On the battle field death happens. That comes with the territory in a war zone. Soldiers who go into battle do so knowing full well they may not be alive at the end of the day. Under those circumstances it is to be expected that men and women will attempt many desperate measures to stay alive; measures that under normal circumstances would be frowned upon by society.
“War is hell” is not just a neat phrase that sells movies for Hollywood. People get their arms and legs blown off, their internal organs lacerated with shards of hot metal, and their veins drained of blood. It’s probably easy to lose track of one’s humanity in the heat of battle where you are trying to kill another human being who is trying to kill you.
It is the very rare occasion where a soldier is held accountable for his or her actions during an engagement. If soldiers in the field had to start second guessing how much violence was allowed to them while trying to kill someone, not only would it be the ultimate in hypocrisy, it would impede their chances of staying alive.
After a certain point soldiers in battle are going to have start relying on instincts in order to survive. There is no time to be thinking about the how and why of killing the other person before they kill you. In fact, the few instances where soldiers have ended up being held accountable have been those where there has been pre-meditation and thought beforehand. (The My Lai Massacre of 1968 is an example of such a situation where)
It’s only once the battles are over on the field that rules kick in. The Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war of 1929, revised in 1949, lays out careful guidelines on how signatories are supposed to treat enemy soldiers under their care.
No matter how hard you were trying to kill someone or they were trying to kill you an hour ago, once they lay down their arms all bets are off. You can no longer fold, mutilate or spindle them. You become responsible for their health and well being, including supplying them with adequate food, shelter, clothing, and medical treatment if required. (Remember we are talking about combatants from the battlefield, not potential terror threats or spies)
It seems like some of the units, or soldiers at least, charged with interrogation of prisoners may have missed the memo on that treaty. A warrant officer has been found guilty of negligent homicide and negligent dereliction of duty for his role in the death of Iraqi Major General Abed Hamed Mowhoush. Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer, Jr., was accused of carelessly sitting on the prisoner’s chest after covering the prisoner’s head with a sleeping bag, and his mouth with his hand. All this was in an attempt to make the prisoner give him information.
Whether the general would have been able to perform the miraculous and actually speak when his air and vocal abilities were being impeded to such an extent is something we will never know as he died. As punishment for neglecting to let his prisoner breath Chief Warrant Officer Welshofer faces a dishonourable discharge and up to three years and three months in jail.
The prosecution painted a picture of a man who was frustrated by the constraints placed upon him by regulations and the Convention, who had to be brought to heel by superiors in order to curb his enthusiasm in the interrogation rooms. In response to a letter sent to superiors, Welshoffer was told to take a deep breath and “remember who we are”.
The defence tried to make the case that given the circumstances of the time, the ongoing insurrection, and what they called a lack of clear guidance on the matter of conducting interrogations, relieved their client of culpabiltiy. Both of these arguments conveniently avoid acknowledging the existence of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War.
Major General Mowhoush was a prisoner of war. Guidelines for his treatment were readily available at all times, and no matter what the circumstances, there is no way any deviation from those guidelines should be acceptable.
I have always thought of “negligent” as an extreme form of the word careless. While the latter implies some minor mistake, the former is something serious with severe consequences. While you can say that the death of General Mowhoush was a severe consequence, can Welshoffer actions be dismissed as simply “negligent”?
Was he negligent in that while attempting to suffocate General Mowhoush he succeeded? Or was he negligent in allowing others to see him do it? (Two soldiers who had also been originally charged with murder had their sentences dropped for agreeing to testify) Or did allowing his prisoner to die without coughing up any information count as negligence?
Welshofer was using violence to try to frighten and intimidate his prisoner to tell him information he may or may not have had. It may be useless to try to attempt to read his mind about why he chose asphyxiation as his means of extracting information, but there can be no question as to his intent. It was a deliberate and premeditated attempt to inflict harm.
Obviously he was not intending for General Mowhoush to die, he’s not going to say much dead, so this was not a premeditated murder. But to call it negligent is to deny the amount of responsibility that Welshofer bears for his death. The defence attorney tried to divert blame from his client by saying a pre-existent heart condition was more a cause of death than his client’s actions.
But in my mind that increases, not decreases, his culpability. Welshofer would have been aware of the General’s medical history and still sat on his chest and impeded his oxygen intake. Neither action could be considered conducive to the well-being of someone with a bad heart. In fact, any sustained interrogation, let alone the physical abuse inflicted by the Warrant Officer, would have been dangerous.
Under the terms of the Geneva Convention, a soldier surrendering to an enemy is guaranteed a certain standard of treatment. As a signatory to this treaty the United States Army, and all of its soldiers, are required to meet those standards.
Finding Chief Warrant Officer Welshofer guilty of negligent homicide for the death of a man he was torturing is a singularly cynical disregarding of that treaty. It is not often the intent of a torturer to kill his victim; in fact usually the direct opposite is the desired result.
According to the United States Army it seems that Welshofer was negligent in his duties as an interrogator, as he allowed the prisoner to die without extracting information from him, so he is guilty of negligent dereliction of duty. Therefore, since Major General Mowhowsh died due to Welshofer’s negligence, Welshofer is guilty of negligent homicide.
The sentence completely ignores the fact that all of the activities leading to the death of the Mowhowsh are strictly forbidden under the Geneva Convention. It implies that the only thing Welshofer did wrong was allowing the prisoner to die while he was being tortured and ignores the fact that torture of prisoners of war is illegal.
Of course the American military is only following the lead of the Bush administration on this issue, as they have been pushing to allow the use of torture. But even they must realize that endorsing the use of torture against captured combatants on the field of battle places their own soldiers in the position of being subject to the same mistreatment.
The American media and administration made quite the stink about the treatment of downed airmen in the first Gulf War when Saddam paraded them in front of the television cameras. But those actions seem trivial compared to the “negligent” death of a prisoner during torture.
If the American government and military no longer wish to be considered signatories to the Geneva Convention that is their prerogative. But they could have the decency to warn their own citizens of the consequences for the American soldier.
Perhaps the administration believes it doesn’t matter what they do, that American soldiers will be mistreated in any event. Maybe they’d like to check with the families of those individuals who serve in the armed forces before they simply write them off in advance? Does everybody fully understand the implications of their ipso facto withdrawal from the Geneva Convention?
Mr. Cheney and Mr. Bush, and all those others out there supporting torture seemed to have neglected to let anybody know about the other side of the coin. What can be done by them to othersm, can now be done to Americans with equal impunity. Not only that, but they will have surrendered the right to complain about the mistreatment of American soldiers at the hands of their captors.
The American people need to realize that if they accept their government’s use of torture on captured military combatants, that they are condemning their own soldiers to the same treatment. Judging by the slap on the wrist the Chief Warrant Officer Welshofer has received, that’s the path they’re being led down now whether they know it or not.