War crimes and misdemeanors


LTC Bob here again, with a little more forward thinking.

Until quite recently I had never seen an episode of the television show The West Wing. It came to prominence at a time when I was not really available for television watching, and then, who wants to jump on the bandwagon late? Lately, I have caught a few episodes in reruns, and one scene in particular caught my eye because it seems potentially relevant.

The setting was an office somewhere in the West Wing, and an Air Force four-star general (played by the same actor who was once "Major Dad" in another show) is talking with a character that appears to be something like the White House counsel. They are debating the ICC -- the International Criminal Court, which was created by an international conference in Rome, Italy, in 1998.

I was impressed by the level of sophistication shown by the show's writers in dealing with this very hairy topic. The character of the general was no two-dimensional caricature, but fairly well represented. And this issue itself, though often depicted in the real world in the news and by politicians as a "Left-Right" topic, was given depth through the very real introduction of that general, who presented the point of view of the military, which was neither right nor left. The American military, you see, is the most likely target for any prosecutions that might be proffered against the United States.

In the interplay between the characters, one realized that they knew each other far more intimately than one would normally expect between two people from such disparate worlds. The West Wing fellow was trying hard to convince the general that he had to support the administration's desire to ratify the treaty. It was a balanced and moral argument, citing our help in creating the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes tribunals in the wake of World War II. The general just as passionately laid out the misgivings of my profession. And then the general laid out a trump card, and you came to understand why and how these two men could argue so freely with one another.

Pulling an obviously old dossier from his bag the general reminded the West Wing counsel about a particular mission on which they had both flown in the Vietnam War, when they were junior officers together. The general had been the FAC (that's "Forward Air Controller") and the counsel flew an attack aircraft and was guided by the FAC in to a particular target. The counsel did not see the point in any of this, but then the general noted that the target had been a dam, and that "eleven civilians were killed." The implications were obvious, but the general would not answer his friend's repeated query, "Why did you tell me this?"

The point, as I saw it, was a subtle one.

Now, the 1998 treaty (which we signed at the time, though the current administration formally "unsigned" in 2002) specifically states that it is not retroactive. Certainly the writers of the show knew that fact. So the counsel himself was not really under threat. But the larger point was that some other modern American pilot or soldier might be accused of a war crime under the exact same circumstances. Circumstances which the counsel now had a personal lens through which he might see the issue somewhat differently, as obviously the mission he participated in could be raised and he accused of being a war criminal.

The general was given the best closing line. "All war is criminal."

(Postscript: Great Britain, which did sign and ratify the treaty, has since had some 240 complaints and accusations of war crimes submitted to the court against them since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.)

I do not know, but I suspect, that this issue might raise its head again. That matters.

You can write to LTC Bob at R_Bateman_LTC@Hotmail.com .

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Paul Goode
Hometown: Redmond, WA

Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck are cynical hucksters who tell their audience what it wants to hear and in the way they want to hear it. Whether they actually believe their own drivel is an open question.

The entire Fox gang reminds me of Lonesome Rhodes, the amoral singer portrayed brilliantly by Andy Griffith in A Face In The Crowd. Rhodes learned how to manipulate his television audience; the better he got at it, the more he despised them. At the end of the movie, he's revealed calling them morons and guinea pigs. It's hard to believe that Bill-o and Beck have any more respect for their viewers.

Name: Reed Richardson
Hometown: Ridgewood, NJ

LTC Bateman,

I couldn't agree more with your sentiment from Monday: "because the military does have an effect upon all of our futures, and those of our kids, I am of the firm and fixed opinion that everyone should have some basic grasp of things military. Our democracy depends upon this." As it happens, your post passed across my computer screen on the same day as this, which I think reinforces a troubling truth that stands in the way of your stated goal -- there now exists a growing chasm of understanding and familiarity between our military and large swaths of our country's civilian population.

Speaking from my own experience as a former active-duty Combat Engineer officer who served in the mid to late 90s, I can attest, anecdotally, that every fresh batch of soldiers from AIT that I had the honor of leading did seem to increasingly hail from rural parts of the South and West. Likewise, it seemed that senior NCOs and my fellow officers, in particular, came from increasingly homogeneous geographic and cultural backgrounds. I attribute this trend in the officer corps, in part, to the introduction of ROTC scholarship tuition caps in the late 90s, which meant some potential officer candidates could no longer afford to attend private (or public, for that matter) universities on the West or East Coasts as I did (Boston University). This shift to an accession policy that precludes many traditionally liberal regions/colleges has, I believe, exacerbated the military leadership's internal ideological imbalance. (On a personal level, as a company XO, I vividly recall sitting in the Jungle Warfare School DFAC at Ft. Sherman, Panama, and watching my avowed dittohead Company Commander publicly celebrate -- in front of his soldiers -- the breaking news of Pres. Clinton's affair when it was broadcast on CNN. His "impeach the bastard" sentiments were obviously and openly shared by all of my battalion's command and staff officers.)

Of course, the Army officer corps has a long tradition of having a more conservative (albeit more meritocratic) ethos than most of mainstream America, something first pointed out in Samuel Huntington's "The Soldier and the State" and recently expounded upon in a book by Peter Feaver that I stumbled across a few years ago while in the good Dr. Alterman's Columbia J-School class. Of course, Feaver's historical insights are a bit tainted by this bit of lopsided thinking, but one of his book's other points still stands -- when confronted with weak or disconnected civilian leadership/oversight, the military has a tendency to "shirk," or effectively disobey, policies it doesn't like. Feaver focused on the Clinton administration's disastrous DADT rollout and the Pentagon's effective sandbagging of said policy as well as the White House's clumsy efforts to deal with Gen. Wes Clark's somewhat rogue Balkan strategy, but even more recent events in the Bush administration has shown that this disconnect, particularly among those in the White House and Congress, can result in disastrous policy. Coincidentally, the number of veterans in the current Congress stands a sixty-year low, a figure that will decline even more when the incoming 111th Congress, which will include only 26 veterans in the Senate, is sworn in.)

Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of the all-volunteer professional military and I don't subscribe to the notion that only those with personal military experience are viable candidates to exercise civilian leadership over it (as my recent vote for the incoming Commander-in-Chief would attest). But more and more, it seems like White House staff and members of Congress either abdicate/defer their Constitutional responsibilities (cf. Petraeus, David) or rely solely upon a "benevolent dictator" within the Pentagon (cf. Gates, Robert) to keep the military in check, precisely because of their lack of a DD-214. So, I guess, my question to you is: shouldn't we address this disconnect between the military and the civilian worlds before we can realistically expect ordinary citizens to make informed judgments about our country's future naval posture? I'd be interested to hear you thoughts, as well, on the merits of introducing some kind of mandatory national service.

I tend to support the idea, if only to re-introduce the concept of shared sacrifice to a populace that was told going shopping was a sufficient patriotic response to 9/11, but I fear such a program still wouldn't address the cultural chasm growing between those who secure our freedom and those who enjoy it.

Name: Jim Wiseman
Hometown: Downingtown PA

Hi Eric,

I am completely puzzled by the press' absolute avoidance of the subject of the link between the domestic automobile industry and national security. As a professional historian, I'm sure you know better than I (and LTC Bateman, as a miltary historian, better than both of us), that the U.S. auto industry played a pivotal role in our victory in WWII. The trucks and jeeps we provided were absolutely critical to mechanizing of the Red Army, while the retooling of auto plants to make airplanes (of which Ford's Willow Run plant was only the most famous) contributed hugely to our domination of the air.

What is it that the press and the right wing want? Do they want us to become the superpower equivalent of an idiot savant, only able to respond to extreme provocation by nuking people? Our ability to successfully wage a conventional war is not only vital to us, but to the entire human race. Thus I found the Senate vote last week breathtaking in its irresponsibility (and we're not even talking about the economic aspects of the vote!). I include Democratic leaders like Harry Reid in my condemnation. Why isn't he holding the GOP feet to the fire, and making them filibuster? Expose them for the short sighted hacks they are. The stakes are very high, and we need leadership.

Name: VEH
Hometown: Detroit

One more step to "medium", not "media".

Detroit loses daily home-delivered printed newspapers (they will offer a "compact product" to be sold in vending boxes), with websites being proffered as an exciting substitute -- cheaper for Gannett and MediaNews, not for the subscribers.

Of course they have been cutting content to the point where it isn't the loss it would have been 5 years ago.

My only consolation is that we are on the cutting edge -- everyone else is right behind us, based on the financials being reported across the newspaper industry.

Name: Jeff
Hometown: Seattle

"When did SNL become the new Mad TV? I saw the Paterson sketch on Saturday, and it was offensive, stupid, and -- worst -- not funny."

Oh, about ten years ago.

Name: Matt
Hometown: Moscow, ID


Not having had cable for many years now, I only saw the first few seasons of Mad TV, and I liked it enough to buy the 1st season DVD set. You may be right about what's happened lately (Miss Swan, yes) but I think their first years at least represented a show trying to be everything that SNL wasn't: a cast of nobodies, largely ignoring political commentary, focusing on character driven comedy and pop-culture satire. They were clearly working so hard back then, as opposed to SNL for the past several years, where half of them seem to be phoning it in until they get an obligatory movie offer.

Whether you liked it or not, in any case, now we have fewer and fewer options to turn to for sketch comedy. SCTV2?

George Zornick replies: I do remember the first season being funny, actually, you're right. I was in eighth grade, so maybe my memory is skewed, but there was a pretty funny O.J. Simpson sketch featuring Orlando Jones.

Name: Kevin B.
Hometown: Mauldin, SC

A (thankfully) less harmful example of the risk of over-reliance on anonymous sources is contained here.

If it's worth reporting, either there should be verifiable facts that can be confirmed or denied, or sources should be willing to be public. Seeing Ed Werder called a liar by T.O. (T.O.!) is a bit surreal, but if Ed won't reveal his source (or produce a tape of T.O.'s alleged complaints) then he's just gonna have to twist in the wind.

Name: Tom Edmisten
Hometown: Uijeongbu

Nick Turse asks, "Could a company that produces the Pizzazz Pizza Oven also be a merchant of death?" of course it can; M*A*S*H answered the question years ago: "Just use the standard S-1798 and write in 'pizza' where it says 'machine gun.' "

Name: Scott Casey
Hometown: San Jose CA

We can largely credit the extremely talented comic book artist Dave Stevens (creator of The Rocketeer and a damned nice guy) for bringing Bettie back to pop culture. Unfortunately we lost Dave this year as well as his battle with leukemia brought him to far too early an end.

RIP and many thanks to both of them.

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