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Posted by on Jun 6, 2006 in At TMV | 12 comments

When satire cannot encompass and exaggerate reality

Cross-posted to Random Fate.

The English-speaking culture of England and the United States has a long history of satire, one of the premier examples is the essay “A Modest Proposal: For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick” by Jonathan Swift.

I had been contemplating writing a satire along the lines of “A Modest Proposal” in the context of the reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001, but events have surpassed what I once thought would be too exaggerated even for satire.

What is the straw that broke this particular camel’s back?

Army Manual to Skip Geneva Detainee Rule
The Pentagon’s move to omit a ban on prisoner humiliation from the basic guide to soldier conduct faces strong State Dept. opposition.
By Julian E. Barnes, Times Staff Writer
June 5, 2006

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has decided to omit from new detainee policies a key tenet of the Geneva Convention that explicitly bans “humiliating and degrading treatment,” according to knowledgeable military officials, a step that would mark a further, potentially permanent, shift away from strict adherence to international human rights standards.

The decision could culminate a lengthy debate within the Defense Department but will not become final until the Pentagon makes new guidelines public, a step that has been delayed. However, the State Department fiercely opposes the military’s decision to exclude Geneva Convention protections and has been pushing for the Pentagon and White House to reconsider, the Defense Department officials acknowledged.

President Bush’s critics and supporters have debated whether it is possible to prove a direct link between administration declarations that it will not be bound by Geneva and events such as the abuses at Abu Ghraib or the killings of Iraqi civilians last year in Haditha, allegedly by Marines.

But the exclusion of the Geneva provisions may make it more difficult for the administration to portray such incidents as aberrations. And it undercuts contentions that U.S. forces follow the strictest, most broadly accepted standards when fighting wars.

“The rest of the world is completely convinced that we are busy torturing people,” said Oona A. Hathaway, an expert in international law at Yale Law School. “Whether that is true or not, the fact we keep refusing to provide these protections in our formal directives puts a lot of fuel on the fire.”

For decades, it had been the official policy of the U.S. military to follow the minimum standards for treating all detainees as laid out in the Geneva Convention. But, in 2002, Bush suspended portions of the Geneva Convention for captured Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Bush’s order superseded military policy at the time, touching off a wide debate over U.S. obligations under the Geneva accord, a debate that intensified after reports of detainee abuses at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.

Among the directives being rewritten following Bush’s 2002 order is one governing U.S. detention operations. Military lawyers and other defense officials wanted the redrawn version of the document known as DoD Directive 2310, to again embrace Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention.

That provision — known as a “common” article because it is part of each of the four Geneva pacts approved in 1949 — bans torture and cruel treatment. Unlike other Geneva provisions, Article 3 covers all detainees — whether they are held as unlawful combatants or traditional prisoners of war. The protections for detainees in Article 3 go beyond the McCain amendment by specifically prohibiting humiliation, treatment that falls short of cruelty or torture.

The move to restore U.S. adherence to Article 3 was opposed by officials from Vice President Dick Cheney’s office and by the Pentagon’s intelligence arm, government sources said. David S. Addington, Cheney’s chief of staff, and Stephen A. Cambone, Defense undersecretary for intelligence, said it would restrict the United States’ ability to question detainees.

The Pentagon tried to satisfy some of the military lawyers’ concerns by including some protections of Article 3 in the new policy, most notably a ban on inhumane treatment, but refused to embrace the actual Geneva standard in the directive it planned to issue.

The military lawyers, known as judge advocates general, or JAGs, have concluded that they will have to wait for a new administration before mounting another push to link Pentagon policy to the standards of Geneva.

“The JAGs came to the conclusion that this was the best they can get,” said one participant familiar with the Defense Department debate who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the protracted controversy. “But it was a massive mistake to have withdrawn from Geneva. By backing away, you weaken the proposition that this is the baseline provision that is binding to all nations.”

Derek P. Jinks, an assistant professor at the University of Texas School of Law and the author of a forthcoming book on Geneva called “The Rules of War,” said the decision to remove the Geneva reference from the directive showed the administration still intended to push the envelope on interrogation.

“We are walking the line on the prohibition on cruel treatment,” Jinks said. “But are we really in search of the boundary between the cruel and the acceptable?”

The military has long applied Article 3 to conflicts — including civil wars — using it as a minimum standard of conduct, even during peacekeeping operations. The old version of the U.S. directive on detainees says the military will “comply with the principles, spirit and intent” of the Geneva Convention.

There is more at the original article, and it does not get any better.

So, there it is. I cannot write satire that encompasses this.

The reason why this change in the manual is so important? Here is a case study:

Fort Hood, Texas, Summer 1995:

Private Ericsson was the blond-haired blue-eyed epitome of American youth. A little older than his peers at 22, he was often the first to speak up when I called for a response. In this case I had just put forward the question, “What would you do?� to a hypothetical situation in which several prisoners had been captured who may, or may not, know about an ambush the enemy had emplaced for our unit some distance away. The prisoners appeared to be civilians, taken in a village from which we had, in this notional scenario, recently taken fire.

“I’d shoot one of them sir, to see if it got the next one to talk,� said Ericsson with a perfectly straight face. The room remained silent.

“WHAT?!� It was not my calmest reply because I was, frankly, stunned. Standing at the front of the room I looked around at the assembled men seated before me. Nobody was leaping to contradict his comment. Their attention was split between us.

Ericsson repeated his response, looking me straight in the eye. “I’d shoot one of them sir. And then, if that didn’t get the next guy to talk, I’d shoot another.�


“Ericsson…� I started to reply, about to tell him how wrong that was, to lecture him and explain about not only the laws of land warfare but how this would additionally be entirely counterproductive in addition to being illegal and immoral, but I stopped myself. If Ericsson thinks this way…

“No, wait…OK, how many of you think that this is the correct response?â€? Now I was addressing the whole group, most of my company in fact. After a few seconds almost half of the hands went up.

One of the fundamental tenets of civilization is the rule of law, and even in our wars, we have imposed laws which are not to be violated.

Laws that apply to everyone, in every circumstance.

Throwing those laws out because our enemies do so does not enable our victory, instead it gives our enemy a win because they have caused us to reject the main thing that differentiates us from them.

Think about it.

Think about it when you watch any torture scene in any movie, especially when the nominal “hero” is being tortured. What makes the “villain” evil? Is it his goals or is it his methods? Do his methods merely illustrate his evil, or do they arise out of the misguided goals?

If the “hero” uses the same methods, does it sully his goals?

What are our legends, what informs our culture, what stories do we use to teach our children and illustrate our fundamental values?

How do the heroes behave in those stories?

How are we as a society behaving now? What acts are we explicitly or implicitly condoning? Are these acts consistent with our heritage of legends and culture?

Are you comfortable with the answers to these questions?

So, how are we different from our enemies? In the days of the Cold War it seemed so clear, we wouldn’t spy on our own citizens, we wouldn’t imprison people indefinitely without trial, we wouldn’t torture those in our power.

Those acts were the characteristics of our enemy, the Soviet Union, the Evil Empire as labelled by President Ronald Reagan.

What will we not do now?

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Copyright 2006 The Moderate Voice
  • kreiz

    Pedro at ‘The Quietist’ offers his thoughts on the notion of “perfection”.

    Here’s a glimpse:

    “Perfection does not exist. It never has, in any society, in any time. There is a danger, I think, in establishing a political philosophy based on criticism of a society/people/nation for not being perfect.”

    And this:

    “[M]y point is about maintaining some perspective on the events of the present. Believing in the existence of “perfection” is the enemy of sane, rational perspective in interpreting current events.”

  • Guest

    We have met the enemy and he is … us.

  • BrianOfAtlanta

    I’ll be truly concerned if this ends up getting into the published guidelines. Just the possibility that we would publish something which would be in violation of the Geneva Convention is disturbing enough.

    However, I think you have let hyperbole run away with you on this issue.

    In the days of the Cold War it seemed so clear, we wouldn’t spy on our own citizens, we wouldn’t imprison people indefinitely without trial, we wouldn’t torture those in our power.

    During the Cold War, WWII, and earlier we most definitely spied on our own citizens. We didn’t imprison enemy combatants who didn’t wear uniforms, we beat what information we could out of them and then killed them on the spot. All in accordance with the Geneva Convention. All this “send them to prison” stuff is new. Indefinite prison terms are much more humane than what we used to do to them. Unless you consider summary execution to be humane, of course.

    As for what we won’t do? Look at the investigation of Haditha. That’s something we won’t condone.

  • kreiz

    Nicely said, Brian. You omitted that FDR interned thousands of Japanese-Americans without due process. Further, the US Supreme Court ratified the constitutionally of this process, even with Justices Douglas and Black sittting on the Court.

  • Dennis Raines

    The Geneva Conventions were made for a reason. Before and during the horrors of world war II, when some thing Haditha happened it was called “war.” It took a huge global conflit like world war II to make the natins of the world (well most anyway) to say “this shouldn’t happen again.” And now it’s getting knocked down.

  • Bob J Young

    To be very practical about the dilemma:
    1) The inherent problem is that you never know if you beat the appropriate person to death. After a certain point anyone will say anything to stop the torture.

    2)And of course the most disliked person in the village will be pointed out as the “terrorist”.

    3)Torturing an innocent person will make of his entire family want to kill us.

    4)If we are having abuses occur while we are “against” torture. Then just imagine how much more will occur now.

    How in the world do supposed Christians rationalize this?

  • Jason Shapiro

    It is beyond incredible that this administration thinks so little of our own American servicemen and women that they would even consider violating the Geneva Convention. What happens when one of our troops becomes a POW. In this “tit-for-tat” world the administrations line of: “Do what I say and not what I do” is probably not going to carry a lot of weight. What will this administration and their jack-booted allies in Congress and the press do when one of our own is “humiliated and degraded” in precisely the same ways as occurred at Guantanamo or Abu Gharib? Will they feign “shock and awe” at the brutality of our “enemies” or will they admit responsibility for creating a world without rules?

  • J Davison

    Uh don’t you watch the news, when a US service member gets captured, they are beaten, tortured, raped, then killed all for the enjoyment of the TV and / or internet audience, YOU. So I hope you enjoy the show.

  • kreiz

    At the outset, I’m not a supporter of the denial of Geneva Convention standards to the Guantanemo prisoners. But this may well be a policy determination, not a legal one. Nowhere do we receive a legal analysis of whether the Geneva Convention applies to unlawful enemy combatants. The author cites a source who states that the military voluntarily applied Article 3 in previous years. But that does not necessarily mean that a narrower reading is illegal. Has the Administration acted unlawfully in narrowly construing the Convention’s application? We can’t tell because it’s never discussed. Is the author making a moral argument rather than a legal one? Again, we don’t know. If so, shouldn’t this distinction be expressly made so as not to intimate illegality?

    It would behoove the author to discuss these not unimportant legal and practical distinctions. I don’t know the answers to the legal questions I pose. But I would if I were the one suggesting that the actions were illegal.

  • kreiz

    In addition, the author refers to rule of law and laws that apply to everyone in every circumstance– although the links to those phrases do not discuss the Geneva Convention. Ostensibly, the author is making legal arguments. I’d like to here more about the author’s legal analysis in reaching these conclusions.

  • kreiz

    Callimachus at “Done with Mirrors” offers a reasoned, thoughtful and much less condescending view in a post called “Them” ( His concern are those who assert “Anyone who doesn’t accept what I think about this accepts the opposite or the inverse of it, and is thus morally criminal.” He offers Jeff Goldstein (not a favorite of some) as a reasonable voice on the issue. Goldstein writes:

    The Pentagon and Intelligence Community have valid concerns. For a variety of reasons, terrorists do not deserve the same level of protection as uniformed enemy prisoners of war. Further, the language of Article 3 is rather ambiguous when applied across cultures, especially the wide gulf between the West and the Muslim world.

    Still, this is an incredibly hamhanded way of addressing these concerns. Even though our enemy by no means adheres to international law, our failure to do so undermines our moral authority. This is not a small thing, whether we’re talking about sustaining support at home, building coalitions with our Western partners, or even the “battle for hearts and minds� in the Arab world. That they don’t follow the Geneva protocols does not prevent our failure to do so from being used against us for propaganda purposes.

    Furthermore, international law is almost invariably a matter of the United States and similarly-minded powers imposing our value system on the rest of the world, not vice versa. As such, it behooves us to live up to our agreements to maximize their legitimacy. To the extent changing circumstances make these agreements problematic, we should work to amend them.

  • Chippedchips


    In response to your statement:

    So, how are we different from our enemies? In the days of the Cold War it seemed so clear, we wouldn’t spy on our own citizens, we wouldn’t imprison people indefinitely without trial, we wouldn’t torture those in our power.

    Sorry guy…but during the cold war good ole J Edgar Hoover had the FBI building files on almost every U S Citizen and Hoover was actually having it done long before that.

    During WW’s I and II U S Citizens were being spied on as well and thank the powers that be for it. Because there were many Nazi sympathizers here in the U S A including g h w bush’s father, and g w bush’s grandfather, prescott bush.

    Type this into your web browser: Federal Register November 7, 1942

    This will bring you to a photostatic copy of a federal register document where prescott bush (along with other prominent U S Citizens of that era) was charged with Trading With the Enemy, under the Trading With the Enemy Act.

    And as far as U S torturing..let me just say I saw things go on in the three years I spent in Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos I’m still trying to forget and leave it at that.

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