Saturday marked my own tenth anniversary in this happy Corner, with a posting arguing that al-Qaeda detainees should be classified as POWs. (Click here, and then scroll up for the pile-on from Jonah and Rich.) I don’t think subsequent events have invalidated my point. Our stubborn insistence on defining al-Qaeda and the Taliban and associated vermin as “unlawful enemy combatants” has caused us no end of political trouble, both domestically and abroad, making their long-term detention less likely. We’re already treating the detainees like Col. Hogan, with gilded Korans and halal kebabs, so let’s just call them prisoners of war and lock them up until militant Islam’s war against us is over. That would also make it politically more viable to try before military commissions those guilty of war crimes, like murdering toddlers in pizza parlors, and executing them. Likewise, when we parole some and they return to the fight and are captured, executing them for violating the terms of their parole would be more sustainable politically.
Our problem seems to be that we fear treating irregular fighters as soldiers will create a kind of moral equivalence between us and them, unlike uniformed soldiers fighting for a state. (The Israelis do the same thing, as did the Brits with the IRA.) But was Qaddafi’s army really more “honorable” or legitimate than its irregular opponents just because they wore uniforms? This whole distinction is based on an outmoded model of war. Small war is the main kind of conflict we’re going to be involved in for the foreseeable future. True, the Gulf war and the first phases of the Iraq and Afghan wars were conventional wars (barely so, in the case of Afghanistan), but most of our fighting has been against what we insist on calling unlawful combatants — in Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, Somalia, Uganda, the pacification phases of Iraq and Afghanistan. Classifying as “soldiers” those combatants with some kind of organization and seeking some kind of political aims isn’t designed to make them feel good — it’s designed to make it easier for us to defeat them.