By Paul Rieckhoff, the executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, is the author of ‘Chasing Ghosts: A Soldier’s Fight for America From Baghdad to Washington’ (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 25/09/06):
IN 2002, I attended the Infantry Officer Basic Course at Fort Benning, Ga. At “the Schoolhouse,” every new Army infantry officer spent six months studying the basics of his craft, including the rules of war.
I remember a seasoned senior officer explaining the importance of the Geneva Conventions. He said, “When an enemy fighter knows he’ll be treated well by United States forces if he is captured, he is more likely to give up.”
A year later on the streets of Baghdad, I saw countless insurgents surrender when faced with the prospect of a hot meal, a pack of cigarettes and air-conditioning. America’s moral integrity was the single most important weapon my platoon had on the streets of Iraq. It saved innumerable lives, encouraged cooperation with our allies and deterred Iraqis from joining the growing insurgency.
But those days are over. America’s moral standing has eroded, thanks to its flawed rationale for war and scandals like Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo and Haditha. The last thing we can afford now is to leave Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions open to reinterpretation, as President Bush proposed to do and can still do under the compromise bill that emerged last week.
Blurring the lines on the letter of Article 3 — it governs the treatment of prisoners of war, prohibiting “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture” and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment” — will only make our troops’ tough fight even tougher. It will undermine the power of all the Geneva Conventions, immediately endanger American troops captured by the enemy and create a powerful recruiting tool for Al Qaeda.
But the fight over Article 3 concerns not only Al Qaeda and the war in Iraq. It also affects future wars, because when we lower the bar for the treatment of our prisoners, other countries feel justified in doing the same. Four years ago in Liberia, in an attempt to preserve his corrupt authority, President Charles Taylor adopted the Bush administration’s phrase “unlawful combatants” to describe prisoners he wished to try outside of civilian courts. Today Mr. Taylor stands before The Hague accused of war crimes.
It is not hard to imagine that one of our Special Forces soldiers might one day be captured by Iranian forces while investigating a potential nuclear weapons program. What is to stop that soldier from being water-boarded, locked in a cold room for days without sleep as Iranian pop music blares all around him — and finally sentenced to die without a fair trial or the right to see the evidence against him?
If America continues to erode the meaning of the Geneva Conventions, we will cede the ground upon which to prosecute dictators and warlords. We will also become unable to protect our troops if they are perceived as being no more bound by the rule of law than dictators and warlords themselves.
The question facing America is not whether to continue fighting our enemies in Iraq and beyond but how to do it best. My soldiers and I learned the hard way that policy at the point of a gun cannot, by itself, create democracy. The success of America’s fight against terrorism depends more on the strength of its moral integrity than on troop numbers in Iraq or the flexibility of interrogation options.
Several Republican combat veterans, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Senators Lindsay Graham, John McCain and John Warner, have recognized that the president’s stance on Article 3 is a threat to our troops and to our interests. It would be insulting for the president to assume he knows more about war than they do.
But the compromise the president struck with the senators last week leaves the most significant questions unresolved. The veterans must hold their ground — and the White House must recognize that our troops need all the moral authority they can get.