#11 Shooting Prisoners Here , Shooting Prisoners There
Originally published on November 16, 2004
SHOOTING PRISONERS HERE, SHOOTING PRISONERS THERE
It’s all over CNN. A US marine shot and killed a wounded Iraqi prisoner. We are shown the Iraqi lying on an interior floor, twisted on one side, his head and shoulders propped up against the wall. We hear a marine remark that the Iraqi is breathing but “pretending” to be dead. Whereupon one of the marines shoots the fellow.
You don’t shoot prisoners of war. You just don’t do it. It’s dead wrong, no pun intended. The military is against it, and teaches its people that you do not do it. The military teaches that it is wrong to do it according to the “rules” of war. And that it is wrong to do it for moral and ethical reasons. Shooting a prisoner of war is a war crime.
At the same time, killing an enemy soldier who has surrendered is not all that rare. If you do not believe that is so, you have not been there. Most enemy soldiers when taken prisoner, by whatever army, are treated reasonably well upon capture. Most of the time. Nevertheless, context is everything, as Lenny Bruce used to point out.
The first night I was on line in Korea, during a firefight on a ridgeline in the forest where no one understood what was happening other than that the Chinese were everywhere, one of them surrendered. He was suddenly standing up in full view right in front of us. He had been using a machine gun against us. Everyone was yelling and shooting, the air was full of falling branches and parts of pine trees. I remember one guy yelling “What should I do with him?”
The problem was how to guard the Chinese. It was a moment of pandemonium. One of us would have to leave the fire fight to guard the Chinese, who may have been serious about surrendering and may not have been. It was a black night. The flashing lights of small arms and machine gun fire was all through the trees. No one understood what was happening. Then the other, who I didn’t yet know-I didn’t know anyone-yelled “Shoot the bastard,” then ran forward up the hill toward a second machine gun. And in the next instant, with no further back and forth, that’s what happened. It was a stunning experience, the whole night. In the end, we went back down the ridgeline to the valley. We couldn’t do what we had been sent to do.
I still remember the name of the fellow who said “Shoot the bastard.” Even now I don’t want to print his name here. He was older than me. Maybe twenty-seven. I was twenty. He was a professional soldier. He was a sergeant, and he had ordered a war crime to be committed. He was guilty. He was a swell, funny guy. We served together in Fox Troop, Seventh Cavalry, for the next four months, when he was rotated out. He had been there from the beginning on the Nakong River. He had been shot twice before I got there. He was a war criminal. He’s going on eighty now, if he is still alive.
In July that year I was blown out of Korea by-is this a coincidence?-a Chinese machine gunner on a ridgeline in the forest. It was in the morning, not the night. After a couple transit hospitals I ended up at Camp Cook, California. There in the ward was a young man my age named Lee. He had a wonderful, ragged scar that ran across his throat from ear to ear. His scar was the cause of endless jokes about his beauty and the fact that he was still alive.
In Korea he had served with the 52nd Ranger battalion. I’m not certain I have his unit right. He was on platoon patrol one afternoon in a small valley when the Americans were ambushed by the Chinese. Half a dozen Americans fell in the first exchange of fire. They were lying strung out in a rice paddy in plain sight. The platoon high-tailed it back the way they had come, looking for a defensible position.
Lee had been shot through the hip and was one of those who was down in the paddy. The shooting stopped, and when he turned his head-”very carefully” as he used to tell it-he could see the Chinese in their padded uniforms coming across the rice paddy toward him. He watched as they reached each American lying in the rice stubble, turned him over, and slit his throat. The Chinese didn’t want to take any chances. It was a practical matter. They didn’t have a lot of time, and they didn’t want any surprises.
And then a Chinese was standing over Lee, who was pretending to be dead. The Chinese kicked him in the face and Lee grimaced involuntarily. The Chinese reached down, grabbed the front of his fatigue jacket, turned him over, and slit his throat from ear to ear. As it turned out, he wasn’t very good at it and Lee did not bleed to death. A couple hours passed, the Americans went back into the valley, ran the Chinese out, and picked up their dead and wounded. And Lee lived to talk about it.
The Chinese who were slitting the throats of the Americans were committing war crimes. It was a practical matter. Lee wasn’t angry about it. It was comic. None of us were annoyed that the Chinese were slitting the throats of Americans who were, essentially, captured prisoners of war. I’m not suggesting that Lee did not have some bad dreams now and then, he probably did, but there was no anger. Just as there was no anger against the Chinese who surrendered to us that first night on the ridgeline in the dark. There was no time, there was no place, there was no convenient way, to take care of a prisoner at that particular moment in that particular context. It was a practical matter.
I am willing to give the Marine who shot the wounded Iraqi insurgent the benefit of the doubt. The Marine very likely committed a war crime-I don’t know how it will come out in the wash-but at the same time there are certainly extenuating circumstances surrounding the event. Particularly with insurgents, where everything depends on simulation, fakery, false moves, and ingenuity.
What are we to say about the man, the leader and his circle, who initiated this preemptive war? The Congress who backed it? They all knew full well that not merely insurgents and soldiers would be killed, but that for every soldier or insurgent killed there would be ten innocent, unarmed civilians killed, maimed and wounded. Tens of thousands. Not one here or there. Tens of thousands. And now figures are coming out that suggest hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians already killed and wounded.
For the US Government, that’s nothing. That’s fully within our tradition. We do not want to ever forget Nagasaki, Hamburg. Never forget! The State morally justifies the intentional mass killing of unarmed civilians for a greater good. The leader, and those who serve and follow him, always claims a moral justification for his murderousness by referencing a “greater good.”
But one lone US Marine who intentionally kills one prisoner of war, for what in the moment he sees as the “greater good” of himself and those he is serving with, can be held personally responsible for this one measly murder. Nail one kid for one murder, and write off the sea of intentional murders surrounding him.
It’s really awfully tacky, but what can we expect when we play “follow the leader?”