Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Prisoners of War

The news last week contained some items dealing with the treatment of prisoners of war in different parts of the world. Most shocking was the mass murder of about 1700 captured Iraqi army soldiers by the Sunni gunmen overrunning parts of northern Iraq. In China thirteen Moslem terrorists were quickly tried, convicted and executed for various terrorists attacks this spring. Finally, here in America five enemy combatants were released from Guantanamo after more than ten years of captivity in exchange for one American soldier held by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

It is only with great difficulty that we can even begin to understand the motivation of the Sunni militants in Iraq. With a relatively small force of heavily armed men (apparently no women serve in their force) they have routed an Iraqi army of 200000 and taken control of a number of cities. Mosul, one of these cities, has a population of 2 million. The images and videos showing them gunning down captured Shiite soldiers must be designed as a means to cow others into submission.

Compounding the issue is the 1000-year animosity between Sunni and Shiite Moslems. This is not just a religious issue. News reports indicate that for most of those thousand years the Sunnis ruled the area now known as Iraq. The majority Shiites were a despised lower class. Deceased dictator Saddam Hussein had kept a lid on these animosities but since his overthrow the majority Shiites have gained the upper hand with the support of both the Bush and Obama administrations. Since the American military withdrawal, however, the rule of law has apparently disappeared in Iraq. On the battlefield there are no rules of war, no legal forms, and no prison camps. The Sunni gunmen don't seem to care about a "status of forces" agreement.

In China there was a semblance of justice. The terrorist attacks took place from March through May and a host of perpetrators were rounded up, brought quickly before a Peoples’ Court, and sentenced. Most received long jail terms but at least 13 were quickly executed by a government eager to set an example. It should also be mentioned that the terrorists were all members of a Moslem tribal minority in China.

Despite the swift and severe nature of the Chinese response to terrorist attacks, it does seem kind of moderate when compared to the Sunni example on one extreme and the American example on the other extreme. In the past weeks the American media has been full of the story of the exchange of prisoners of war between the Obama administration and the Taliban in Afghanistan. In exchange for American army sergeant Bob Bergdahl, the Obama administration agreed to turn over five of the terrorists held for years at the prison in Guantanamo Bay.

I do not want to go into all the speculation about Sergeant Bergdahl or the motives of President Obama. Even though the President made a big deal about the Bergdahl exchange, and held a photo op with the soldier’s parents in the rose garden, the release has generated a storm of controversy. I’m sure there will be an investigation of some sort but security or political reasons may keep the truth from ever being known. Perhaps in the next Presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton may just ask, “what difference does it make?”

Rather than focus on Sergeant Bergdahl, I would like to consider the five enemy combatants or prisoners of war released from Guantanamo. They were captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan more than ten years ago. Even though they were not in uniform, they were treated as prisoners of war. They were not immediately beheaded as some captured Americans were, or gunned down as the Shiite soldiers were. Eventually, they were shipped to Guantanamo for interrogation. They may or may not have been tortured for information but on the whole they have been well fed, clothed, housed, and treated during their long confinement. Compared to some prisons Guantanamo seems like a Hilton.

Unlike the terrorists in China, they did not receive a swift trial or resolution of their cases. I believe that our government even provided them with teams of lawyers. Incredibly, they were not subjected to trial by a military court, the traditional and lawful way of dealing with such cases. During the Obama administration an attempt was made to grant them the rights of American citizens by trying them in a New York criminal court. Now they have been released with no guarantee that they will not fight us again.

Some may argue that the lenient treatment received by these captured terrorists is a sign of American humanity. Yet, it can also be an incentive to future inhumanity. I’m not just referring to the possibility that the released terrorists might strike again, or that other terrorists might be prone to take more hostages. I am not a soldier but I have read much military history, and I wonder what the response of American soldiers will be to the release of these prisoners. In the future will soldiers in the field elect to kill enemy captives rather than take them captive? Why should they allow enemy fighters who have just blown up their buddies to live to one day fight again?


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