14 July, 2008

War and Law Enforcement

Over at Blackfive, Jimbo starts out with a political post that veers off in a different direction, resulting in this gem of a comment from a regular reader:

War is not law enforcement, and the primary concern in a firefight is not preserving evidence so that America-hating leftists won't be able to second-guess you.

While my focus was not on GTMO while in the military, I investigated a few deaths of civilians in Afghanistan. The bottom line is that in war you don't have a chance to sit down with sheaves of records and ponder ambiguities when someone is trying to kill you. You make a decision and run with it. Sometimes, unfortunately, that decision will be wrong, but it simply cannot be judged as if it were a police action. And those of us who *do* sit down with sheaves of information should not forget that.

A couple of years ago my father died. He was in the Army in the Pacific Theater in New Guinea in WWII, was a recipient of the Silver Star, and was catastrophically wounded in the war.

After he died, I had to go through his stuff and get his house ready for sale. I ran across a newspaper article from when he returned to his home town after being wounded. He was quoted extensively on the battle in which he was wounded and in the event that got him the Silver Star.

In that discussion, I was struck by his very practical attitude towards killing his enemy. The bottom line for him was that he was in a war for his life and that if there was any ambiguity, it would be solved with a bullet. He told the newspaper, for instance, that the Japanese had a habit of false surrenders and booby trapping wounded soldiers, so unless they were pretty much standing alone naked with their hands up, he just shot first and asked questions later. Wounded? His buddy was killed by a grenade on a wounded Japanese soldier. Shoot and move on. Surrender? His next buddy was killed in an ambush in a false surrender. Shoot and move on.

This was war, not a game.

The most amazing thing about this, though, was the glowing report such statements got in the newspaper. His statements about just shooting the "Japs" and taking the fight on was treated as eminently reasonable and good judgement. He was, rightly, portrayed as a hero.

Now, of course, the opposite is true. Unless soldiers treat the people trying to kill them as if they were the good guys instead of the enemy, they are guilty of "crimes against humanity."

I had one case in Afghanistan of a suspected Al-Qaueda operative who had infiltrated a camp posing as a local. The local chieftans told the warfighters that this guy was not a local, and was Al Quada. He ended up dead. Some folk said he was killed trying to escape. Others said he resisted capture. Others said he was executed.

My job was not to make that determination, but to analyze some of the evidence, so I didn't have to opine about the substance of the charges. However, I couldn't help wonder if people had forgotten that we were in a war. There was no ambiguity about whether or not the guy was Al Quaeda and was responsible for killing American warfighters, just whether or not he had received due process. I kept thinking that, you know, if this were WWII, we would not be spending a half-million dollars trying to put these people in jail.

It was one of the few times I was a little ashamed of being a REMF. It was clear that there were people in JAG who were much more concerned with the politics of this than with the reality of war.

I don't know the outcome of the case. It might still be active, so I can't talk about what happened with my end of it. But the bottom line is that there was a nontrivial effort to generate a prosecution of those warfighters. And I do know that when my team sat down to write our report, we didn't forget who was on the front line and who was not.

I'm not one of those who think the frontline soldier can do no wrong, but I find myself in the agreeable company of those who say we have tilted to far the other way.

There are reasons war is so horrible... and there are reasons I once told a warfighter who'd been to hell and back more than once, "Part of why I thank you for your service is because you had to make the difficult decisions, had to do what must be done. I understand that what I only know in my head, you know in your heart. And that leaves me in your debt."