Last weekend’s news from Iraq was dismal for an American public expecting a quick and almost bloodless victory in Iraq. Two stories were particularly unsettling: the capture and apparent execution of some soldiers from the U.S. 507th Maintenance Company, and the death of several Marines at the hands of Iraqi soldiers pretending to surrender. The actions of the Iraqis here are more than just cruel. They are patently illegal under the Geneva Conventions that govern armed conflict.
Reporters and officials who saw the video of captured and murdered American soldiers unanimously declared it to be gruesome. In addition to showing the questioning of American prisoners — including two wounded prisoners of war — the tape displays the bodies of those murdered.
Article 13 of the Geneva Convention clearly prohibits videotaping captured soldiers — both living and dead — under conditions that humiliate: “…[P]risoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.” The video, however, reportedly shows the prisoners as beaten, ill-clad (the female prisoner without shoes or boots) and frightened. The pictures and treatment of the corpses — which included moving them around to display their wounds — was also insulting.
This kind of treatment of prisoners is prohibited not only because it is unnecessarily cruel, but also because of the anger it arouses in the public and among the fighting forces of both sides. War is already brutal enough without raising fears among combatants that capture means death and/or humiliation.
The Marine deaths occurred in at least two separate ambushes where Iraqis, some in civilian clothes, pretended to surrender, only to open fire when the Marines approached.
The Geneva conventions permit using deceptions or ruses to mislead the enemy, but some deceptions are specifically prohibited. “Feigning surrender in order to lure the enemy into a trap…” is one of them. This ruse is forbidden because it causes soldiers to suspect all surrendering combatants of using that ruse — with horrifying results.
In February 2001 I interviewed the chief of the Sri Lankan army. At that time Sri Lanka was engaged in a bloody civil war with the terrorist group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE). The Sri Lankan army reported a large number of LTTE killed, but very few prisoners. I asked the chief of army why so few prisoners were taken. A subordinate started to reply about training problems and the “suicidal” nature of the LTTE, but the chief of the army waved him down. In reality, the general said, the LTTE terrorists frequently used surrender as a ruse, mixing armed terrorists and suicide bombers among surrendering parties. As a result, he said, few Sri Lankan soldiers were willing to risk their lives to accept a prisoner. Rather than give Tigers the opportunity to surrender, they’d simply shoot Tigers on sight.
There is no expectation that America’s well-trained and disciplined soldiers will begin shooting Iraqi soldiers trying to surrender. But they are now exercising much greater caution and are far more likely to shoot Iraqi soldiers who fail to behave correctly during the mutually dangerous surrender process. Additionally — because of the POW video — American soldiers may be far more unlikely to surrender, no matter the circumstances. The combined result: unnecessary deaths on both sides.
— Dana Dillon is senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. Dillon retired from 20 years service in the U.S. Army in 2000 as a major. While in the Army, he served as an infantry officer, foreign-area officer, and six years at the Pentagon, where he specialized in Army intelligence and Army foreign affairs.