Saturday, February 16, 2008

Winter Soldier Topics: Part I - The Geneva Conventions

As I’ve shown before here and here, the presentation by IVAW to the public of what Winter Soldier will be about has changed. Army Sergeant of IVAW has described what is coming more in the line of soldiers telling their stories, and I think there is sufficient evidence out there to back that up at least in part. However, that most surely will be a disappointment to WSI partners, supporters and fans who were indeed expecting and counting on an atrocity-fest!

With the newly packaged presentation, the new WSI testimony questionannaire, recent statements by IVAW members and buzz over the Net, it is at least possible to address some topics that will be part of the event. In a sense, for some of those at least, not so bad that IVAW wants to give those more prominense in public discussion. Some of it should even be welcomed, as a topic, if not necessarilly how IVAW frames them.

Policy, Tactics, Atrocities and even – the Geneva Conventions!?

The killing of civilians and destruction of civilian property by our forces is a recurring yet most often undetailed theme with many in IVAW. The IVAW WSI questionnaire has four questions about that, as in, have you witnessed:

"The killing or wounding of a civilian or unarmed combatant?

Calling in or assisting in the calling of air support and/or artillery fire which damaged or destroyed civilian life and/or property?

Engagement of a target that recklessly endangered civilians?

The destruction of civilian infrastructure (to include bridges, irrigation or water purification equipment, hospitals, power plants, generators, etc.)?"

It is easy to find numerous statements about such by IVAW members that will use the word “atrocity” for such, and even “war crime”. Yet without details, neither word necessarilly applies.

It must be remembered that a significant number of IVAW members are Conscientious Objectors. In order to be granted that, an applicant must affirm opposition to any and all combat including quite simply national or even personal self-defence. To a CO, the war in Iraq would be as morally wrong as fighting against Japan as a result of the Pearl Harbor attack, or gunning down the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as he ran full speed at your family with a suicide bomb vest showing. To a legitimate CO, any act of war or combat can be by definition an atrocity. The overwhelming number of people and western civilization as a whole reject that.

One finds again and again IVAW members speaking of “policy” and “tactic”as the culprit, and that because we are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, atrocities are inevitable. It is quite true that if we were not in Iraq or Afghanistan these things would not happen as they are happening, but that also does not mean that atrocity and war crimes will cease. It also does not mean that even if we withdrew from both conflicts, we would not likely and even inevitably face the same issues somewhere else.

Matt Howard of IVAW put it this way:

"The tactics that we use. The policies that the military engages will create situations, create dynamics, create, ultimately, atrocity."

As I pointed out here, that could just as well apply to Operation Overlord, the six week campaign to secure a foothold in France that began on June 6, 1944, D-Day, and resulted in the deaths of between 12,000 and 20,000 French civilians.

Over at The Sniper, Thus Spake Ortner (TSO) got into a discussion of the Geneva Conventions with IVAW’s Army Sergeant on that, and Part II of that is especially appropriate.

My take is that if IVAW wants to start a discussion about how government policy and military tactics lead, ultimately, to the deaths and wounding of civilians, that discussion as regards the Geneva Conventions is long overdue. It is more than four decades overdue! Go for it, folks!

The Geneva Conventions are terribly out of date, and are and have been simply a brickbat to be thrown at America, our alies, and of course incessantly – Israel!

Article 4, part 1.2, as TSO showed, reads:

“Members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organized resistance movements, belonging to a Party to the conflict and operating in or outside their own territory, even if this territory is occupied, provided that such militias or volunteer corps, including such organized resistance movements, fulfil the following conditions:

* that of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
* that of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance; Seen any distinctive signs over there?
* that of carrying arms openly;
* that of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war."

Four decades ago American forces faced the Viet Cong, which group engaged in tactics that violated that article and intentionally put civilians in lethal danger. We have had decades of organizations like the PLO, Hezbollah and Hamas doing the same with Israel. That is a tactic. It forces the side attacked to either accept hostile fire and attack and loss of its own forces and even civilians (read: people), or engage the attackers with the high likelihood of killing civilians. AQI and the Taleban, as well as the Iraq insurgencies, do the same, and that is because they can both get away with it, and because they use the media as a weapon of war.

Even before Clausewitz “will” was recognized as a prominent factor in warfare. If a nation had immense manpower and substantial material to fight but lacked the “will’, it could lose to a side with far less manpower and material but with greater will to do whatever it takes to win.

For decades the media has been used as a military weapon and an instrument of attack on "will".

We have all seen how it has worked. Position your forces within the civilian population, and attack. If your enemy returns fire to protect his own, and civilians are inevitably killed, have your media operation ready to make the most of it. That is how Israel, seen in the sixties as the tiny nation with a small population, surrounded by a vast and numerous sea of enemies with petro-dollars available emerged over time in the perception of many as the callous and indiscriminate super powerful brutalizer of the woebegone masses. That is despite the fact that Isreal is still the tiny nation with a small population, surrounded by a vast and numerous sea of enemies with petro-dollars available!

The Viet Cong, the PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, the Taleban, AQI, the Iraqi insurgents, and on and on, have all not only violated the Geneva Conventions routinely, but those Conventions do not even address, after all these decades, the intentional placing of civilians in harm’s way, to promote their deaths, for the sake of using the media as a weapon of war!

I have run across more than one place where IVAW members speak of a bomb or IED going off, and American forces immediately shooting up the surrounding area, and civilians get wounded or killed. They’ve used terms like “cut loose with everything they had”.

IPA reported on IVAW's Michael Blake on that subject this way:

"Blake was a supply specialist in a tank unit in Iraq from April 2003 to March 2004. He is now active with Iraq Veterans Against the War. He said today: 'I was never in such a situation, but several people in my unit were and they were told that if a bomb goes off, you shoot up the landscape at anything that moves.'"

Remember the 1969 Bay Hap River incident in which John Kerry was awarded his Bronze Star and final Purple Heart “Get Out of Vietnam” pass? There were five swift boats on the river. The lead boat had a mine detonated under it, disabling it and severely wounding most if not all of the crew. Kerry’s boat charged out of there, so as to heroically return later to where no one else had left. The remaining three boats did what they were trained to do: they kicked the engines into high gear, kept moving in the area around the disabled boat so as not to be sitting ducks and threw everything they had in firepower at both banks so as to defend the disabled boat and crew and themslevs by suppressing any attack that might be coming! They did so because in Vietnam in 1969 as it is in Iraq in 2008, the detonation of a mine or bomb can be and often is the beginning of an attack. That explosion can kill or injure crucial leadership or unit components as well as momentarilly or even substantially disorient the force attacked, and make them susceptible to more killing. Opening up in such an event is a defensive strategy that seeks to deny the attacker the momentary but substantial advantage by suppressing any immediate follow-up.

That tactic, however, does, inevitably, get civilians killed or wounded.

A discussion of such tactic would be worthwhile. Under Geneva, is it permissible to open fire in such a way, so as to endanger civilians? More importantly, though, where does the real responsibility lie? Does it lie with those defending their forces, or with those who will launch an attack in an area where they well know and even plan on getting civilians killed?

Put it this way: we can all find many places where it is said that a tactic that carries a high probability of getting civilians killed is a war crime or atrocity. How many times have you seen such terms as “war crime” or “atrocity”applied to the attackers, as opposed to the defenders, in such situations?

What does Geneva say about such tactics? It’s been decades now that this has been going on! How many times have you come across anyone saying that such launching of an attack with the full knowledge and expectation of civilian casualties is a war crime or an atrocity? Hamas or Hezbollah launching rockets as Israeli civilians from apartment complexes in Gaza or Lebanon? Hussein positioning weaponry and ordnance in schools and hosptals?

Our troops have been faced with that kind of thing for years and decades. If people, including some in IVAW, want to insist that a tactic of defending one’s own forces and even civilians against an attack launched from an area where to engage the real or highly possible attack results in civilian casualties is a war crime or atrocity, let them do so. Let them also therefore be made to understand that doing so, if accepted generally, ensures that such attacks will be the norm, because they are a win-win situation for the attacker. If the party attacked returns fires or otherwise seeks to protect its own, it commits a war crime or atrocitiy. If it does not return fire, it suffers casualties and the demoralization of his own forces who cannot defend themselves.

The launcher of the attack wins in either event.

This has much broader application than the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the weight of media/public condemnation and legal accountability are overwhelmingly placed on the defender’s side, as they are now among so many, expect the tactic of willingly putting civilians at risk to become more and more common in any and every conflict. Winning tactics are always learned and repeated.

So if IVAW at WSI opens up a discussion of whether such tactics and policy make atrocity inevitable, go for it! Google search such terms as Geneva Conventions, war crime and atrocities with the word “Bush”, and see how many hits you get. Now search the same terms with maybe al-Zarqawi, Al Qaeda in Iraq, Ba’athist insurgency, and see what you get. There’s an almost free ride there for one side.

The Geneva Conventions haven’t caught up to the last several decades of tactics. It’s about time they did, and make the initiators of such attacks bear the burden of what they ultimately and intentionally cause! The existing Geneva Conventions that apply to militias and insurgents are routinely ignored by our enemies in both conflicts, and there has been no loud condemnation of this.

The Geneva Conventions lose all credibility if they are only used as a propaganda brickbat against one side, and those who do so will bear the responsibility for that.

If WSI is but a small part in opening up that discussion and that is followed by a push to update those Conventions to apply to the reality of conflict as it has emerged over decades to the harm of non-combatants, it will be a useful thing. If WSI, however, tries to make the case that defence against such attack is the real war crime or atrocity, let them carry that burden for those who will ultimately use and benefit from "tactics" that will inevitably result in "atrocity".

More later on other potential WSI topics, including the treatment of women and PTSD.

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