(Host) Recent news from Iraq reminds commentator Barrie Dunsmore that even in a war, rules of engagement are necessary.
(Dunsmore) The pictures and reports of the torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners of war by American soldiers are offensive in the extreme to just about any civilized human being. Those directly responsible will be punished, as well they should be. But what of those much higher up the chain of command. Will they be held accountable?
This scandal, a word that only vaguely conveys the enormity of the crime, brings home a stark reality of war that is too often ignored-namely that war brutalizes and dehumanizes both the vanquished and the victor. By definition, war is the extreme use of power to achieve dominance by one group or country over another. However laudable or justifiable the aims may be, when a country enters a war, its strategy is to kill as many of the enemy as is necessary to prevail. That’s why war should always be the very last option.
But there are rules, even for war. The Geneva Conventions are the internationally accepted rules governing the behavior of the combatants. While they are often flouted, we still need such conventions. They exist to protect civilians and prisoners of war. I have assumed that most military people in countries like this one, are taught these rules and try to obey them.
However in the fervor after 9/11 many extraordinary decisions were made which did not get sufficient public scrutiny. One such decision that escaped my attention concerned the Geneva Conventions. It seems that more than two years ago, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his Pentagon ruled that the United States would no longer be bound by the Geneva Conventions; that Army regulations on the interrogation of prisoners would not be observed; and that many detainees would be held incommunicado and without any independent form of review.
This ruling was made in the wake of the war in Afghanistan when hundreds of people were detained. Now it may well be that some of those detainees did have links to the terrorist Al Qaeda network. As such they would have been considered unlawful combatants and would have very few rights. But under the Geneva Conventions all those arrested in the war zone were entitled to a formal hearing to determine just what their status was. There were no such hearings. At the time Rumsfeld said prisoners would be treated “for the most part” “in a manner that is reasonably consistent” with the conventions, although he then went on to suggest the Conventions were outdated.
We know that there will always be atrocities in wartime That’s why there are international rules and army regulations. But given that the Secretary of Defense effectively dispensed with those rules, what happened was probably inevitable. As we learned from the post World War Two Nazi war crimes trials in Nuremberg, “I was only following orders” is not an acceptable legal defense. For those in charge and who should be held accountable, “I had no idea such things were happening” should be neither a legal nor moral defense either.
This is Barrie Dunsmore.
Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.