Pablo Picasso’s 1937 anti-war painting, Guernica
by Mary W Maxwell
This article is a response to comments by Eddy to a November 28, 2015 Gumshoe article “The Building 7 ‘Cold Case’ Crime is Not Going Away.” Eddy was a soldier in the Vietnam War and is opposed to Australia’s foreign wars.
The two questions to be posed here are: 1. What options are open to a soldier who disagrees with the foreign policy of his nation? And 2. What should he do if he is commanded in the field to commit an unconscionable act?
Is There a Draft?
At the present time, there is no conscription in either of the two nations that will form my base of reference, Australia and the US. The US had mandatory military service for all males age 18 and up, until 1974 when it switched over to an all-volunteer army. Australia from 1964 drafted men from the age of 20; this ended in 1971.
In answering my two questions above, I’ll treat joining the military today as a voluntary act. Possibly I would answer differently if a universal draft were in force.
Still, I do need to offer two sets of answers to both questions! The first will be put in the context of what Eddy called the Normal world and the second will be in the Not-normal world. But those names are unsatisfactory, so I’ll call the first one Old School and the second one Contemporary.
In the past, most of us ordinary citizens considered that our democratic nations were engaging in wars either to defend us from attackers or to go abroad and perform a good deed. For much of my lifetime, in America, the good deed was envisioned as protecting “free countries” from a takeover by the Communists (roughly, the Cold War).
As we thought we were good guys, we believed that the other side committed outrageous acts and that we did not. So it was easy for us to make up rules that we thought our side would quite naturally obey. The public expected good behavior of soldiers.
As for Question 1 — soldiers disagreeing with the nation’s foreign policy — we citizens would have said “Who cares?” It is a non-issue. The policy-makers are the legislators and executives, not the enlisted men. A disagreeing soldier might try to get discharged from the army.
Question 2 – about what a soldier should do if asked to commit an unconscionable act – also had an easy answer. The Nuremberg Trials of 1945 had settled the matter that “following orders” was no excuse. I realize this is a ridiculous assumption but we citizens actually believed that a soldier could say No.
Everything has been thrown into disarray by the fact that the public has a new awareness about war. It is realized that powerful nations routinely take advantage of weaker ones, especially economically.
We see that Old School thinking was wrong. “We” are not the good guys. Actually, General Smedley Butler had made the case as early as 1933. He said:
“There isn’t a trick in the racketeering bag that the military gang is blind to. It has its ‘finger men’ to point out enemies, its ‘muscle men’ to destroy enemies, its ‘brain men’ to plan war preparations, and a ‘Big Boss’ Super-Nationalistic-Capitalism. It may seem odd for me, a military man to [say this]. Truthfulness compels me to. I spent thirty-three years and four months in the Marine Corps.”
So now there is reason for a soldier to be thinking hard. And since there is so much corruption in government he can’t even guess how foreign policy is made. He may want to oppose it 100%.
Also, if he finds himself “over there” and wants to resist an unconscionable order, it is very difficult. How can he make a moral appeal to his bosses in the military when they are not acting morally in the first place? And if he tries to get public support, he’ll find that the public does not want to delve into these confusing matters.
“International Humanitarian Law”
Beginning in the 1860s in Switzerland, there has been an entity called the Red Cross. It appeared to be a grassroots thing (probably wasn’t). It had an eye for the suffering of the battle-wounded and POWs. This led to the 1899 Hague Conventions and the 1925 and 1949 Geneva Conventions.
That is, where we formerly claimed ‘All’s fair in love and war,” it was now said that we could subject war to regulation. Some behaviors were considered unfair. Had you had been charged with writing up the rules, you may have come up with the same items now found in the Geneva’s.
Civilians must not be attacked. Chemical weapons must not be used. Prisoners of war must be treated well. Collective punishment is prohibited. Chaplains and doctors must be protected in the battle area. “Outrages on personal dignity” are prohibited.
The Geneva’s Are Impossible
I now must inject my opinion of these laws, and I realize it may sound awful. I think it is cuckoo to have rules about NOT using certain weapons. The main problem is that such rules will not be obeyed. When you want your side to win, you will cheat.
Sure, it sounds sensible that all nations would be willing to sign a treaty (the Geneva’s are treaties) about restraints in warfare. Just as any two individuals can sign a contract, to do something that suits both parties, you might think the same logic applies to nations. No, it does not.
I recommend here that we stop hoping that some high ideal that will settle the matter. Instead we should just accept the actual track record. Recently the European Union made this acknowledgment of reality:
“International humanitarian law is less and less respected, there are fewer defenders of the law, and indiscriminate attacks frequently occur. While the protection of civilians provided by the Geneva Conventions is extensive, States and non-State armed groups are far too often unwilling to act on this responsibility.”
So Is It Open Season?
Am I saying nations should do as they please? I am saying nations DO do as they please. The Red Cross, based in Switzerland, pretends that this is not so – and therefore they make the problem worse. It is better to deal from truth.
The article at hand is related to statements made by Eddy (he does not give his surname) at Gumshoe. For example, he said
“Try to understand, in a war zone 6 months into a tour of 12 months, mentally everyone is teetering on an edge, we’ve all seen and done things, none of us had ever imagined in a thousand lifetimes we’d ever do, laws were none existent.
“Whenever we gained some leave and visited the local flesh pots and bars, the behavior of our people was utterly shocking, I had no idea my fellow Australians could actually behave in such a manner, the local constabulary turned a blind eye, as we were untouchable. (There were some good people, who did behave appropriately and with great kindness.)
“Every time someone broke down mentally, posed a serious threat, it could contaminate everyone else around who were all on the edge…. The wet bar on the evenings such an event occurred would be crowded, and many would seek solace in alcohol, which at 10 cents a can, was abundant.”
What Moral Guidance Is There for Soldiers?
A soldier is basically a slave. He gives up his freedom. This is a necessity of war. You simply can’t have men putting their own lives or preferences ahead of that of the platoon. All must fall in. Human beings are very capable of this. I believe it is instinctive for men in war to jettison their selfish desires.
Does this mean there is no law? Yes, it means the soldier must put his morality at the disposal of the boss. He stops being a moral agent, in regard to the conduct of the war.
Granted, there is a ‘military law.’ In the US it’s called the UCMJ – the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Persons who breach the law are not subject to civil arrest and trial but to a more closed system, the court-martial.
In Australia, since 1985, there has been a Defense Force Discipline Act. Most infractions of law are referred to police, but when ADF personnel are overseas they are subject to this Act. There is a Defense Force Ombudsman to listen to complaints.
As far as I know, these methods of controlling the soldier do not encourage him to give the Geneva Conventions an honored place. As far as I know, they do not provide, as such, for punishment of a soldier who commits “war crimes.”
War Crimes and the Red Cross
What are war crimes? I argue that there is no such thing. The purpose of a war is to defeat the other side. Ideally this means killing off all its warriors, or doing whatever is needed to get that government to sign a surrender agreement.
But isn’t it a crime to do something terrible to a POW (prisoner of war)? Doesn’t it go against civilized humanity to subject the enemy to torture or sexual humiliation? I say no. To insist that there is a moral law that governs intergroup conflict is to fly in the face of biology.
Hence I am suspicious of the Red Cross organization. Its “ideals” are not even remotely attainable. I think its purpose is to keep the people at home happy by telling them that brutality has been “taken care of” by means of law.
In domestic society it is true that brutality can be taken care of by law. That is because the people of the nation have yielded to “authorities” the right to enforce the law. In the international arena there is no such authority, no one to enforce law against national governments.
The International Criminal Court
Since 2002 there has been yet another “court” at the Hague in the Netherlands. (There was already one called the ICJ – the International Court of Justice – oh, please.) It is The International Criminal Court, set up by “The Rome Treaty.”
Australia and UK joined it. The US and Israel are among the few that did not. I consider the role of the ICC to be a safety valve for the secret members of World Government who actually instigate most wars in the first place. It causes folks with concerns about the cruelty of war to waste their time.
There can be no satisfaction for aggrieved parties, for the same reason mentioned above: there is no one to enforce the law.
What is even more blatant is the wording of the Treaty of Rome that gives all the five powerful nations of the UN Security Council – France, US, China, Russia, UK – a veto over the ICC’s decision to indict.
Couldn’t the ICC use Interpol or some nation’s police to grab a miscreant and try him and execute? Yes, they did that to a few leaders of Serbia and Rwanda. This is victor’s justice. After World War II, 137 Japanese “war criminals” who had tortured Australians such as at Changi Prison, were executed.
Trust me, there is never going to be an “international criminal court” that even slaps on the wrist the leaders of powerful nations.
I’m here to say STOP, STOP, STOP
running away from the problem of outrageous behavior in war by falsely acting as though it can be solved by treaties.
The Two Questions
Back to Question 1: What should a soldier do if he disagrees with his nation’s foreign policy? Obviously he should not join the army — he will not be a good soldier.
Question 2: What if he is asked to do an unconscionable act? On the spot he can only use his own conscience. He can refuse to obey an order, and then suffer the consequences of that. He may be killed, e.g., “suicided,” as I believe Alyssa Peterson was (after she was reprimanded for complaining about torture in Iraq).
I think soldiers are wise to meet for ‘hearings’ like those held by American ex-soldiers in regard to atrocities in Iraq. They called it “Winter Soldier” and it has been viewed by many on Youtube. This is the only way to pass to the citizenry some knowledge of what goes on.
It seems to me that the crime that is being committed is treason, and that it is the governmental policy-makers who are committing it.
Over to you, Eddy.
— Mary W Maxwell is a graduate of Adelaide Law School. Her latest book, Fraud Upon the Court, contains a chapter entitled “’Constitution Mary’ to NATO: Drop Dead”