Monday, December 18, 2006

War is Hell -- As Other Things Can Be

“War is Hell.” That is as true today as it always has been.

In today’s “global war on terror,” the same phrase could as easily apply to the psychological and legal uncertainty confronting the inmates of the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay where hundreds of men who fought U.S. and Northern Alliance troops in Afghanistan were incarcerated after their capture. These are the “unlawful enemy combatants” the Pentagon labeled “among the most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the Earth.”

It is a description that could have been coined by the same man who said “war is hell” –Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. He burned Atlanta and implemented a scorched earth policy in his infamous “march to the sea” through Georgia and into South Carolina as the U.S. Civil War drew to a close. But Sherman was not through.

Named after the early 19th century Shawnee chief who fought the expansion of white settlements in the Ohio River valley, Sherman was uncompromising toward Native American tribes in his post-Civil War assignment as commander of the vast Missouri District which stretched across the Great Plains from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains. Sherman thought that all Native Americans should be forced to live on reservations and reportedly declared that those not on reservations were “hostile and would remain so until killed off.” In an echo of his “march to the sea,” he also advocated destruction of the native economy through the mass slaughter of the great herds of bison that roamed the west. Promoted to the Army’s top position, Sherman by the late 1870s succeeded in forcing the Plains tribes – once described as the best light cavalry in the world – onto prison-like reservations or forcing them over the border into Canada.

Had George Bush been president in the 1870s, the tribes that resisted the cavalry’s destruction of their livelihood and way of life would undoubtedly have been labeled “enemy combatants” – even though it was their land, including land promised them by treaty – that was invaded and taken. As great as is this injustice, given the passage of 125 years of supposed democratic enlightenment, it is rivaled as one of the blackest episodes in U.S. history by the indefinite incarceration of more than 750 men at Guantanamo Bay.

With the release over the weekend of 33 more detainees, the camp’s prisoner total dropped to 395. Only nine men have been charged with any crime, and none have been tried as the Bush administration’s plan to use military commissions as courts of law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Congress subsequently passed enabling legislation, but this law is on hold while on appeal.

One might think that the Pentagon’s description of the detainees, including those returned to their countries of origin under lock and key as “still dangerous,” would prompt foreign governments to immediately incarcerate the returnees. Quite the contrary is happening, as the Associated Press discovered when tracking the fate of detainees after leaving direct U.S. custody.

Of the 245 former prisoners who could be traced, 205 had been freed immediately without charges involving misconduct under international law or were cleared of charges presented at Guantanamo. Of the other 40 still in custody and charged, 14 have been tried, with eight acquittals and six still waiting for verdicts

Tellingly, all 83 Afghans transferred back to Kabul’s jurisdiction were sent home upon arrival in their nation. All but three of the 80 repatriated Pakistanis are free after 12 months in Pakistani prisons because Islamabad regards them as innocent. The nine British and some of the 20 other “most dangerous” men from Australia, Denmark, Spain, Germany, Russia, Turkey, Libya, Kazakhstan, Yemen, Bangladesh Saudi Arabia, Maldives, and Bahrain were freed within hours of landing in their countries. The status of and restrictions on another 80 detainees is being discussed by the U.S. and foreign potentially reducing the prison population even further.

But what might be to date the most bizarre aspect of the whole Bush military commission ploy is the leveling of a murder charge against a Canadian teenager (then 15 years old) who killed a U.S. Special Operations noncommissioned officer during a fire fight in a small Afghan village in July 2002. The whole purpose of declaring war is to remove the moral burden of killing another human being – as long as the actions of the soldier conform to high humanitarian codes and principles of fighting “justly.”

When the vast majority of countries in the world come together in opposing the interpretation of events by and the actions of one country in response – even when (or especially when) that one country is the United States, the intelligent observer and the pragmatic policy maker might enlightening and worthwhile to ask “why?”

The answer may lie in the probability that a good number of “Taliban” soldiers had little choice and were “drafted’ into the anti-Northern Alliance-U.S. army. (The same considerations and circumstances were widespread in the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein.) The failure of the U.S.-led coalition to acknowledge these conditions for more than three years only exacerbated the psychological injustice done to Guantanamo prisoners and succeeded in creating even more anti-U.S. militants.

Perhaps George Bush should have taken to heart another Sherman position: “If drafted I will not run; if elected I will not serve.”

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