Monday, October 02, 2006

Why Churchill Opposed Torture

Cigar aficionado and master statesman Winston Churchill

From LA Times (requires free subscription)

Niall Ferguson: Why Churchill Opposed Torture

The British leader understood what President Bush does not: When it comes to prisoners of war, what goes around comes around.
October 2, 2006

LAST WEEK, both houses of Congress approved a bill — the Military Commissions Act — that would permit the indefinite, extrajudicial incarceration of terrorist suspects and their interrogation using torture in all but name. Does that sound shocking? What's really shocking is that this was a compromise measure.

When President Bush signs this bill into law, a category of detainees will come into existence: "unlawful enemy combatants" who, regardless of their nationality, will be liable to summary arrest.

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Official Japanese policy encouraged brutality toward 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: 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 labor, most famously on the Burma-Thailand railway line. Attempting to escape was treated by the Japanese as a capital offense, though the majority of prisoners who died were in fact victims of malnutrition and disease exacerbated by physical overwork and abuse. In all, 42% of Americans taken prisoner by the Japanese did not survive. Such were the consequences of "amending" the Geneva Convention.

Red-state Republicans may still shrug their shoulders. After all, George W. Bush is no Tojo. 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 Geneva Convention, consider this purely practical argument: As Winston Churchill insisted throughout the war, treating POWs well is wise, if only to increase the chances that your own men will be well treated if they too are captured. Even in World War II, there was in fact a high degree of reciprocity. The British treated Germans POWs well and were well treated by the Germans in return; the Germans treated Russian POWs abysmally and got their bloody deserts when the tables were turned.

Few, if any, American soldiers currently find themselves in enemy hands. But in the long war on which Bush has embarked, that may not always be the case. The bottom line about mistreating captive foes is simple: It is that what goes around comes around. And you don't have to be a closet liberal to understand that.
The easy poke at Ferguson/Churchill is that Al Qaeda and their ilk, given their "barbaric" value system and lack of membership in the broader community that constitutes Western Civilization/Christendom are unlikely to treat American POWs with any decency regardless of how we treat their detainees/enemy combatants/POWs. That may well be the case.

But it might not. We will have certainly slammed the door to any reasonable expectation of decent treatment -- the international press corps and community will not be able to exert any leverage whatsoever on future captors of Americans in the light of our new pro-torture policy. And more importantly, we cede the moral high ground in what all parties concede will be a long struggle.

And without that moral high ground, how can we possibly see our path clear to victory?