I generally hate people who open arguments with a dictionary quote, but in this case I think it’s fairly important to do so. According to The American Heritage Dictionary, war is “a state of open, armed, often prolonged, conflict carried on between nations, state, or parties.” The idiom “to declare war on” is subsequently defined as a formal announcement of the intent to carry on hostilities with, suppress and/or eradicate the enemy.
So are we at war with the al-Qaida and the Taliban? It seems like it. Bush has fairly openly made it clear that we are at “war with terrorism.” If al-Qaida and their Taliban supporters are organizations of terrorists, then that logically makes them targets of our declared war. Even if we cannot call them nations or states, they certainly are organized parties. Are hostilities open? I’d call many months of air strikes reasonably open. Prolonged? Well, the Taliban held out longer than Hussein’s Republican guard anyway.
So why are prisoners of this conflict not considered prisoners of war but rather “detainees?” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld claims these men are not of the military caliber specified in the Geneva Convention, that they are more analogous to captive civilian criminals than POWs. I guess this means that if you’re going to play soldier and get captured like a soldier, you should at least look and act like a soldier.
Who cares if your government/leaders are too poor to make uniforms?
Why does it matter if the prisoners are POWs or detainees anyway? The problem is what we may do with them. If these individuals are indeed POWs, then they can refuse to divulge information, must be treated humanely and must be released when the war is over. Detainees, on the other hand, must only be charged with a crime and be tried fairly.
Obviously, it’s much more useful for these prisoners to be detainees (humanely treated, of course). They may be more rigorously interrogated and, depending on the eventual court sentence, be held for a specific amount of time on specific terms. This means that we get more information out of these men and we have the ability to administer justice quickly (such as keeping them in safe little cells for a specified time period rather than out in the open where they could find, for example, airplanes to blow up). POWs have more rights than that, such as the ability to keep their mouths shut, and must be released when the “war” (i.e. when we stop bombing the living snikees out of them) is over.
It’s too bad that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is on crack – these men are certainly prisoners of war. They were taken captive in an open conflict where their weapons were very visible. Even if they haven’t much in the way of uniforms and their chain of command is shaky at best, they are at least part of an organized force which must have leaders – just like real soldiers. Other countries seem to agree that these men are POWs and it’s no wonder members of the Geneva convention are peeved at the fact the U.S. is abandoning an ethical agreement for the sake of convenience.
So what should we do? Since it is within the Geneva Convention countries’ rights to appoint a tribunal to determine the prisoners’ status, we might as well call them POWs now. Why? First, it’s “ethically” the right thing to do. More importantly, what we do now will be remembered by our allies and Geneva Convention members in the future. If this war on terrorism is to be an ongoing event, wouldn’t it be nice to have friends in future conflicts?
Ken Hamner is a graduate student.