Friday, January 07, 2005

Why follow GC?

I see torture is the discussion of the day again. And once more the question arises, "Why should we follow the Geneva Conventions (henceforth GC) when the bad guys don't?" I'd like to answer that question.

First and most important, we do so for tactical reasons. Basically, we much prefer our enemy to surrender. Surrender comes into play when the options are die, surrender, or run away. Sometimes run away isn't an option, and it's just a choice of die or surrender.

What we do by upholding the GC is make surrendering more palatable. "Hmm," the foe says, "I can die, maybe killing one or two soldiers in the process, or I can surrender, get a hot meal, decent care, and eventually see my family again." The more miserable - the more demeaning, destructive, and dangerous we make the option of surrender, the more the idea of dying instead (and taking a few more foes along) becomes a good idea.

Think not? Consider the US western mythos of the Wild West and "fighting Apaches." Was surrender an option, or was the rule to fight to the last, saving one bullet for oneself? For every USian, the latter is obvious. And most of us can say why - because they'd "turn you over to the women" who would inflict on you torture that would make you wish you'd died.

And it's a pretty simple fact that a US soldier or marine having to dig the enemy out of every crevice is more likely to die than one who is taking surrendering prisoners - even when he has to watch out for those using the flag of truce as a ruse. It means he spends less blood, less time, and less ammo winning the battles. Tactically, an enemy willing to surrender is a far easier foe to defeat than one willing to die first.

Operationally, the logistics of this becomes a bit of a wash. On the one hand, increasing the will to surrender results in a reduction in logistic requirements for bullets and medical supplies and bodybags. On the other hand, it's a huge increase in needs for processing prisoners, which includes food and fuel requirements above and beyond that merely for your own forces.

On the other hand, there's the operational question of intel - interrogation of prisoners. By using means that are questionable if not outright in violation of the GC, it's quite possible you'll get answers to your questions - you can break almost anyone given time and will. However, there's a tendency for the broken to tell the interrogators what they think those interrogators want to hear, not what the broken truly know. And equally bad, the likelihood you'll get more prisoners with more current intel gets reduced - they're not surrendering if that is a fate "worse than death". So your choice at the operational level becomes: a) More prisoners, but less willing to tell all; b) fewer prisoners more willing to tell all. Neither "all" is completely trustworthy, of course, so it's got to be doublechecked. And that last is the real operational reason you want more prisoners. The more prisoners you have - the more individuals to be questioned - the more crosschecking is available, and the more trustworthy the information you DO get becomes.

Finally, there's the strategic reasoning. And at the strategic level there are two considerations. The first is the fighting and winning of the war. The second is the issue of what happens after the war.

In many ways, fighting and winning the war is a reflection of the tactical issue of surrender. It's worth recalling that winning a war is in the end a matter of convincing the people of the nation that they've lost. There is no set number of casualties or economic hardship that guarantees the losers will consider themselves to have lost. In fact, history is full of examples where minimal damage resulted in collapse, and by the same token where the nation continued despite extraordinary damage, even "returning from the dead". A nation - not the government, but the people - who believe that their surrender will result in things being at least the same if not better are much more willing to yield than those who believe that things will be worse. And the GC is intended to ensure things are better more than they are worse. In the end it is the will of the people whether a nation fights or yields. In today's world, if on one side those captured are treated honorably and decently, and on the other they are not, then the people of the other nation are eventually going to wonder about the treatment THEY receive from their government, and how it would be under that honorable and decent nation.

Another advantage to followers of the GC while fighting and winning the war is the gain of trustworthy and trusting allies. A nation that treats its enemies nobly is always perceived as willing to do moreso for its allies. On the other hand, if the allied nation degrades and abuses its foes, its allies will always wonder if they're next. The ally of the former is always more willing to provide - and to provide more - than the latter's allies, who must always wonder if they need to keep a reserve.

It is after the war where the strategic advantages of following the GC comes into play. Quite simply, following the GC reduces resentments. The more resentment, the more difficult it will be for the victor to make a useful nation out of the loser - whether that nation is intended to be subordinate or ally matters not. In the US's case, the desired endstate of conquered enemies is that the resulting government be stable and supportive of US philosophies and goals. This is much easier when the nation isn't filled with people who suffered degradation and torture at the hands of the US. That's because people in most cultures tend to have a few similarities - in particular, a desire to retaliate for wrongs received. The desire for such can never be eliminated in war, but by following the GC they can be significantly reduced. This increases the speed and ease with which a stable and friendly government of the conquered nation can be emplaced, and works to the benefit of the victor.

I was dismayed when the President of the US basically said that we could treat the terrorists and the Iraqi prisoners however we wanted because they weren't followers of the GC. Oh, I recall him saying that we'd still follow the GC, but I also recall many documents saying this and that procedure wasn't really a violation - even though they had been before when done to our military over the years. Bluntly, when we had memos produced that split hairs, we were no longer in the right. A guideline we used to teach soldiers - I was taught so, anyway - was to consider whether we'd issue complaints if the process was used on our soldiers. And as a whole (and in some cases without a doubt), we would AND HAVE issued such complaints. But I digress.

I was dismayed at the decision for tactical, operational and strategic reasons. I have seen no evidence that the gain - strategic or operational - in the occupation and rehabilitation of Iraq OR the war on terror has outweighted the benefit to our foes. Indeed, there are indications that our foes have gained significantly more. And even if we stopped it right now - moving almost as far the other direction (which would be as bad) - it's too late for Iraq. And it'd be too late for the US for at least the next decade.

We have soiled our reputation, and will spend sweat and blood because of it whether we clean it or not.


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