s.) is that this war is not on the playing
field in which they dominate (ie. good old military
power). thats why the word 'terrorist' was created
in the first place.

Posted by charlie on 22 May 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I agree with you that "a terrorist may be simply someone who commits acts of war like any other soldier." But a terrorist may also be someone who deliberately targets civilians. While I know better than most how regular armies target civilians (e.g. the Tokyo firebombing), I also believe that "uniforms, rank and chains of command" together with codes like the Geneva Convention go a long way to constraining behavior in war and preventing military atrocities.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 6 June 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour