Thursday, October 16, 2008

McCain: War Hero or War Criminal?

Robert Richter has an article at Counterpunch arguing that commentators should focus more on McCain's conduct as an airman during Vietnam. In particular, his frame as a war hero may be incongruous with his role in the US policy of indiscriminate bombing during that war.

As character assassination attacks on Sen. Barack Obama have now taken over Sen. John McCain's campaign, and because McCain cites his military experience as of prime importance, now is the time to focus closer attention on a facet of the Arizona Senator's own character. This is related to his 23 combat missions for Operation Rolling Thunder - the Pentagon's name for U.S. bombing of North Vietnam... The targets McCain and his fellow pilots actually bombed in Vietnam and his justification then or now for the actions that led to his capture, are no longer simply old news. They are part of what must be taken into account today, as voters weigh support for him or Obama to be the next President of the United States.
Fair enough. I too would like to see more focus on how Presidential candidates fought in US wars rather than whether they did. However two minor misconstruals of the Geneva Conventions in his piece:

First, the time period to which he refers was the mid-60s, but the explicit protection for civilian populations against indiscriminate bombing was only codified in treaty law in 1977. So, under which provisions of treaty law would McCain or other US pilots be prosecuted for "war crimes" for failing to live up to a post-1977 standard for minimizing civilian casualties? (Not that they shouldn't be, but the legal case may not be as cut and dry as Richter hopes.)

In giving a nod to counterarguments, though, Richter concedes too much ground:
There were questions raised about whether the Geneva conventions applied to the pilots, since there had been no formal declaration of war by the U.S. against the Hanoi regime - and the Geneva rules presumably are only in force in a “declared” war.
If this was true then, it certainly isn't now. The rules are understood to apply in "situations of armed conflict" declared or not.


mark said...

Counterpunch is proferring a legally specious argument (and one of dubious morality as well - but hey, it's campaign season).

Aside from the Ex Post Facto aspect, which would constitutionally prohibit an American court from using the 1977 standard, the U.S. is not signatory to the 1977 Protocol.

Those protocol standards, unlike the main body of Geneva, are not binding international law, much less binding on the conduct of American military forces which adhere to the earlier iteration of the Geneva Convention.

hank_F_M said...

Well it is campaign season! Facts are so boring when votes are at stake.

Everything I have read about target selection for Operation Rolling Thunder (1965-1968), including things both highly critical and supportive of the Johnson Administration say that target selection was very tightly controlled in Washington (at the Asst Cabinet Secretary level) to be sure only military targets in the strictest sense were attacked, even to the point that the lives of pilots were risked. The process was also strictly monitored and controlled form Washington by a public relations adverse Johnson Administration.

McCain, or any pilot, unless he had local knowledge about a target not available in Washington, was not engaged in indiscriminate bombing.

A question is brought up sometimes. Not about individual raids but about the whole targeting process. The complaint is make that the process was strictly controlled that Rolling Thunder could never accomplish it’s intended purpose, where a more aggressive, but with in the current law of war, campaign could have accomplished it’s goals. Thus Rolling Thunder had a ”reasonable probability of success” problem. But that is complint about the Johnson administration, not the pilots.

LFC said...

My impression (based on recently having read David Milne's book on Rostow) is that Johnson himself was quite actively involved in target selection.

In any case, even if the targets were all strictly military, as Hank says, there is no doubt that Rolling Thunder produced (substantial) civilian casualties -- I'm not making any kind of legal point here, just a factual one. On May 18, 1967, in a memo to Johnson, Robert McNamara, who by that time had concluded that bombing would not work, wrote: "The picture of the world's greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 non-combatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny, backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one." (quoted in Milne p.192).

LFC said...

p.s. also, read the quotes from Harrison Salisbury of NYT in the Richter piece.

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