Thursday, April 26, 2007

Rules of war

Perhaps the Taliban detainees should sue Canada. They were captured by Canadians, taken to a Canadian base for interrogation and then transferred to their torturers by Canadians. Surely they should be compensated by Canadians for their suffering.

Not to minimize the egregious wrongs committed by the Afghan police/military against their own countrymen in their own country -- but why are we supposed to care?

I suppose I'm at the limits of my compassion here. These detainees are the same people responsible for the caskets draped with Canadian flags. It isn't a tea party; it's war. I don't want Canadian soldiers participating in torture, but neither do I expect them to lose sleep about it if the prisoners they hand over are subjected to it.

The Opposition parties and other bloggers are citing Article 12 of the 3rd Geneva Convention which states:
Prisoners of war may only be transferred by the Detaining Power to a Power which is a party to the Convention (. . . ) if that Power fails to carry out the provisions of the Convention in any important respect, the Power by whom the prisoners of war were transferred shall, upon being notified by the Protecting Power, take effective measures to correct the situation or shall request the return of the prisoners of war. Such requests must be complied with.
The upshot being that the Afghans haven't signed on to the Geneva Convention, so the detainees should never have been transferred in the first place, but since they were, Canada bears the responsibility for their alleged abuse and must request that the detainees be returned to Canadian custody if they can't assure 'humane' treatment.

Okay, so if Article 12 applies, then does Article 17?
Each Party to a conflict is required to furnish the persons under its jurisdiction who are liable to become prisoners of war, with an identity card showing the owner's surname, first names, rank, army, regimental, personal or serial number or equivalent information, and date of birth. The identity card may, furthermore, bear the signature or the fingerprints, or both, of the owner, and may bear, as well, any other information the Party to the conflict may wish to add concerning persons belonging to its armed forces. As far as possible the card shall measure 6.5 x 10 cm. and shall be issued in duplicate. The identity card shall be shown by the prisoner of war upon demand, but may in no case be taken away from him.
If these detainees are not card-carrying soldiers, should Canadian soldiers even be allowed to capture them? After all, they might be using the weapons of war, but they aren't soldiers if they haven't got those cards, right? They're just armed civilians. Prove they're not. They'll tell you -- they're just poor fellas . . . minding their own business . . . the guns and bombs are for protection.

How ridiculous it is to apply old fashioned ideas about rules of war -- y'all think old fashioned ideas about marriage and family can be pitched out the window because times have changed, perceptions have changed, the reality and understanding of right and wrong has changed. Why are you so wedded to the Geneva Conventions and their constraints, when as much as any social institutions have changed with time, so has war.

Does the Geneva Convention even apply here -- with Canada not being an invading belligerent force, but in effect an associate force in what is almost a civil war? Can Canada expect to dictate the terms on which it gives over captured insurgents to the host power? What does the Convention say about a country's treatment of its own.

As a nation, we ignored the former Taliban government when they beat and execute women in soccer stadiums. We continue to quietly watch the annihilation of entire ethnic groups in the Sudan and the rape and murder of the civilian refugees in Kenyan camps. But when it comes to they guys caught trying to blow up our troops or destroy Afghan villages -- those guys are worthy of our particular attention. G-d forbid a Taliban insurgent in a war zone might be mistreated by his own countrymen -- if he was first captured by a Canadian.

Such a principled stand. Don't you just feel so smug and superior?

Just wait until this new generation of Canadian warriors gets their write up in the Canadian War Museum. Our Veterans from Bomber Command haven't fared well with the keepers of our military history. Those who do the judging are unwilling to look at the big picture while they luxuriate in that soft, self-indulgent, peacetime, pedagogic castigation of conflict.

The Geneva Conventions were written during times of conventional warfare. They assumed all parties would play by the rules, and would accept the consequences if they didn't. There can be no assumptions about the enemy in Afghanistan, and yet our soldiers still live by the Conventions. The shrill, hypocritical cry of 'humanity' from the sidelines underscores the deep disaffect between our sensibilities and the real world.

In a perfect world, the Geneva Conventions would be a quaint remnant of history, but in our world they are antiquated handcuffs that no longer apply. But rather than face modern reality, we smear our soldiers. In an attempt to scandalize a sitting government, we are demoralizing our troops.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Paying our troops lip service

"Support our Troops"

It slides easily off the lips, even of those whose support is more show than substance. The lips keep moving, mouthing 'support' but when it's politically expedient and might damage the Conservative government, support turns to implied accusation. Of course we support our troops although we are standing up in the House demanding action on their complicity in the torture of Afghan detainees. Of course, it isn't our soldiers we blame -- it's the government.

The pleas across the House of Commons for relief for the detainees must burn the ears of our soldiers. They bind their wounds, send home their fallen friends in boxes, and then listen to the opposition parties preach about right and wrong in a part of the world where friend and enemy wear the same clothes and trust leads to death, but you trust anyway.

Our troops hear evangelizing about 'human rights' in a country where the detainees in question would ensure 'human rights' never exist. Still these soldiers treat the detainees -- murderers and maimers of friends and comrades -- they treat them with kindness and dignity.

Stephane Dion said it was "shameful" that the Canadian government is knowingly turning over Afghan detainees despite evidence of torture. "We cannot send human beings to torture even though they are the enemy. We cannot."

The laugh of it is that the people who play by no rules, are dictating them.

It's right to take stock of our mission. It's right to carry the values of our nation into warzones. But is it necessary to accept responsibility for the treatment of detainees, in their own country, at the hands of their own countrymen?

Opposition MPs, most of whom have never served, prattle on about the Geneva Conventions and warn of our troops participating in 'war crimes' because of treaties signed in the wake of wars fought by more modern nations than this one where our troops serve. Those nations attempted to give war the artifice of refinement by imposing 'rules'. These were grown up countries making an effort to police themselves in the dirty, but seemingly inevitable business of war.

Our soldiers must shake their heads. It isn't enough to do their own jobs well; they are being expected to impose the ideals of developed nations, like prisoners' rights, honour and justice, in a country that barely meets the definition of civilization.

Torture is wrong. But unlike the countries that signed on to the Geneva Conventions, Afghanistan is a fledgling nation with no history in recognizing human rights let alone prisoner rights. Though it might be difficult for our elites to stomach, imposing our value system on them from outside is not going to change their worldview. It won't stop the torture and it won't stop the insurgents. Afghanistan must develop a social conscience from within the way Western nations have. A forced social conscience is an illusion. It might make us feel better, but it won't allow for real change and real stability will never happen.

Canadian soldiers set an example in both strength and compassion every day. In time, hopefully, the Afghanis will choose to follow that example, or be forced to change by a population ready adopt more Western-friendly values. In the meantime, blame and accusations are unhelpful. It ignores the realities on the ground.

Is it wrong to condone torture or to turn a blind eye? The simple answer is yes, but there are no simple answers. Not when your friends are going home in boxes and the enemy doesn't abide by conventions.


Monday, April 23, 2007

Maybe you had to be there

While looking into our own War Museum's approach to the role of Bomber Command during WWII, I came across a site in Britain, detailing a recent exhibit in Manchester, England. The Imperial War Museum's air war display closed recently. It was called AGAINST ALL ODDS. When I read the piece I marvelled at their disparate ways in which this period in our common history have been portrayed.

The exhibit at the Imperial War Museum didn't omit facts -- it presented Germany's estimated death toll and examined German losses, but its focus was on the accomplishments of Bomber Command despite the risks, hardship, privations and fear faced by the airmen. It treated the fliers with respect and honour.

"Against The Odds is the first major exhibition to look at the role of Bomber Command. From the first day of the Second World War until the Allied invasion of Germany in 1944, the bombing of Germany and allied countries in the Second World War by British and American forces made a vital contribution to the defeat of the Nazis. Bomber Command was the only British force to strike directly at the enemy's homeland.

"They came from across the Commonwealth, and alongside the United States Air Force, their role was the destruction of Germany's industrial, economic and military strength.

"But the cost was great: 55, 888 Bomber Command personnel were killed in action or on active service. 51 out of every 100 flyers did not return."
Michael Simpson, Head of Exhibitions at Imperial War Museum North

Whether it's the length of time that's elapsed since WWII, or Canada's physical distance from the action in WWII, or simply that we have scarcely seen hostilities on our soil in nearly 200 years, the Canadian War Museum's plaque, AN ENDURING CONTROVERSY -- is a painful example of historical contrition without benefit of sufficiently balanced background information. The cries of neutrality are strained when presented against the entirety of the display. This sermonizing and genuflecting at the altar of anti-war zealotry seems an effort to distance ourselves from our true military past. It's like an act of penance to purge a national sin.

Canada's Veterans are a humble lot. They aren't inclined to glorify war or their own contributions. Most of them are anti-war because they've been there and they know war firsthand. The War Museum has been entrusted with the preservation of their stories inside the framework of the war itself. The Museum's unyielding attachment to this paragraph, and its unbalanced display, despite the offense and injury to our Veterans, is unfathomable. Our Veterans don't deserve to be treated as though their service is an asterisk in the war effort. They don't deserve to feel as though they are trying to keep skeletons in the closet.

Contrast this paragraph with the above text from the Imperial War Museum:

"The value and morality of the strategic bomber offensive against Germany remains bitterly contested. Bomber Command's aim was to crush civilian morale and force Germany to surrender by destroying its cities and industrial installations. Although Bomber Command and American attacks left 600,000 Germans dead, and more than five million homeless, the raids resulted in only small reductions in German war production until late in the war."
The author of this paragraph is unable to think outside post-1960s assumptions about war -- all war. He has failed as an historian, because he has been unable to see the world from the perspective of his subject. At the outset, he has told us of a debate, and we expect balance because he has indicated that there are two sides to the role and the outcome of Bomber Command's mission -- but then he presents only one. If this were fictional, I might call it author intrusion. The writer wants so badly for the reader to take a particular point of view, that despite claiming objectivity, he provides limited scope and gives speculation and conjecture in the form of 'fact'. It is irresponsible at best and it is unethical at worst.

In defense of the paragraph, Dean F. Oliver says:

The text panel, "An Enduring Controversy," has attracted more public attention than any other, but it reflects the museum's overall approach. (...) Nowhere in this approach -- and certainly not in any of our dialogues with veterans -- does the Canadian War Museum see fundamental contradictions between presenting history as accurately as possible and remembering respectfully those whose actions in peace and war have done so much to shape this country.
It has been suggested that the Museum can't ignore 'difficult subjects' and that it's 'dangerous' to 'rewrite history' which implies the Veterans want the facts expunged from the display. What the Veterans really want, is for 'facts' to be presented at all. This plaque stands as a summary of the exhibit. It is general idea that visitors will take from the display. The people who run the War Museum have taken an intractable stance against the Royal Canadian Legion about this paragraph and the photographs chosen to reveal the story.

Let's look at the 'facts'.

First, most historians put the German civilian losses in a range from 350,000 to 600,000. Both are huge numbers, but the War Museum has taken the high-end estimate and used it as a factual total, and yet there is no accepted 'factual' total -- only estimates. The decision to use the high estimate without explaining that totals are impossible to ascertain, renders the credibility of the whole display suspect. It suggests the authors intended to lead visitors in a particular direction.

Second, by belittling the mission, it implies there was no reasoning behind the bombing, when in fact the strategy was used only after others had failed. Daylight raids had resulted in huge losses for the Allies early on in the war, so Britain used the Lancaster and Halifax Bombers, which were heavy and meant to be flown at night -- night bombing means area bombing. Little chance of pinpoint accuracy, but a better chance of getting the load off at all, without being shot down. Bomber Command put the safety of their fliers above the civilians of an enemy population bent on total war against all non-Germanic peoples. It was the only rational way to fight the war. Any other decision would have meant the deaths of more crews. As it was, even using night-bombing 51 out of every 100 fliers were killed in action. The Americans tried daylight, pinpoint bombing. It lasted less than a year -- not much longer than Bomber Command's initial attempts early in the war. The losses were simply too great. Later in the war, there were finally Allied troops on the ground in Europe and technology was moving ahead. Precision bombing became doable without being suicide. Strategy changed.

Third, it is misleading to say that "the raids resulted in only small reductions in German war production until late in the war."

Germany's production continued throughout the war because Germany had invaded all its neighbours and used their factories and workers to build munitions.
How many more guns, planes, bullets, mines, tanks, and V-bombs could they have built without the continuous disruptions of manufacturing and shipping lines by Bomber Command?
How much longer might the war have lasted?
How many more Allied soldiers and civilians might have been killed had bombing raids never happened?
How many more innocent people could have been sent to the ovens?

The War Museum plaque doesn't even ask these questions, let alone attempt to answer them. This is the synopsis, yet it has ignored issues which are imperative to understanding the role of Bomber Command.

AN ENDURING CONTROVERSY, the paragraph, is more "bitterly contested" than the rest of the Bomber Command display in its totality. Despite Director Oliver's assurance to the contrary, it is at the very least incomplete and because of that, it is indeed, disrespectful. The Museum's unwavering attachment to it, despite the anguish it has caused many Veterans, is shameful and unreasonable.

This is not about free speech. This is about presenting history realistically. No one wants to purge the historical record of evidence and facts, but our Veterans don't deserve to be equated with their wartime enemy. This display might be the only information a visitor will ever see or hear on the air war. Questioning their morality and belittling the value of their mission gives the impression of parity between the actions of the Nazis and those of Bomber Command.

It doesn't serve history well to ignore the painful parts, but neither does it serve our understanding of the past to take a sliver of time and interpret it, without conveying a sense of the historic reality. At least a century's distance from acts of war on Canadian soil has allowed us the illusion of being 'peacemaker' and 'peacekeeper' of the world. In order to reconcile its vision of our nice country with reality, the War Museum has chosen to pull a chapter from a bloody, protracted war and unjustly use it as a Scarlet 'A'.

And yet the Museum still doesn't understand the fuss. The Brits and the Veterans lived it. Maybe some people would have had to be there to get it.