Saturday, February 04, 2006

American army, Abu Graib, war crimes

I'm a bit late on this one, but I've been away. While away, I got involved in an argument about the virtues and vices of the Pax Americana. Inevitably, Abu Graib came up. I wish I'd read this beforehand.

newsisyphus (who doesn't supply permalinks, for some reason - it's the post for the 1st of Feb) is talking about the involvement of Hugh Thompson, US Army, in the Mai Lai massacre in 1968, in which American soldiers killed over 500 Vietnamese civilians. Thompson, in the same area in a helicopter with a crew of two, saw something that didn't make sense: the corpses of Vietnamese villagers that he had previously marked to be flown out for medical treatment. New sisyphus quotes a CNN report.

"We just noticed a vast number of dead bodies: old women, old men, babies, infants that were dead or wounded", said Thompson, who was 24 at the time.
Thompson and his crew, 19-year-old gunner Larry Colburn and crew chief Glenn Andreotta, 18, flew closer to the ground and what they saw there confirmed their fears. They watched a fellow American shoot a Vietnamese woman at point-blank range.
Thompson landed his helicopter, determined to stop the killing. Then he and his crew did something that could have cost them their own lives or military careers: they turned their guns on fellow Americans and ordered them to stop shooting.
Link to an article from usnews about Hugh Thompson.

newsisyphus continues with a personal memory.
I will never forget the day, back when I was in U.S. Navy boot camp at Great Lakes RTC, when we seamen recruits received training on orders, what they mean, how to obey them, what to do when you are given contradictory orders and, most importantly, what to do when given illegal orders. It was explained to me then that an illegal order is not a proper order at all; it imposes no duty to obey. In fact, our instructor went on, the illegal order imposes a duty of a different sort: the duty not only to refuse to follow it but to take the officer or senior enlisted person who issued the illegal order under arrest, immediately and without question. Our instructor hammered home this point, even going so far as to make it clear that rank did not matter one bit in this calculation. If an admiral came by and ordered an E-3 to open fire for no legitimate reason on a civilian fishing boat, that E-3 was to place that admiral under arrest, right then, right there.
No-one could claim that Americans live up to this, but it would be reasonable to claim that a large number of them try to. The real point is, however, that when they act as Lt Calley did at Mai Lai, there are people willing to fight and report him; there are principles applied in law against which to judge him, and there is a functioning legal system that will prosecute him. It won't always happen, but it happens enough. Not enough to say that Americans are better people than others, which would be absurd, but enough to say that the American system is better than others.

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