Friday, April 08, 2005

The detainees formerly known as POWs

One the fascinating things about the Wall Street Journal is how the news pages routinely provide fact-based refutations for the faith-based claptrap propounded in the op-ed pages. You wonder how readers deal with the cognitive dissonance.

For a recent conspicuous example of the cognitive dissonance, consider the disparate treatment of Bush regime's use of torture in the GWOT. For over a year the op-ed pages have consistently downplayed the political, legal, and moral significance of the U.S.’s use of torture as a tactic in the war on terror, enthusiastically quoting various rightwing American politicos who have questioned whether sexual humiliation, for example, constitutes torture.

But now the news section reports that one David Cohen (a rhetoric and classics professor at Berkeley, who just so happens also to have taught me Homer back when I was a college freshman) has been unearthing documents related to earlier cases from the 1940s, when the U.S. tried numerous Japanese prison guards for torture. The article is magnificent:

In the annals of law, the case of Masatomo Kikuchi is all but forgotten.

The former Japanese prison guard was tried by the Allies after World War II for war crimes. In 1947, a U.S. military commission, citing the Geneva Conventions and customary international law, convicted him of compelling prisoners of war to practice saluting and other military exercises for as long as 30 minutes when they were tired. His sentence: 12 years of hard labor....

The rulings from the years immediately after World War II lay out the most complete picture available of the way the U.S. viewed treatment of prisoners of war back then, when modern international humanitarian law was laid down. The question is, do these cases apply today?

Critics of the Bush administration's policy on terror-related prisoners argue they do. "These are the foundational cases," the first to apply international law to questions of prisoner treatment during armed conflict, says David Cohen, a 56-year-old professor of classics and rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, who also teaches classes on war crimes. He has spent the last 10 years collecting the documents from archives and government offices, adding millions of pages to existing records and unearthing the case of Mr. Kikuchi.

The records make it clear that after World War II, U.S. military prosecutors and judges set out to establish a precedent barring any prisoner mistreatment, by aggressively pursuing and punishing even comparatively small offenses.

"These things of minor importance are the very things which caused the Allied prisoners of the Japanese so great discomfort," prosecutor Robert Neptune told a military commission in October 1948. Army judges agreed. One wrote, "Extreme brutality or serious injury to the victim is not a necessary element" for guilt....

The archives also make clear that some of the practices employed by the U.S. today resemble those that U.S. military commissions condemned when Americans were on the receiving end. The U.S. considered as war crimes such tactics as solitary confinement, sleep and sensory deprivation, manipulation of meal schedules, forcing men to answer questions while naked or restrained in painful "stress positions," and failing to register prisoners with the International Red Cross. Today, all have been approved or practiced at Guantanamo and other U.S. facilities.

The records, many of them from tribunals held at Yokohama, Japan, between 1946 and 1949, show that many defendants, like Mr. Kikuchi, received long sentences for lesser infractions, in keeping with the U.S.'s aggressive approach to prosecutions. Some of the justifications now offered both by low-level American soldiers and top officials echo those raised, with little success, by Japanese defendants called to account before American courts.

U.S. tribunals dismissed defense arguments that Japanese practices were necessary for disciplinary or interrogation reasons, that American prisoners were treated no worse than Japanese soldiers, that Japan hadn't ratified the Geneva Conventions and wasn't therefore bound by them and that, in any event, many American prisoners had forfeited POW status by bombing cities or committing acts of sabotage.

The Bush regime says that none of these cases matter, because the detainees aren't actually POWs. Rather, they're "unlawful enemy combatants," so that these cases don't form a relevant precedent. The Bushies of course don't hesitate to proclaim that this is a war at every possible turn; but the people we're fighting and capturing someone aren't warriors.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't this more or less the same legal argument Prince made when he claimed that he should no longer bound by contracts he had signed because, technically, he was no longer "Prince" but was now that weird androgenous sign, e.g. "the artist formerly known as Prince." Using the same rhetorical flouriosh, one might describe the poor sods in Gitmo as "the detainees formerly known as POWs."

The legal argument didn't work too well for Prince. We'll see if it works better for the Bush regime.

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