Maybe we can agree that a prisoner is a prisoner when he’s in a prison, and a war is a war when it’s over. But that doesn’t make a thug taken prisoner in an Afghan cave a prisoner of war.
George W. Bush and his men tried to resolve the debate yesterday over whether a prisoner taken in a war is a “prisoner of war,” and failed. There’s still an argument within his administration, as Rowan Scarborough reported first in this newspaper, over how to describe the thugs, assassins, yeggs, terrorists, goons, cutthroats, vandals and other evil-doers rounded up in Afghanistan. But all the arguing won’t spring anyone from a cage at Guantanamo Bay.
The president’s dilemma is mostly a dilemma wrought by rhetoric. The war on terror is not actually a war at all, because Congress hasn’t declared war and only Congress can do that. But the threat of worldwide terror is real enough, and the struggle to destroy al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden’s evil Islamist nutballs is certainly as serious as any war we’ve ever fought, if not the biggest, and when the president called it a “war of terror” he was only telling the world that the United States intends to prosecute the struggle as it would prosecute a larger war.
Presidents have used “war” as a rhetorical device before. Jimmy Carter had his war on malaise, Ronald Reagan declared war on drugs and Bill Clinton went to war on anyone who got in the way of Monica Lewinsky on her way to the Oval Office pantry. But it never occurred to Mr. Reagan, as columnist Barbara Amiel observed in London’s Daily Telegraph, to regard captured drug dealers as prisoners of war.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and others in the administration argue that the Geneva Convention protections of prisoners taken on a battlefield should apply. Others, notably Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, say no, the Geneva Convention is irrelevant in the instant case because the al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners are “unlawful combatants,” and therefore, don’t deserve to be called prisoners of war.
Under the Geneva Convention, agreed to at the conclusion of World War II, a POW has certain legal rights that govern when, how and even whether the U.S. military can interrogate “detainees,” the ambiguously delicate term the administration prefers, and requires that detainees be released when the war, such as it may be, is over. The complicating factor is that some of the Taliban detainees may actually be soldiers, and this no doubt is what troubles Mr. Powell, who, unlike most other members of the president’s inner circle, actually was a soldier. His concerns, which may not prevail and in my view probably shouldn’t, are nevertheless legitimate and arguable.
We’ve captured bad guys before, and they were in fact treated as soldiers, with rights and even privileges that American citizens did not enjoy at the time.
Nearly a half million German and Italian prisoners of war, many of them dedicated Nazis, were brought to the United States at the end of the North Africa campaign in 1943. Because the conventions of that time dictated that prisoners be kept in a climate like that where they were taken captive, most were put in prison camps across the South and into New Mexico and Arizona. They were entitled to barracks like those housing American soldiers and, at one camp in Alabama, the American soldiers assigned to guard duty had to move out of their barracks into tents because the prisoners’ barracks weren’t ready. Prisoners got the same food rations American soldiers did, and dined on roast beef and pork chops when meat was rationed to the civilians who lived beyond the prison gates. When a prisoner died, the U.S. government supplied a German banner, with swastika, to drape over his coffin. We provided Ping-Pong tables, jukeboxes (with German music) and even typewriters. My late wife’s mother gave me a splendid new Remington Rand upright, purchased as war surplus for $2 at a camp near us deep in the Arkansas piney woods, as a wedding present. I keep it in my office. Sometimes a young reporter will wander by to marvel at the primitive technology, and wonder where to plug in the mouse.
We sometimes shouted fractured German phrases at the prisoners passing in trucks on the way to pick cotton. Once, when we gave them what we imagined was a bravely mocking “Heil Hitler,” one of the prisoners threw a clod of dirt, and hit me in the eye. The government’s naive idea was that if we treated our prisoners to a comfortable life, maybe Hitler would do the same for our men. More than a few of the prisoners, who spent up to two years in America, decided they wanted to be Americans, too, and returned years later to take up citizenship. We won’t see that this time, and a good thing, too.