JUS IN BELLO
[Cross-posted at In a Blog's Stead]
I have a problem with both sides in the debate over Lt. Col. Allen West.
West's defenders say his actions were justified because they resulted in information that helped to avert an attack on his unit. Let's think what that means. If such a defense is correct, then why should it apply solely in this particular case? Wouldn't it follow that torturing prisoners of war is justified whenever it might result in information that could prevent an enemy attack? (And if you think beating a bound prisoner and discharging a gun near his head isn’t torture, ask yourself whether you'd feel the same way if Iraqis had done it to an American soldier instead of vice versa.)
Are we really prepared to toss out the window this most basic protection for POWs, this hard-won victory of the party of civilisation over the party of barbarism? If so, to what principle can we appeal when our own soldiers receive abuse from enemy captors?
Those who defend such conduct are fond of saying"This is war!" – as though this were some sort of unanswerable, blanket license for suspending the requirements of morality. But if folks in the inter arma silent leges crowd really do regard morality as a mere human contrivance, to be discarded whenever it grows inconvenient, the self-righteous moralising tone of their pronouncements seems a bit incongruous.
But I have a problem with many of West's critics as well. What West did was wrong, but there's little justice in letting punishment fall on him while giving a pass to the authorities who put him in such an untenable position in the first place. (And the Army's weaselly treatment of West, threatening to prosecute him not for what he did but for refusing to resign meekly and quietly, has been inexcusable.) When arrogant princes like Bush and Cheney, who have presided over countless bombings of innocent civilians, hang someone like West out to dry for a far lesser crime, it's hard to feel anything but disgust.