June 23, 2004


OFF DEADLINE (Harry Eagar, Maui News, 6/22/04)

There have been quite a few references to something called the Geneva Conventions lately.

In the interest of clear thinking, it would be well to understand there isn't any such thing, despite a signing ceremony in 1949. Never has been.

Nor were there Hague Conventions in 1899 and 1907, nor a Brussels Conference in 1874. . . .

The protection [of American prisoners held by the Germans] came, in fact, from the only system yet devised by any nation to protect its nationals in unfriendly hands: reprisal.

For Americans, the doctrine of reprisal was begun by Gen. George Washington. The British threatened to hang POWs as rebels, and Washington, who controlled British prisoners, informed the English that he'd match them neck for neck.

Treaties are legal documents, and should be treated as such. They mean what they say, and no more. The Geneva Convention is built upon the threat of reprisal. Under its terms, it applies among signatories, and doesn't bind a country whose own soldiers are not treated properly. And those prisoners who do not qualify for the protections of the Convention, under its terms, can be killed. (Thus, the threats in war movies and Hogan's Heroes that a soldier captured out of uniform can be shot on sight.)

Mr. Eagar notes that the Japanese did not treat Allied prisoners as the Convention demands. He does not note that American soldiers, too, shot Japanese prisoners and were even known to have mutilated their bodies before burial. Since then, we have become more fastidious in our treatment of our enemies. It is now assumed that, if any prisoner is not granted the rights accruing to American criminals, we have violated not just our (wholly fictional) treaty obligations, but also fundamental human rights.

We must, then, go on to ask the questions that Mr. Eagar doesn't ask: are we saps to require that the Secretary of Defense sign off on "shoving" prisoners or making them stand up for 8 hours, while our enemies cut off their prisoners' heads? The answer is obviously "yes", but that might be the modern test of power. We are powerful enough to be saps.

Posted by David Cohen at June 23, 2004 8:49 PM

TM Lutas has some pertinent commentary on the current post-Westphalian reality (our brave new world?) in this post and this post, as well as over here.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at June 24, 2004 1:48 AM


Nice column! Got any more where that come from? (You're a great guy; I love it when you write something I can agree with 100% instead of the usual 5% or so...)

Posted by: Kirk Parker at June 24, 2004 3:05 AM

The hot issue in the Law of War is not about some dumb doggie bimbo playing dominatrix with some Hadji P.O.W.'s. What we need to keep our eye on is the movement to outlaw the very ways America fights and wins wars. For example, the LoW permits bombing a city containing a legitimate target. You cannot protect your naval barracks from attack by siting it in downtown Hiroshima. But now that the U.S. enjoys air supremacy throughout the world, non-Americans would like to see a new rule allowing our enemies to hide behind their own civilians. Non-Americans likewise would redraw the rules governing partisan warfare to ligitimize the way our present adversaries fight in civilian clothes without identifying insignia.

If we let the French and all their buddies rewrite the Laws of War this way we might as well send off to Berlitz for the Arabic tapes.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 24, 2004 6:19 AM


You are exactly right. This is just one reason it is important to reelect the President, and not John "Oui Jacques" Kerry.

Posted by: David Cohen at June 24, 2004 7:26 AM

Kirk Parker --

Check out about 2,020 English pages for "Harry Eagar".

Some of that is BrothersJudd, which I did not attempt to eliminate, but maybe he said something here that you missed before but actually agree with.

Good hunting. :-)

Posted by: Uncle Bill at June 24, 2004 8:46 AM

Uncle Bill:

2,010 of those are just Harry saying somebody doesn't understand darwinism, but the rest are pure gems.

Posted by: Peter B at June 24, 2004 10:35 AM

I've done some similar ones, Kirk, and whether I'm right or not, they express and ratify for some people very deep feelings that obviously they don't see expressed for them anywhere else.

The favorable response I get from this sort of column is unbelievably emotional and grateful. People weep.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 24, 2004 12:10 PM


Has the paper printed any of those letters?

Posted by: David Cohen at June 24, 2004 12:25 PM


I wish you a steady stream of great letters for that one.

Did you ever read Barbara Tuchman on the Hague Conferences in The Proud Tower? It's fascinating because she shows how the whole thing was driven by private, publicity-seeking do-gooders who were obvious ancestors of the modern NGO activists and "international lawyers". The reps of the countries themselves thought it was all nonsense, but were wary of public wrath for rejecting these noble, peaceful ideas. It's one of those stories that makes democrats squirm.

Posted by: Peter B at June 24, 2004 1:19 PM

David, I don't know if The Maui News has gotten any letters to the editor. Now that it puts my email address at the bottom of the column, people respond to me directly, mostly, or by phone.

I don't treat those as letters for publication, though I'd like to. The good ones, anyway.

Peter, I read 'Proud Tower' a long time ago and had forgotten those details about the Geneva convention until you reminded me.

Although many of the do-gooders were publicity-seeking cranks, I'd allow that some were sincerely shocked about what happens in wartime and merely mistaken about how to change things.

Then. There's not much excuse after a century of experience to keep believing conventions like Geneva work.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 24, 2004 3:01 PM

Oh, definitely I'd give them more respect, just as a turn of the century socialist can be excused for being overwhelmed and inspired by abject industrial poverty. The Gatling (Maxim) gun, dynamite and looming aerial bombardment were unthinkably frightening. Now we take all those in stride but go apoplectic over poking and stripping prisoners.

Posted by: Peter B at June 24, 2004 3:32 PM

Great article Harry,

I would appreciate a source for your comments:

"There have been quite a few references to something called the Geneva Conventions lately.

In the interest of clear thinking, it would be well to understand there isn't any such thing, despite a signing ceremony in 1949. Never has been.

Nor were there Hague Conventions in 1899 and 1907, nor a Brussels Conference in 1874. . . .

I'm not challenging your statements Harry, but want to send on your article with some knowledge and understanding of your sources, since I expect to be challenged by some legal eagles currently exercised by Abu Ghraib.

Help! Anyone.

Posted by: Genecis at June 25, 2004 11:15 AM

Sigh. Editors.

All the statements were from memory, so I can't cite chapter and verse.

Among the books, besides Tolischus's 'Tokyo Record':

Gavan Daws' 'Prisoners of the Japanese'
Robert Bateman,'s 'No Gun Ri'
Iris Chang's 'The Rape of Nanking'
Roger Dingman's 'Ghost of War'
Dirk Ballendorf and Merrill Bartlett's 'Pete Ellis'
Martin Clemens's 'Alone on Guadalcanal'
Joshua Fogel's 'The Nanjing Massacre'
Philip Chinnery's 'Korean Atrocity!'
Gregory Michno's 'Death on the Hellships'
Michno's 'USS Pampanito'
and my father's memories of taking Japanese prisoners after the surrender in August '45.

For Europe, Goldhagen, Shirer and dozens of other books.

For Gen. Washington and for the Italians in Hawaii, a US Army manual on POWs, whose title I cannot recall. There is, or was, a copy in every regimental office.

Sorry to be so vague; it was based on a lifetime's reading.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 25, 2004 3:03 PM

Thanks Harry. I took you literally on your opening. Thought I might have missed some historic fluke on the Conventions.

I witnessed evidence of some atrocious events by the Chinese soon after they happened in Korea. They never made the papers.

Thanks for taking the time.

Posted by: Genecis at June 25, 2004 4:49 PM

My editor took it the same way and had me rewrite the intro, but I guess the point still wasn't made clearly enough.

I was trying too hard to be provoking, maybe.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 25, 2004 6:37 PM