A bundant news reports of world tensions, strife, and great suffering bear witness to man’s relentless inhumanity to his fellow man. War is a cataclysmic eruption of violence that is driven by all that is vile in humans and can be justified only as a defense. As examples of our human capacity for goodness and compassion abound, a man’s greatness is revealed by the nobility of his sacrifices to deter evil.
Throughout history, as technology advanced, gruesome carnage of war grew exponentially. It seemed there was no end to brutality in war. But in 1864, in association with the Red Cross, Henri Durant initiated a Convention for the Amelioration of the Wounded in time of War. It became known as the Geneva Accords and evolved into the Geneva Convention. The convention outlines the rules of war which prohibit the use of chemical weapons, require humane treatment of prisoners and mandate the preservation of an opponent’s human dignity.
Was it a giant leap for humankind? Not quite. Many nations with varied philosophies, traditions and beliefs did not sign the accords. They refused to subject themselves to what they perceived as the hypocrisy of European colonizers who attempted to impose their morality and values on the world. With time, human compassion seemed to emerge on the world stage. Today, about 150 years later, there are 196 nations worldwide that have ratified the Geneva Accords as a treaty. That is a significant show of support by the international community for relief of human suffering inflicted by war.
Having suffered the unprecedented horrors of the Civil War, the United States was eager to co-sign the accords and ratified the treaty in 1882. Since then, in its progression to world leadership and position of power, the U.S. has felt honor bound to comply with the rules of war and has often expressed outrage at others’ noncompliance.
Currently, in the conflict with jihadists of radical Islam, the co-signers of the Geneva Convention find themselves faced with severe challenges. The terrorists and jihad militants are not bound by any rules. Soldiers of Western civilization are at a disadvantage in their conduct of war against the radicals. They are like a boxer entering the ring expected to follow the Marquees of Queensberry rules and then discovering that the opponent is a kick boxer.
Not all is fair in war. Atrocities against humanity are a regression to savagery and violate all morality.
In combat, it becomes tempting and often necessary to match the opponent’s ferocity, but barbarism is abhorrent. Unfortunately, members of our armed forces are not impervious to the destructive stresses of war. The temptation to break the rules of engagement becomes too great in the face of their enemy’s brutality. Examples of such stresses are the highly publicized My Lai Massacre in Vietnam and the abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq.
Military courts prosecuted the responsible individuals and administered punishment to fit the crime. Justice for humanity was served. Adherence to rules of engagement was enforced.
Combat-stressed soldiers are not the only ones who break rules. In response to the terrorist attack of 9/11, President Bush felt pressured to reassure the nation of its security. He invoked the War Powers Act, suspended constitutional rights of privacy, facilitated expediencies in information gathering, and made it possible for government operatives to act without accountability. GITMO was activated as a “Gray area facility” where rules of the Geneva Convention could be reinterpreted. Today, the Patriot Act continues to shield CIA operatives who conducted experiments with Enhanced Interrogation Techniques and water boarding.
Rules outlined by the Geneva Convention are a step forward for humanity to alleviate the suffering that war inflicts. However, as evidenced by history, it does not address the resurgence of war. Each new generation continues to wait for the day when “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks and they shall learn war no more.” (Isaiah 2:4)
Fred Natkevi is a resident of Oak Park.