GIG HARBOR, WASH.—Taking care of the troops under his command is an officer’s sacred duty. That duty applies exponentially to a commander-in-chief.
Yet the present commander-in-chief, George W. Bush, has further jeopardized the troops he sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. And he’s been taking care—not of the troops, but of his own administration. Mr. Bush should be cited for dereliction of duty.
Dereliction No. 1: Bush’s policy on torture hurts our soldiers. Last week, Congress surrendered to Bush’s “program” of “alternative interrogation methods” (read: torture). While Bush claimed “We do not torture” last month, his ongoing support for harsh tactics that amount to it heightens the risk that our soldiers will be tortured if taken captive—a distinct and dire likelihood as Iraq deteriorates into civil war and Afghanistan tips back into chaos.
Moreover, torture is immoral, emphatically not an American value, hurtful of our relations with the world, and illegal, as the Supreme Court effectively ruled in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld this June.
Dereliction No. 2: Audaciously, the White House is also pushing changes to the War Crimes Act, the 1996 US law that prosecutes “grave breaches” of the laws of war, such as the Geneva Conventions. Since the revised bill would apply retroactively to 1997, the White House is evidently trying to insulate itself against liability for crimes of war—its use of torture in the war on terror. Sworn to uphold the law, and redirected there by the Supreme Court, this president, on the defensive, calls for a rewrite.
The fallout of these derelictions for our troops? Should they be captured and tortured, their commander-in-chief would have no grounds at all—legal or moral—to protest or to seek justice. This, from a “moral values” president who exhorts us to “support the troops”?
Specifically, Bush objects to the “dignity” clause of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits “outrages upon personal dignity.” Claiming that it is “vague,” he sought to disallow it under the War Crimes Act, leaving interrogators a free hand with detainees, an awful prerogative given his administration’s earlier quibbles over whether organ failure, even death, qualify as “cruel, degrading, or inhuman treatment.”
But the meaning of dignity is plain. The Army’s own former legal expert, Geoffrey Corn, found the right words in a recent newspaper interview: “Treat people like humans and not animals or objects.” As to “vagueness,” the president of the National Institute of Military Justice, Eugene Fidell, notes that the law has long functioned well with broad concepts, such as “conduct unbecoming an officer,” and “dereliction of duty.”
Taken together, what a moral fall for our country! Unconscionably, there’s been little leadership in helping the nation to its feet. And consider the troops, their souls and their hides. Imagine the anguish of one of our soldiers taken captive: He or she, knowing the crimes committed by Americans at Abu Ghraib, has to expect payback, with all hope for humane treatment dashed. That prospect is doubly unjust to those soldiers who act ethically in this bad war.
Those who defend the need for torture might argue that it is justified to expose a plot that threatens the lives of our troops. For its part, though, our military is reportedly glad to be out of the torture business. “No good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices. I think history tells us that,” said Lt. Gen. John Kimmons in issuing the new Army Field Manual. (Bush has transferred the torture option to the CIA.)
Another argument for torture asserts that in a place like Iraq, where beheadings are common, protocols are useless. In this “new kind of war,” the argument goes, no-holds-barred force is required. But even in that context, what is torture’s net gain? Chaos plus chaos equals only more chaos. But to a soldier taken captive, chaos plus the protections of the laws of war, “vague” as they may be, equals hope.
Drafted to contain war’s barbarity, the initial Geneva Conventions were adopted in 1864 to protect the wounded in the field. In addition to the “dignity” clause, Common Article 3, which was added in 1949, forbids “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment,” even “insults and public curiosity.” Anchoring it all are the terms “respect” and “humane.” Given today’s “new kind of war” and the enduring need for respect and humane treatment, is it not time for another convention?
Redefining Common Article 3, writes retired four-star Gen. Colin Powell, would “put our own troops at risk.” Unlike Bush, Mr. Powell underscores the “moral obligations with respect to those in our custody.” Tellingly, Bush conceded doubt about torture earlier. In late May, he said that Abu Ghraib was “the biggest mistake” of his war in Iraq, adding, “We’ve been paying for that for a long period of time.” We now see what Bush meant by “we” and “pay.”
Soldier: Take care of yourself.
Carla Seaquist, a playwright, is author of “Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks” and is working on a new play, “Prodigal.”