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Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The rules are there for a reason

Thomas J. Raleigh, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, had this to say about

Why we can't afford to dehumanize an enemy:
Ooh Rahh! Kill them all and let their god sort them out.

This is one of many disturbing comments (in this case from someone who identifies himself as a Marine named Clay) that have appeared in an online petition that will eventually be sent to Congress in support of the Marine involved in last month's shooting of a wounded insurgent in a Fallujah mosque.

Many who signed this petition (more than 340,000) are, I'm sure, reasonable people concerned about a military man in a tough situation. But sadly, there are also those -- like the author of the sentiments above -- who believe that the deviousness of our enemies would justify us in abandoning our values and principles on the battlefield. This is a dangerous view, for both moral and practical reasons.

Clay's comment, and others like it, prompted me to recall the advice I once heard from a battalion commander I served under nearly 20 years ago. Lt. Col. James Gribshaw Jr., a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, was known among those in his platoon as "the Magnet" -- a reference to the peculiar attraction his body seemed to hold for shrapnel. One day in 1987, he and I were observing a training exercise at Fort Lewis, Wash.: a platoon setting an ambush. It was a textbook operation, save for one glitch. After the assault, when the prisoner-search team returned to the kill zone, a soldier shot a wounded enemy role-player, calling him an "[expletive] gook."

Gribshaw was to lead the discussion reviewing the lessons learned from the exercise. I expected him to focus on the sound tactics the platoon demonstrated during the operation. He didn't. Instead he said some things that have stuck with me to this day. I'm reconstructing his talk here from memory, but I'd vouch for its being about 95 percent correct:

A soldier in this platoon shot a wounded man today. You cannot do that.

You will find yourself in combat someday. And then you are going to go home, where you will have to live with what you have done -- to accomplish your mission, to stay alive, to keep your buddy alive.

When you assault across a kill zone, you do so violently; if you hesitate, you die. However, later, during the search -- different story. If an enemy soldier is wounded, you can't kill him. If the tactical situation does not permit you to evacuate him, do what you can to relieve his suffering, and continue the mission.

Your enemy is a combatant, a human being. He is not a "gook" or a "slope." If you dehumanize your enemy, you will dehumanize yourself, and you will do things that you will regret. And you won't go home with honor. We made a mistake today. That's why we train. Learn from this. Questions? (More)

The laws and conventions regarding war crimes are there, not so much to protect the enemy, but rather, to protect the humanity of soldiers, which in a time war can bring about the worst side of our species.

(via Smirking Chimp)