October 1, 2006


Don't flout Geneva – or the tables could easily be turned (Niall Ferguson, 01/10/2006, Daily Telegraph)

History, however, provides a powerful counterargument. It is that any dilution of the Geneva Conventions could end up having the very reverse effect of what the administration intends. Far from protecting Americans from terror, it could end up exposing them to it.

The first Geneva Convention governing the humane treatment of prisoners of war was adopted in 1929. It is not too much to say that it saved the lives of millions.

In the Second World War around 96 million people served in the armed forces of all the belligerent states, of whom more than a third spent at least some time in enemy hands. The majority of these were Axis soldiers who became prisoners when Germany and Japan surrendered. Luckily for them, the Allies upheld the Geneva Conventions, despite the fact that the Axis powers had systematically failed to do so.

Unwisely, as it turned out, the Soviet Union had declined to adhere to the 1929 Convention. Only in July 1941 did Stalin propose to Hitler a reciprocal adherence, a proposition the German government pointedly ignored. This was because it was Hitler's express intention, as part of Operation Barbarossa, to kill all those Soviet prisoners who could be identified as Communist "political commissars". Within weeks of the German invasion, however, it became clear that not just commissars but all Red Army personnel were to be treated with unspeakable brutality.

In the first weeks of Barbarossa, the Germans may have murdered as many as 600,000 Soviet prisoners. Those who were taken captive found themselves herded into improvised camps where they were given neither shelter nor sustenance. Many starved or died of disease; others were taken out and shot in batches. Some were transported to concentration camps such as Buchenwald, where they were shot in the course of fake medical examinations, or to the death camp at Auschwitz. (Soviet PoWs were in fact the first people to be gassed there.) Altogether in the course of the war, more than 3 million Soviet soldiers died in captivity.

The story in Asia was not much better. Official Japanese policy encouraged brutality towards prisoners of war by applying the Geneva Convention only mutatis mutandis (literally "with those things having been changed which need to be changed"), which the Japanese translated as "with any necessary amendments". The amendments in question amounted to this: that enemy prisoners had so disgraced themselves by laying down their arms that their lives were forfeit. Indeed, some Allied prisoners were made to wear armbands bearing the inscription: "One who has been captured in battle and is to be beheaded or castrated at the will of the Emperor."

Physical assaults were a daily occurrence in some Japanese PoW camps. "Executions" without due process were frequent. Thousands of American prisoners died during the infamous Bataan "Death March" in 1942.

Elsewhere, British PoWs were used as slave labour, most famously on the Burma-Thailand railway line. Attempting to escape was treated by the Japanese as a capital offence, though the majority of prisoners who died were in fact victims of malnutrition and disease exacerbated by physical overwork and abuse. In all, 42 per cent of Americans taken prisoner by the Japanese did not survive. Such were the consequences of spurning or flouting the Geneva Conventions.

Red State Republicans may still shrug their shoulders. After all, George W Bush is no Tojo (the Japanese wartime prime minister subsequently sentenced to death for war crimes). Well, maybe not. But even if you don't see any resemblance between Bush's "administrative regulations" and Imperial Japan's "necessary amendments" of the Conventions, consider this purely practical argument.

There's really no difference between Mr. ferguson's argument and that of the left and isolationists, that if we were just to ignore the terrorists they'd leave us alone. Note the contempt expressed in this line of thought, based on the notion that we can control the behavior of others.

Of course, Mr. Ferguson's thesis falls apart at the point where he concedes that the failure of the Nazis and the Japanese to adhere to the Geneva Conventions had no effect on how we treated the prisoners we took. Nor will how we treat the al Qaedists effect how they treat Americans they capture. There is no practical argument here, only a moral one.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 1, 2006 10:34 AM

The Geneva Conventions permit us to shoot Al Queda when we take them into captivity on the battlefield. They provide an incentive for combatants to follow basic rules of war like wearing uniforms, carrying arms openly not committing war crimes. Al Queda follows none of these rules and can be summarily executed as spies. Anything we do at Gitmo should be properly viewed in this context.

BTW, if you are into international legal theory, Hezbollah (OJ's favorite islamist terror org) is a more interesting case in that they do follow many conventions of a real army yet violate some rules, like locating systems near civilian areas. An argument can be made that many Hezbollah captured in Southern Lebanon qualify for the full Geneva treatment including smokes, recreation, no interrogations, Red Cross visits and repatriation at the end of hostilities. Of course, Hezbollah treats Israeli prisoners barbarically and make no bones about it so the fact that their troops actually have names, ranks and serial numbers is only part of the story.

Posted by: JAB at October 1, 2006 11:43 AM

Hezbollah is a sovereign state. Al Qaeda isn't.

Posted by: oj at October 1, 2006 11:48 AM

I could not advise my commander that he may order his troops to summarily shoot enemy combatants captured on the battlefield. Once they have been captured*, they are either P.O.W's with full Geneva rights or accused war criminals with limited rights. JAB is simply wrong about this.

In WWII, Germany generally followed Geneva rules in the West, otherwise in the East. Japan habitually engaged in war crimes east and west, both against combatants and non-combatants.
*There's the rub. Fighting in civilian clothes and more specifically, feigning surrender are not condicive to being taken alive. Troops are going to resolve doubts in favor of their own survival. This is precisely why the Conventions forbid perfidy.

Posted by: Lou Gots at October 1, 2006 1:34 PM

The Geneva Conventions hold us accountable, do not hold the other side to anything. In a WWII battle, (the name of which I forgot), some American troops found their scouts hung on the rafters by the Germans. The Americans were mad, they killed some Germans and hung them up. The Germans stopped hanging Americans after that. The Germans did not follow the Conventions, if the GIs kept to their so called "moral high grounds", then more GIs would have been hanged by the Germans. We would treat the POWs humanely with or without the Conventions. Our enemies would torture ours with or without the Conventions.

To stop the jihadists chopping heads off, we should chop some of theirs off, and roll them in pig shit.

Posted by: ic at October 1, 2006 2:54 PM

I realize I was mistaken in my interpretation once somebody is capture. However, their tactics do not warrant any sort of protections and we should capture fewer and kill more.

Posted by: JAB at October 1, 2006 8:29 PM


Hear, hear!!!

Posted by: obc at October 1, 2006 8:30 PM