Saturday, 23 October 2010

Between a rock and a soft space

The current hoo haa regarding the latest episode of Wikileaks threatened for the week-end intrigues me. I may have a better insight than many as to the problem; I was in charge of the Army CID in Belfast from 1970 to 72 and appreciate the task facing US forces regarding investigations into shootings and allegations against the military. The sheer volume of work now required into any serious incident can be overwhelming and, in some cases, impossible to achieve. For example, I was in Londonderry on what became known as Bloody Sunday and took the initial statements from troops involved. The Saville Inquiry into the events took many years and many millions to investigate that half-hour of engagement.

So, what might the senior service officers have done differently? I cannot really know - I wasn't there. However, it comes down to command and control. It all seems to start out well where obedience is implanted in Private Gomer Pyle. The system if properly implemented means that knowledge of what ever is done by the lowest gets escalated upwards. Whilst it is the Colonel's prerogative as to what happens, his salary grade does include responsibility for what is done by his men. And that is where things get fuzzy. Just as in the observation about fleas, he also has his fleas at higher command. They do not concern themselves with detail - "We want to be on top of that hill by nightfall" sparks of all the little fleas and a detailed plan is evolved. Gomer Pyle knows it is no use his objecting to the task or the method. His sergeant knows he cannot blame Pyle for his failure to accomplish what his lieutenant ordered him to do. A situation where a force commander has to acknowledge he is not on top of the hill is not acceptable. "the enemy won't let us go there" does not wash. 'All is fair in love and war' overcomes the Geneva Convention and can be the start of something that people safe in their beds in Washington get all huffy about.

The way in which war is waged has been codified. Reams and reams of paper have been generated but the problem remains of boiling these down into a piece of card maybe slightly bigger than a credit card which Pte Pyle can understand. Try your hand at a précis of this - "The United States is bound by customary law and international laws of war, by the Hague Conventions of 1889 and 1907, the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and the Nuremberg Conventions adopted by the United Nations (U.N.) December 11, 1945 -- all of which set limits beyond which, by common consent, decent peoples will not go. Under the Constitution, all treaties are part of the supreme law of the land. Humanitarian law rests on a simple principle; that human rights are measured by one yardstick. Without that principle, all jurisprudence descends into mere piety and power.

When laws of war were codified, military necessity ceased to be the final arbiter of human rights and civility. Nor do violations of the laws of war by one belligerent vindicate the war crimes of another.

For the high officials who planned and supervised military operations in Iraq, the "shock-and-awe" campaign encompasses three major types of war crimes, all in violation of the Geneva Conventions of 1949: The "wanton destruction of cities, towns, and villages" in violation of the Nuremberg principles. The premeditated use of weapons known to cause unnecessary suffering and indiscriminate destruction. The use of depleted uranium, the poison of radiation that is destroying the lives of untold numbers of civilians and soldiers, including American personnel.
We are not referring to incidental transgressions of humanitarian law, or even the war crimes of desperate infantrymen in the heat of battle -- like soldiers who recently fired bullets into crowds of anti-occupation demonstrators in Iraq -- follies committed out of fear, confusion, and the hatred that all war evokes. It's not the crimes of passion, but the crimes of calculation that require moral reappraisal.
The italics are mine and, in the context of Wikileaks, could be very significant. There is recognition that passion and hatred are found in the area where bullets fly. What is not covered is the deliberate and conscious rejection of civilised human conduct. Torture can never be tolerated. For clarity, I do not support the often claimed excuse that it is OK to torture someone on the off-chance they know where a large time bomb is ticking away. NCIS is not the real world. The game of rendition or pass the parcel of a prisoner moved about clandestinely so that he ends up somewhere where torture is a recognised feature of investigations, is not acceptable.

So, what might be done? Mumsy Clinton went off very well last night in condemning the brash Assange and his colleagues but as I see it, she really does not have a leg to stand on. Secret and confidential information revealed? The keepers of the data should have made it impossible to be improperly accessed; they wrote the stuff and should have secured it. Danger to indigenous peoples? The Taliban have shown that they have well tried sources of information so anyone exhibiting his new found informant's wealth would be known as would any villager getting too friendly with our troops. ANA personnel engaged in joint operations are another source of information leakage. It would be a farce to expect some form of military Witness Protection Scheme.

So, suppose the idea of 'crime' carried out in the course of battle is capable of being floated and accepted, that leaves the organised, deliberate and intentional offences that contravene the standards enacted. There exists in some countries the concept that a payment of money, (sometimes referred to as blood money), closes the whole affair - whether this exists in Iraq I cannot say. It seems so - "Tribal traditions in Iraq often allow a tribe to pay blood money to compensate for a murder committed by a member." Uncle Sam has a huge tribe and properly handled by a half-way competent spinner, everything could come up as roses.

That leaves the 'black' operations and clearly illegal actions. I cannot see that even so well resourced a country as America could ever investigate the sheer volume of these. Just to return to Iraq in pursuance of witnesses would be a extremely hazardous exercise made worse by the evocative nature of the inquiry.

The matters that will come out of full study of the new Wikileaks must have some official response other than disclosure being deprecated. In simple terms, a significant US personage saying mea culpa (maybe even mea culpa maxima)and we promise not to do it again. This need not be an empty promise and just requires a couple of days extra training for recruits and reinforcement on pre-deployment briefings. Senior officers as well as the doughboys.

Should Wikileaks have released this mass of documentation? On balance, I am in agreement. I think, even without my own direct experience, I would be naïve to think that such things didn't happen and I am not able to use 'not in my name' to dodge the issue. If it happened, I wish to know - even if only to be aware what is being done in any recurrence of fools rushing into some other John Wayne scenario.

Just a quote I came across whilst checking something - "Whatever shortcomings there may have been in Iraq and Afghanistan stemmed from failures and miscalculations at the top, not those doing the fighting and the leading on the ground. It has taken every ounce of our troops' skill, initiative and commitment to battle a cunning and adaptive enemy at the front while overcoming bureaucratic lassitude and sometimes worse at the rear."

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