War Crimes and Military Justice

War crimes happen in all wars. And are rarely punished appropriately. There are structural reasons for that which are unlikely to change. This is one more reason why war should be the last resort.

I wrote a long time ago that soldiers are almost never punished severely for war crimes against the enemy. During the past three years, I haven’t seen any evidence to the contrary.

A review of the Iraq War by the Washington Post last year showed that:

The majority of U.S. service members charged in the unlawful deaths of Iraqi civilians have been acquitted, found guilty of relatively minor offenses or given administrative punishments without trials, according to a Washington Post review of concluded military cases. Charges against some of the troops were dropped completely.

Though experts estimate that thousands of Iraqi civilians have died at the hands of U.S. forces, only 39 service members were formally accused in connection with the deaths of 20 Iraqis from 2003 to early this year [2006 — ZA]. Twenty-six of the 39 troops were initially charged with murder, negligent homicide or manslaughter; 12 of them ultimately served prison time for any offense.

Some military officials and analysts say the small numbers reflect the caution and professionalism exercised by U.S. forces on an urban battlefield where it is often difficult to distinguish combatants from civilians. Others argue the statistics illustrate commanders’ reluctance to investigate and hold troops accountable when they take the lives of civilians.

[…] The harshest penalty, meted out to two soldiers in separate murder cases in 2004, was 25 years in prison — one of the convicted shot an Iraqi soldier, and the other shot an Iraqi man in his house. Two others convicted in what was called a mercy killing of an Iraqi each received one year in jail.

Solis, who has studied civilian homicides from the Vietnam War, said there were 27 Marines and 95 Army soldiers convicted of murder and manslaughter in that conflict, which lasted much longer and produced many more casualties than the Iraq war has so far.

According to The Post’s review of publicly reported cases from Iraq, 39 U.S. service members were charged with crimes in connection with the deaths of Iraqi civilians or for allegedly covering them up, from the start of the war in March 2003 through early 2006.

Twenty-four Army personnel were charged in connection with civilian deaths. Twelve were convicted of crimes and received jail sentences that ranged from 45 days to 25 years. Four others were tried at courts-martial, resulting in one acquittal and three convictions with no confinement.

Charges against two others were dropped. Six received administrative punishments, including four who cooperated with government prosecutions of their superiors. In administrative cases, no trial is held and the charges and penalties are not made public.

Going back to the Vietnam War, the Los Angeles Times had this to report:

The files are part of a once-secret archive, assembled by a Pentagon task force in the early 1970s, that shows that confirmed atrocities by U.S. forces in Vietnam were more extensive than was previously known.

The documents detail 320 alleged incidents that were substantiated by Army investigators — not including the most notorious U.S. atrocity, the 1968 My Lai massacre.

Though not a complete accounting of Vietnam war crimes, the archive is the largest such collection to surface to date. About 9,000 pages, it includes investigative files, sworn statements by witnesses and status reports for top military brass.

The records describe recurrent attacks on ordinary Vietnamese — families in their homes, farmers in rice paddies, teenagers out fishing. Hundreds of soldiers, in interviews with investigators and letters to commanders, described a violent minority who murdered, raped and tortured with impunity.

Abuses were not confined to a few rogue units, a Times review of the files found. They were uncovered in every Army division that operated in Vietnam.

[…] Among the substantiated cases in the archive:

  • Seven massacres from 1967 through 1971 in which at least 137 civilians died.
  • Seventy-eight other attacks on noncombatants in which at least 57 were killed, 56 wounded and 15 sexually assaulted.
  • One hundred forty-one instances in which U.S. soldiers tortured civilian detainees or prisoners of war with fists, sticks, bats, water or electric shock.

Investigators determined that evidence against 203 soldiers accused of harming Vietnamese civilians or prisoners was strong enough to warrant formal charges. These “founded” cases were referred to the soldiers’ superiors for action.

Ultimately, 57 of them were court-martialed and just 23 convicted, the records show.

Fourteen received prison sentences ranging from six months to 20 years, but most won significant reductions on appeal. The stiffest sentence went to a military intelligence interrogator convicted of committing indecent acts on a 13-year-old girl in an interrogation hut in 1967.

He served seven months of a 20-year term, the records show.

Many substantiated cases were closed with a letter of reprimand, a fine or, in more than half the cases, no action at all.

You can read the documents and more reports related to war crimes in Vietnam at the LA Times website.

Then there is the case of Sergeant Joseph Darby.

In January 2004, Darby provided a compact disc of photographs and an anonymous note to Special Agent Tyler Pieron of the US Army Criminal Investigation Command, who was stationed at Abu Ghraib Prison, triggering an investigation which led to the implication of several soldiers violating the Geneva Convention. Darby initially wanted to remain anonymous — he and those implicated all served in the 372nd Military Police Company, but became known after Donald Rumsfeld publicly named him during a Senate hearing. Darby had agonized for a month beforehand, but finally decided to blow the whistle on his former friends explaining “It violated everything I personally believed in and all I’d been taught about the rules of war.” He had known Lynndie England, one of the most well-known suspects, since basic training. He testified that he had received the photos from Charles Graner, another soldier in the photographs.

The Joe Darby came home and was reviled in his hometown for ratting out fellow soldiers.

“If I were [Darby], I’d be sneaking in through the back door at midnight,” says Janette Jones, who lives just across the border in Pennsylvania and stopped here at midday with her daughter for a Pepsi and a smoke.


“They can call him what they want,” says Mike Simico, a veteran visiting relatives in Cresaptown. “I call him a rat.”

And so Joe Darby had to leave his hometown and move.

If you have read this far and are thinking that these war crimes and the lack of punishment is only the United States’ fault, think again. War crimes happen in all wars and are rarely punished or even seen as wrong. Take Israeli occupation of Palestine or the Pakistani army’s actions in Bangladesh/East Pakistan in 1971. Or any other example from history. And you’ll see the same thing being repeated again and again.

The problem is actually structural. First, when we are at war, we consider the enemy to be subhuman. The job is to kill the enemy and to defeat it. The soldiers need to muster up the courage to be able to kill on the battlefield. The psychological defenses they put up to justify all the mayhem around them creates a black and white world with no gray. When a war crime is committed, it is difficult to get it reported. If the enemy nationals are the ones complaining, it is easy to dismiss it as enemy propaganda. At a trial, the jury and judge belong to the same side as the accused soldiers and the victims are in general seen as part of the other. The military justice system in a good country like the US gives a lot of the benefit of doubt to the accused, which is as it should be. However, in a war situation and in the case of crimes against enemy nationals this makes the task of proving guilt very difficult.

And that’s why it is imperative that we do not go to war unless it really is absolutely necessary. As Matthew Yglesias notes:

I don’t think ordinary people can read Sydney Freedberg’s excellent cover story in the new National Journal but the teaser text explains the basic dilemma well:

Sometimes U.S. troops kill Iraqis in self-defense. Sometimes they kill them for other reasons. And sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

The crux of the matter is that soldiers in ambiguous situations understandably tend to err on the side of their own personal safety and that of their fellow soldiers. Likewise, officers faced with ambiguous situations tend to err on the side of giving the soldiers under their command the benefit of the doubt. And courts-martial, likewise, err on the side of taking a favorable view of American soldiers.

All of which is fine. Unless you happen to be an Iraqi. Which is precisely why people tend not to enjoy being under foreign military occupation.

Deflated Balls and Military Bureacracy

A military spokesman sputters nonsense in reply to reports that the US army distributed deflated soccer balls to Iraqi kids because no one had the foresight to order pumps or pins.

Via Unqualified Offerings comes this tale of the US military handing out deflated soccer balls to Iraqi kids. The whole article is worth reading but the most amusing part is the response of the military spokesman:

“America is filled with veterans who know that this comic view of soldiers dumbly following orders is completely without basis and almost laughable in its propagation of stereotype,” Kubik wrote. “Soldiers are Americans, not automatons.” He added: “To focus on the air in the balls, or lack thereof, undermines the American spirit of generosity and completely misses the point of giving.”

Funny as hell!

Muslim Occidentalism

Thabet argues that Muslims see the West similar to the way the West sees Muslims. Western Orientalism has a counterpart in Muslim Occidentalism. What is even more interesting is that Western Muslims set themselves apart from the West.

Thabet has a great post about Muslim attitudes towards the West.

Western Orientalism and its science of Islamology is a very well-studied and understood phenomenon. Edward Said, above all others, did much to highlight the distorting filters through which some of the most widely read Western scholars of Islam. […]

One would have thought that Muslims, and mostly Western Muslims, would have understood what it means to distort and crudely reduce entire human traditions and cultures into vulgar stereotypes or dismissal of other ideas as pointless and meaningless. Yet Muslims are far too happy to engage in their own form of Occidentalism when engaging with Western traditions.

[…] the discussion moved to ‘liberty’ and Muslim states. I pointed out that they fail miserabley on that aspect; that they do not leave people alone who is not directly harming anyone or causing any great offence. This, I said, was an ideal from Western traditions and Muslims who lived in Western states should appreciate this liberty (give or take the recent fascination with arresting and harassing people). They weren’t about to be arrested everytime they left their front door (or even if they were asleep). The response from one friend was to suggest that my approval of ‘liberty’ was tantamount to advocating ‘binge drinking’. The logic being that because people were free to drink, then they would want to binge drink, and so binge drinking would this become an ‘ideal value’, as it has in Britain. Whatever the flaws of the argument — and the point here isn’t even about binge drinking, which is a massive problem in Britain — this isn’t critical engagement with another tradition or culture, but is the reduction of these traditions into vulgar forms, where the worst aspects are held as the ideals. It is no different to suggesting that the subjegation of women is an ideal of Islam, because far too many Muslims engage in opressive practices against women in the name of Islam (and that do this shouldn’t be denied).

Do read the whole post. It is not too long and definitely worth your time.

Jyllands-Posten Muhammad Cartoons

If you came here looking for my thoughts on the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad that Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, published in September and that were republished in several other newspapers this year, you have come to the wrong place. I won’t consider getting upset over freaking cartoons.

If you came here looking for my thoughts on the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad that Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, published in September and that were republished in several other newspapers this year as protests by Muslims mount, you have come to the wrong place. I won’t consider getting upset over freaking cartoons. As Aziz says:

“Islam is infinite. They can burn the Qur’an, or insult the Prophet SAW, or outlaw the hijab. But they can never erase the delicate calligraphy of Deen upon the muslim’s soul. Our religion is infinitely greater than the sum of their scorn, and as such we have no opinion on their insults as they matter, in the end, not even the tinest whit.”

Thabet of the blog towards God is our journey has a survey of the blogs as well as his own commentary on this topic. Also, read Chapati Mystery.

Letter to a US Representative

Greetings Web Community,

I drafted the following letter with the intent of sending it to my representative in the US House of Reps. Before executing my plan, I wish to gather comments from this online community.


Our country’s current foreign, budget and resource policies compel me to take up the pen. This is the first in a series of letters intended to present these issues in a potentially different context and to suggest alternate approaches to confronting them. This letter deals specifically with our nation’s policies concerning prisoners taken during the war on terror.

Prisoner abuse, such as the incidents at Abu Garade, drew condemnations from the highest levels of government and the military. Yet, reports of abuse at the hands of our troops continue to surface. According to President Bush, the United States does not torture prisoners. Yet, the administration refuses to support Senator McCain’s efforts to make such practices illegal. The administration declared a “war on terror.” Yet, prisoners taken during this war are not identified as prisoners of war; instead, they are labeled detainees, enemy combatants and other such ambiguous designations – excluding them from the protections given by the Geneva Conventions. Such statements and actions smack of hypocrisy, a hypocrisy that tarnishes our nation’s image. Moreover, the actions which contradict our words imperil our brave service men and woman deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. When the United States abuses and tortures, others are emboldened to do the same. Worse yet, as these occurrences become commonplace, the global community grows less sensitive, reducing the global outcry against terrorists and their deeds.

Unfortunately, the matter of abuse and torture fundamentally connects with the current administration’s efforts to stop terrorism. The president responded to September 11 by declaring a war on terror, but he never defined the enemy or desired end conditions. (Few, if any, politicians considered the logic of using terror to defeat terror.) In democracies, wars tend to be limited periods when the rules of normal conduct are bent to serve martial purposes. The current administration effectively committed our nation to an indefinite period in which the military and intelligence agencies can bend the rules. This policy placed our nation on a moral slippery slope with consequences beginning with evasion of the Geneva Conventions, proceeding to prison abuse and, now, reaching an implicit endorsement of torture. Should this continue, I am afraid that our nation will not stop there.

As a Representative in the United States Congress, you have the responsibility to take a stand against this moral ambiguity and the slippery slope policy underpinning it. The following steps will help set the nation on a path to the moral high ground where a great democracy such as the United States belongs.

– Support the House’s version of Sen. McCain’s anti-torture bill.

– Call for a public inquiry into the CIA’s alleged “black site” prisons in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. If you know this allegation to be true, lobby the administration to end this practice.

– Work to close detention facilities such as the one at Guantanomo Bay. These facilities are breeding grounds for abuse.

– Prepare legislation that reclassifies detainees in our custody as either criminals or prisoners of war. This act would clear the way for the ethical passage of detainees into criminal court systems (ours or their countries of origin) or prisoner of war camps satisfying the requirements in the Geneva Conventions.

– Change the slippery slope mindset by first changing the language. The nation is not conducting a “war against terrorism.” The nation is leading a campaign that seeks to end the threat of terrorism using social, economic and, where necessary, military means.

– Encourage your fellow representatives to take similar steps.

اسرائیل اور پاکستان

پاکستان اور اسرائیل کے وزرائے خارجہ نے استنبول میں ملاقات کی۔ کیا پاکستان اسرائیل کو تسلیم کرنے لگا ہے؟ کیا اسے تسلیم کرنا چاہیئے؟

جوناتھن سے پتہ چلا کہ پاکستان اور اسرائیل کے وزرائے خارجہ نے استنبول میں ملاقات کی ہے۔ یہ کوئی ایسی نئی بات بھی نہیں ہے۔ آج سے دو سال پہلے جنرل مشرف نے اسرائیل کو تسلیم کرنے کا خیال ظاہر کیا تھا۔ مگر اس وقت اس کا کچھ نہ بنا ۔ پاکستان اور اسرائیل میں ملاقاتوں وغیرہ کی بات بھی نئی نہیں ہے۔ ایسا تو جناح سے لے کر ضیا اور نواز شریف کے دور تک ہوتا آیا ہے۔ میری پوسٹ کے علاوہ بی بی سی پر بھی اس تاریخ پر دو مضامین ہیں۔ پچھلے روابط میں فرق صرف یہ تھا کہ ان میں سے زیادہ تر خفیہ تھے۔

میرے خیال سے اسرائیل کے ساتھ مذاکرات کرنے میں کوئی مذائقہ نہیں ہے۔ بلکہ اسرائیل کو تسلیم کر لینا چاہیئے۔ اگر آپ کا خیال ہے کہ اسرائیل کے فلسطینیوں پر ظلم کی وجہ سے اسے نہیں ماننا چاہیئے تو پھر تو بہت سے ممالک کو ماننے سے انکار کرنا پڑے گا۔ مثال کے طور پر روس، چین، سوڈان، وغیرہ۔ اگر آپ کو یہودیوں سے کوئی خاص خار ہے تو آپ کے نفرت بھرے دل کا میں کچھ نہیں کر سکتا۔

جیسے میں پہلے لکھ چکا ہوں میری دانست میں اس ملاقات کی وجہ اسرائیل اور ہندوستان کے تعلقات ہیں۔ پاکستان کی دفاعی انتظامیہ کو خدشہ ہے کہ یہ تعلقات پاکستان کے لئے مسائل پیدا کر سکتے ہیں۔ اس کے علاوہ پاکستان اسرائیل سے دفاعی ساز و سامان اور ٹیکنالوجی بھی خریدنا چاہتا ہے۔ میرا گمان ہے کہ اسرائیل کھلے عام ملاقاتوں اور تسلیم کیے جانے کے بغیر یہ سب کچھ کرنے پر راضی نہ تھا۔ اگر پاکستان اسرائیل کو مان لے تو ان دونوں جوہری طاقتوں کو ایک دوسرے سے خطرہ نہیں رہے گا۔ اس کے علاوہ اسرائیل ہندوستان اور پاکستان میں سے کسی ایک کا ساتھ اور دوسرے کے مخالف ہوئے بغیر دونوں سے تجارت کر سکے گا۔ جوناتھن کے علاوہ بی بی سی کے عامر احمد خان اور Haaretz کا بھی یہی خیال ہے کہ اس ملاقات کی وجہ ہندوستان ہے۔ جون میں چھپنے والا یہ مضمون بھی پڑھنے لائق ہے۔

پاکستان میں اس خبر کا رد عمل کچھ ملا جلا تھا۔ مذہبی جماعتوں نے اسرائیل سے تعلقات پر احتجاج کیا جبکہ دوسری سیاسی جماعتوں نے کچھ شدید رد عمل کو مظاہرہ نہ کیا۔ پاکستانی اخبارات میں اس سلسلے میں جو کچھ لکھا گیا اس کے متعلق بی بی سی نے رپورٹ کیا ہے۔

عام لوگوں کا تاثر بی بی سی اور یروشلم پوسٹ میں موجود ہے۔ اس کے علاوہ بلاگرز بھی اپنے اپنے خیال کا اظہار کر رہے ہیں:

ایک ہندوستانی اخبار کی اس سلسلے میں خبر کچھ مزے کی لگی۔ اس کے علاوہ دو ہندوستانی بلاگرز (شعیب اور نتن) نے بھی اس خبر پر اظہار رائے کیا۔

اضافہ: اسرائیل کے وزیر خارجہ کا انٹرویو

London Bomb Blasts

My heart goes out to the people who died in the London bomb blasts. I hope their murderers are caught and punished soon.

I am a bit late in blogging about the London bomb blasts, but I didn’t have anything original to say (and my computer wasn’t working either).

The three bombs on London underground trains on Thursday exploded almost simultaneously, police have said.

Scotland Yard said the attacks took place within 50 seconds of each other. It was previously thought they had taken place over a longer time period.

Police have also warned the recovery of victims could take “days more”.

There have been 49 confirmed fatalities in the bomb attacks, while concerns remain for a further 25 missing people. At least 700 were injured.

However, Thabet, a British Muslim, has some thoughts that echo mine.

Certainly there is a disease, a cancer, which is eating at Muslims in various parts of the world, but moreso amongst some younger Muslims in some Western societies: the need to satiate a lust for immediate ‘glory’ and ‘victory’, where all that is Transcendent can be sacrificed for an instant quick-fix; the modern Muslim version of the one-pill-for-all solution. Who needs to work at life, and struggle through its twists and turns, who needs sabr and tawakul, when you can much more easily blow up your ‘enemy’ and book that multi-bedroom villa in paradise? But this, in reality, is a sickness. It is sick when a car bomb drives itself into Iraqis, cueing for a job to feed their families, by people believe they are doing God’s work; it is sick when a bomb is driven into a mosque in Pakistan where people gather to worship, by people believe they are doing God’s work; it is sick when someone on their way to work on a double-decker bus, and who probably couldn’t tell you where Chechnya or Kashmir is on a map, is killed by people believe they are doing God’s work. No doubt, some people try, and will continue to try, to justify these acts of psycopathic egoism as a struggle for God. This is most depraved and is a ‘spiritual’ disease. The heart does not simply have layers of rust on it, but the whole damn organ appears to be riddled with pot holes from a corroding condition. But there is still hope and mercy for God says He is All-Forgiving.

We must avoid, at all costs, arguments of moral equivalence. Thse are easy arguments to slip into. I do it frequently. If X is bombing Iraqis, Y is murdering Chechens, and Z is causing countless injustices to Palestinians, ought our response be to kill indiscriminately — believing as we do that we will be accounted for each action — without any sense, rhyme or reason? There is nothing “Islamic” about this.

Also, we should refrain from conspiracy theories (UPDATE: this link doesn’t make sense any more as the blogger has changed his post) or crazy stuff.