Pages Menu
Categories Menu

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?