If we are, as Jean-Paul Sartre said, defined by our actions, most of the blame for the murder of more than 100,000 Iraqis belongs to our top government officials. But Bush’s armchair warriors couldn’t have invaded Iraq without a compliant and complicit United States military—one that, it should be noted, is all volunteer. These individuals, who enjoy free will, fire the guns and drop the bombs. If personal responsibility is to have any meaning, the men and women of our armed forces have to be held individually accountable for the carnage.
“Supporting our troops while opposing their actions may seem contradictory,” argues Joshua Frank in the antiwar.com article. “The duties of U.S. soldiers in Iraq are wrong and many may be committing horrible crimes against humanity. True. But soldiers are mostly not bad people (though, of course, some are).” How is a person who voluntarily commits “horrible crimes against humanity” not a “bad person”?
Even if U.S. forces were not violating the rules of war in Iraq—torturing, maiming and murdering POWs, robbing and subjecting civilians to collective punishment, dropping white phosphorus and depleted uranium bombs on civilian targets—the war itself, based on false pretenses and opposed by the United Nations, would remain a gross violation of American and international law.
Soldiers, they say, must obey orders. However, “just following orders” wasn’t an acceptable excuse at the Nuremberg trials, where the charges included waging a war of aggression. Do our government’s poorly paid contract killers deserve our “support” for blindly following orders?
Not according to the military itself. The U.S. Army’s “Law of Land Warfare,” taught in basic training, says that U.S. troops must always refuse an unlawful order—one that violates the Constitution or other U.S. laws, is not reasonably linked to military necessity or is issued by someone without the proper authority.
Even passivity in the face of wrongdoing breaks military law. “If you are responsible for what’s going on around you, and it is going unlawfully, and you know that [and] do nothing about it, I’m going to prosecute you,” says Bill Eckhardt, a retired army colonel and professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law who prosecuted most of the perpetrators of the My Lai massacre. “So basically, you’ve gotta be a whistleblower.”
Congress never declared war against Iraq. As an unelected imposter, George W. Bush did not enjoy authority under the War Powers Act to commit American forces abroad. Concentration camps at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere violate the Geneva Conventions, which as treaty obligations are binding under U.S. law. Iraq did not threaten the United States. Iraq is not the subject of a U.N.-led international police action. Thus, by several measures, the war is illegal. Every order to deploy a soldier, aviator or sailor to fight in Iraq is by definition an unlawful order, one that he or she is legally and morally bound to refuse.
What are members of the military to do? They should certainly refuse to applaud when Bush uses them as backdrops to his logo-ridden pro-death pep rallies. Moreover, just as Muslim leaders were pressured to speak out against Islamist extremists after 9/11, soldiers ought to step forward to condemn the atrocities at Bagram, Fallujah and Guantanamo in letters to newspapers and other public venues. MTW