woody zimmerman 118 2007(Recent controversies over Guantanamo prisoners suggest that a reprint of this article from 20 June 2005 might be useful.)


Washington, D. C. 2005. “I don’t know how we can be expected to go about our normal work,” I remarked to Al, as I sat in his coffee shop. “Now they’re torturing terrorist prisoners by making them listen to rap music. Is there no sense of decency left? It’s absolutely the last straw.”

Al looked perplexed. “Is ‘rap music’ an oxymoron?” he asked no one in particular.

We were looking at the latest reports about mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo. FBI agents claim that prisoners were kept in “uncomfortably cool” air-conditioned cells and made to listen to rap music. They said interrogators also poked fingers in the chests of prisoners and spoke rudely to them. Worst of all, female guards sometimes “invaded prisoners’ personal space”.

Of course, we were appalled. (Not the finger poked in the chest! Good God! What’s next?) It was the worst revelation yet. Senator Richard Durbin seemed to think so, too. He likened Gitmo to Auschwitz, Buchenwald, the Soviet Gulag, and Pol Pot’s killing fields. Young people who “don’t know much about history” tend to agree with him. What a mess for the country.

Al is a Korean War veteran. He saw action against the Chinese at Chosin Reservoir. (“We froze our butts off up there,” he said.) His brother fought the Japanese in the Pacific and was wounded twice. If Al was shaking his head over today’s situation it was because he knows what fighting a ruthless and determined enemy is like. He wonders what has happened to us.

“We’ve raised a generation of pansies, that’s what,” said Al. “And they’re idiots about history. Does anyone remember what Hitler and Stalin were really like? Hitler killed millions just because their ethnicity offended his crackpot Aryan theories. Stalin killed anybody who knew somebody who might have heard about a guy who made a wisecrack about him. He wasted 30 million of his own people and nearly lost the war because he shot his entire officer corps in the 1930s. Pol Pot killed nearly 2 million of his own people. But nobody has died at Gitmo!”

Al stomped around the shop, shouting, pounding the counter and spilling his coffee. I had to admit that he had a point.

“But what about standards of decency?” I asked. “What about the Geneva Convention rules? Don’t the prisoners at Guantanamo deserve better treatment? And what is their status, anyway?”

Al was ready for that one. “The people being held at Gitmo are not United States citizens,” he said. “They are enemy combatants. They are not criminal defendants, and they’re not entitled to criminal proceedings in our courts. They were apprehended while involved in hostilities against the USA. Like any prisoners of war, they can be detained until hostilities cease.”

Being a combat veteran, Al knows the score about the Geneva Convention’s provisions for prisoners of war. He pointed out that the Geneva protocols must be followed only when both belligerent nations are signatories to the Convention. When one country is not a signatory, the signatory nation’s adherence to the prisoner-rules becomes optional.

“The Geneva Convention is a point of great misunderstanding among our citizens,” said Al. “During World War II, Germany didn’t follow the Geneva rules with Russian prisoners of war because the Russkies were not signatories to the Convention. This doesn’t excuse German atrocities, of course, but it does show why American and British prisoners were treated better.”

Since the terrorist forces – i.e., Al Qaeda – are not even a nation, much less a signatory to the Geneva Convention, we are released from the prisoner-of-war rules. Being America, we still afford those prisoners humane treatment. But we need not follow every detail of the Geneva rules unless we wish to. In particular, the Geneva restrictions on interrogating prisoners do not bind us. We are entirely free to interrogate prisoners by any means that are consonant with our own principles of decency and respect for other human beings. (As Al said, no one has died.)

Al was also extremely upset about the constant drumbeat of news that seems designed to hurt our war effort – thereby wounding the Bush Administration. The detailed reporting of casualties particularly enrages him.

“If every death during World War II had been reported in the same excruciating detail as deaths are being reported out of Iraq, the American public would have been so demoralized that we might not have been able to finish (and win) the war,” said Al.

Al is right. Today we hear of practically every explosion, every fire-fight, every soldier shot down. If a car blows up and kills an American, we see it on the news and get poignant stories about the grieving family and how mad they are at the president for their boy’s death.

In one notorious case, a decorated Marine officer was charged by JAG officials with murdering enemy combatants inside a building. The enemy soldiers were unarmed and wounded, but appeared to be “playing dead”. The reporter who released his film of the incident to news organs said he did not think the victims were “a threat”. After a huge public outcry over the JAG action, the charges were dropped. The officer subsequently resigned from the service. (Maybe JAG lawyers have been watching too many “JAG” TV episodes.) Who was the better for that reporter’s “expert opinion” on military operations?

“Today, instead of the war being about terrorism, America’s safety, and freedom for enslaved peoples, it’s all about Mr. Bush,” remarked Al. “A significant segment of the Democratic Party actually seems willing to see the war lost if it means Republicans – especially, Mr. Bush – will be politically damaged. Was World War I about Wilson? Or WWII about FDR? Why wasn’t Korea about Truman? Those wars were started by Democrats. If the Republicans had become the anti-war party, how could we have persevered?”

“But polls say the American people don’t feel any safer,” I observed. “The war really doesn’t seem to be going very well. Maybe we’re losing it.”

Al was red in the face and choking on his coffee. “Of course we don’t feel safe!” he shouted. “The @#$%& war isn’t over! If feeling safe was the measure for whether to continue, we would have had to quit every war before we got started. Nobody ‘feels safe’ when the enemy is still rampant and dangerous. The thing has to be seen through to the finish.”

“Wars are won by the will of a whole people,” said Al. “Every news item and every political action has to be weighed for its likely effect on the nation’s will. Once, we understood that, but I don’t know if we do any more. I’m not even sure we’re all on the same side…”

When I left, Al was still muttering about how we couldn’t fight the Japs or the Nazis today with all the girly-men sitting in the Congress or reporting the war. I hoped he could calm down before he had apoplexy. (I really must be more careful about the topics I bring up.)

Part of our problem today, I think, is that the war doesn’t seem real. It is far away. Although it touched us for a searing moment on 9/11/2001, the fiery terror of that day has faded from our collective memory. Now we’re more concerned about whether enemy detainees have to listen to loud rap music (oh, the horror of it!) than about terrorist acts they might have done or planned. What losing this war might mean is wholly outside our frame of reference.

Americans my age or younger – who have only read about World War II, but did not live through it – find it hard to believe that we could actually have lost. But those who fought in the war or lived through it on the home front knew that losing was conceivable. At the highest command levels, the prospect of failure was real and urgent. Before the Normandy landings, General Eisenhower drafted a statement which, by the grace of God, he never had to deliver. It (would have) said that the landings had failed to gain a suitable foothold and that he had withdrawn the troops. Ike planned to take all blame for the failed attack. [1]

We are now engaged with foes as ruthless as any we have ever faced. It will take all of our resolve, as a nation of free people, to defeat them. Every patriot, of any political stripe, needs to be concerned – nay, outraged – over any news report or public statement or political action which might harm our troops or threaten our will to prevail. No partisan political advantage can possibly be worth the cost of losing this war.


  1. See General Eisenhower’s statement at http://www.eisenhower.archives.gov/icof.htm     

No pansies here.

eisenhower troops

(General Dwight D. Eisenhower with paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division;

Newbury, England, June 5, 1944.)


Correction: Coffee Shop Al got carried away with one of his comments (and I carelessly failed to catch his error), when he said World Wars I & II and the Korean War “were started by Democrats”. Of course, that’s not so. Other countries started those wars. Al meant to say that our entry into those wars occurred under Democratic presidents. (He served free coffee to Democrats the following day to atone for his error. I didn’t drink any to atone for mine. Wilson, FDR, Truman and LBJ could have had free donuts, but they didn’t show. Mr. Bush sent his regrets.)  

Postscript (2014). We did win the Iraq war (discussed above), but we are now in the process of fumbling away that win and letting the enemy back in. More on this in subsequent articles. (WZ)