13 September 2004

Convenient Helicopter Crashes

It's not just William Calley and Ernest Medina who should lament the helicopter crash (after My Lai itself but before any investigation) that killed the two individuals they claim gave verbal orders leading to that atrocity, thus preventing their respective courts-martial from any real examination of evidence of such orders. The result is that the only precedent actually citeable in US courts-martial (at least that I've found) for the proposition that following illegal orders in a war environment that result in the purposeful but militarily unjustifiable deaths of noncombatants comes from one relatively obscure component of the Nuremburg trials. Fortunately, the converse case is not as unclear: Individuals who gave such orders were punished during Vietnam, and "high command negligence" when aware of misconduct has also resulted in adverse action (often forced resignations, but that's a problem for another time).

All of which leads us—again—back to Seymour Hersh. He broke the My Lai story those many years ago; if nothing else, that at least gives him the credibility of being able to say "I know what an atrocity and the following cover-up look like." A story in today's Guardian—which is remarkably balanced for a paper with a reputation of being a rabid commie American-hating-and-baiting rag—asserts that high officials in the Bush Administration knew of problems at Gitmo a long time ago.

A CIA analyst visited Guantánamo in summer 2002 and returned "convinced that we were committing war crimes" and that "more than half the people there didn't belong there. He found people lying in their own faeces," a CIA source told Hersh. The analyst submitted a report to General John Gordon, an aide to Condoleezza Rice, Mr Bush's national security adviser. Gen Gordon was troubled, and, one former administration official told Hersh "that if the actions at Guantánamo ever became public, it'd be damaging to the [P]resident." Ms Rice saw the document by autumn of the same year, and called a high-level meeting at which she asked Mr Rumsfeld, to deal with the problem. But after he vowed to act, "the Pentagon went into a full-court stall," a former White House official is quoted as saying. "Why didn't Condi do more? She made the same mistake I made. She got the [S]ecretary of [D]efence to say he's going to take care of it."

"Bush Team "Knew of Abuse" at Guantánamo" (13 Sep 04) (fake paragraphing removed for clarity).

The Pentagon claims that these accusations are based on "uncorroborated" and "anonymous" sources that are in fact not telling the truth, or at least the whole truth. Fair enough; nobody could, or should, be convicted on the basis of Hersh's reporting. On the other hand, nobody was, or should have been, convicted on the basis of his initial reporting of My Lai, either; neither is he the one who eventually made the allegations of higher-command orders. What I find most disturbing of all is the part that most newspaper editors, under the "inverted paragraph" theory of structuring news reports, are most likely to delete.

Mr Rumsfeld told reporters on Friday he had approved the use of harsh interrogation measures, but that they had only been meant for Guantánamo. He said the measures ought to be contrasted with those of terrorists. "Does it rank up there with chopping someone's head off on television?" he asked. "It doesn't."

Id. Under this reasoning, please explain to me how our "interrogation measures" are morally any better than the terrorists. Merely citing to lex talionis ("an eye for an eye," Exodus 21:18-35, is probably most familiar to Westerners) isn't persuasive. Not only is that passage a limitation on action, not an authorization for it, but in our "Christian" society we should not throw stones at others unless certain of our own virtue. Cf. John 8:1-11. On the other hand, certainty of virtue has never been lacking in this Administration… regardless of its accuracy.

Like any lawyer, preacher, or politician (fortunately, I am only one of these), I can cite small sections of documents for propositions outside the scope of those documents. The reflexive nature of this method of argument in this context should give one pause—and then one should reconsider Mr Rumsfeld's statement. I, for one, don't particularly want to become one with the terrorists, or use the "terrorist standard" as some kind of outer limit on my behavior that I attempt to approach but not exceed. That leaves aside, of course, the differing purposes of the behavior; after all, one ordinarily does not intend to further interrogate a captive after cutting off his head.