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War Crimes

Cosmic Variance
By Sean Carroll
Jun 27, 2008 4:14 AMNov 5, 2019 8:16 AM


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Q: What do the following Army service decorations have in common?

  • Army Distinguished Service Medal

  • Legion of Merit with three oak leaf clusters

  • Army Staff Identification Badge

  • Meritorious Service Medal with six oak leaf clusters

  • Army Commendation Medal with two oak leaf clusters

  • Army Achievement Medal with one oak leaf cluster

A: They have all been awarded to the author of this statement:

After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts, and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.

That would be Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba (ret.), writing the preface to the report Broken Laws, Broken Lives: Medical Evidence of Torture by the US, recently released by Physicians for Human Rights. The "ret." in General Taguba's full title is somewhat euphemistic; after 34 years of service, in 2006 he was instructed to retire by the Army's Vice-Chief of Staff. This might have been related to his authorship of the Taguba Report, the official report of an Army investigation into torture and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. It's hard to have a reasonable discussion about the possibility of holding senior officials in the U.S. government responsible for war crimes. It's the kind of accusation that gets thrown around too lightly for political or rhetorical reasons, by ideologues on one side or the other who are far too quick to find inhumanity and evil intent in the actions of their opponents. But that doesn't mean that war crimes don't happen, or that our country doesn't commit them, or that responsibility can't ever be traced to the highest reaches of the government. There is no question that the U.S. tortures; people who have been held without any charges against them have been raped, killed, and permanently psychologically damaged. And there is no question that it's not just a matter of a few bad apples -- not when John Yoo, author of the infamous Department of Justice torture memos, gets asked "Could the President order a suspect buried alive?" and doesn't know what the right answer is. The question is, should the President and other administration officials be held accountable for these acts? Taguba thinks the answer is yes:

This report tells the largely untold human story of what happened to detainees in our custody when the Commander-in-Chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture. This story is not only written in words: It is scrawled for the rest of these individuals’ lives on their bodies and minds. Our national honor is stained by the indignity and inhumane treatment these men received from their captors... [T]hese men deserve justice as required under the tenets of international law and the United States Constitution. And so do the American people.

It it literally sickening that we've come to this. But nobody can be surprised. The Bush Administration has been perfectly consistent in its behavior for the last eight years. It's going to take some time to deal with the consequences, and it won't be pleasant for anyone. I can't imagine the sort of havoc it would wreak on the political landscape if a Democratic administration pursued charges of war crimes against a former Republican administration (for example). It would not be the kind of thing that brings the country together, let's just say. On the other hand, should the United States have a policy that its political officials cannot, a priori, be accused of war crimes, because to do so would cause a political firestorm? Perhaps we will end up needing a Truth Commission.

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