A Too-Kind Comparison

On May 13, 1943, Axis forces in North Africa surrendered. The Allies suddenly found themselves saddled with nearly three hundred thousand prisoners of war, including the bulk of General Erwin Rommel’s famed Afrika Korps. Unable to feed or house their share, the British asked their American comrades to relieve them of the burden. And so, by the tens of thousands, German soldiers were loaded aboard Liberty Ships, which had carried American troops across the Atlantic. Eventually, some five hundred P.O.W. camps, scattered across forty-five of the forty-eight United States, housed some four hundred thousand men. In every one of those camps, the Geneva conventions were adhered to so scrupulously that, after the war, not a few of the inmates decided to stick around and become Americans themselves. That was extraordinary rendition, Greatest Generation style.

The “war on terror” is a very different kind of war, and the prisoners thereof are very different, too. It’s not just that a higher proportion of them appear to have been truly dedicated to the ideology in whose name they were fighting, or that they were unaffiliated with a government. It’s also that their numbers are small—a hamlet compared to the city-size P.O.W. population of 1945. In the nine years since the creation of the purpose-built prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a grand total of seven hundred and seventy-nine men (and boys—the youngest was fifteen years old when he was captured) have been sent there. It currently holds a hundred and seventy-two. Yet this relative handful of shackled, isolated prisoners has somehow been permitted to engender a miasma of popular fear and political cowardice that contrasts shamefully with the matter-of-fact courage of an earlier and simpler time.

The Greatest Generation housed four hundred thousand Nazis on American soil during the war. We wet ourselves over housing one hundred seventy-two miscellaneous troglodytes from Afghanistan… many years after the war. It’s just too dangerous!

The comparison isn’t exactly fair. If anything, it’s too kind to the present generation. We’re not keeping our prisoners in Guantanamo out of fear. We’re keeping them there to subvert our own legal system.

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38 thoughts on “A Too-Kind Comparison

  1. Many of the Italians held here in Montana stayed.

    Guantanamo should be closed immediately. It is an international mark of shame for us. It is an anti-American symbol.

    I disagree, though. I think that fear is and has been the primary motivation for legislative resistance to closure, even though subversion of our legal system (to save our nation from attack) was the executive’s purpose in maintaining it and pursuing torture. Would that the 9/11 attacks, if they were an inevitability, had happened when we had a President of more American courage and integrity and strength of will in office. The story of President Bush always carrying in his pocket the badge of a man killed working rescue people at the World Trade Center always struck me as symptomatic of PTSD, as a talismanic obsession with guilt and a “never again” mentality.

    Unfortunately, in this area in particular, I have been consistently disappointed with our new President.

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    • Why be disappointed with just the president when you can be disappointed with the republicans(and earlier democrats) in congress.

      In the recent no-shut down budget bill the republicans insisted on adding a rider that Gitmo stay open.

      Hurray for congress!

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  2. Obama has proven so far to be, while not quite the reprobate his predecessor was, utterly unwilling to take any political risks to end this particular fiasco. I’m very glad I didn’t believe in “Change you can believe in” my cynicism has served me well on the subject of the O-man.

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    • “Were the German POW camps located near to or far away from the Japanese-American internment camps that the Greatest Generation also built?”

      I think that this sums up a basic attitude among the right in this country. They see the good done in/by the USA, and the bad – and want to strengthen the bad and weaken the good.

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    • One need not postulate that the Greatest Generation was perfect to appreciate that they did get some things right.

      Asking for earthly examples of perfection will turn everyone into hypocrites sooner or later.

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      • JK-

        Perhaps this puts me way out there somewhere, but I find it interesting that the intent of this post seems to be adulation for 1940’s Americans for their treatment of 400,000+ POWs instead of dismay at the fact that we held 400,000 POWs!

        I guess the argument is that if you ARE going to hold POWs, you ought to treat them as humanely as possible. And I wouldn’t disagree with that. But why start from a position that assumes the keeping of POWs is itself acceptable?

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        • I would imagine that it has to do with the recognized laws of war as they had evolved by the 1940s and with the possible alternatives: would the allies simply repatriate them before the hostilities ended, potentially to rejoin the army? would the allies do worse, such as exterminate them? what about allied POW’s in Germany (my point is that not all were treated well by any means and that some were simply murdered or worse, but why give the German propagandists the ability more to work with?

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        • Because the alternatives are 1) kill em outright 2) say ‘go home but pretty please don’t fight the war anymore’

          (#2 has in fact been used in war before, and was a common enough practice in medieval times that it is where the term ‘parole’ derives from)

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          • It still seems as if we are only dealing in the current reality of the situation, instead of questioning whether we should be putting ourselves in a position to ever need to deal with POWs. Maybe if we aren’t involved in Ws, we won’t have any POs.

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  3. I agree that what the US is doing with Gitmo prisoners subverts our legal system, but I think you are giving too little credence to power of fear. Our national reaction to the events of 9/11 (2 wars, Homeland Security department, Patriot Act, TSA abuses, the Ground Zero mosque, etc.) has been one, long, sustained stream down the country’s collective pant leg. Between the fear-mongers and the milksops, those complicit with the frightened atmosphere in the country are everywhere.

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  4. I’m not wetting myself at all, Henrik Hertzberg is.

    The senate voted 90-6 to keep them there, and the admin seems to be complying with Hamdan System’s working fine.

    As I recall, the Germans were held until Germany surrendered. When al-Qaeda surrenders, the Gitmoians can all go home. Not until.

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    • Forgive me, because I can not tell, is this a sincerely held view or snark?

      Because, you certainly know that would mean these 172 humans would live out their entire existence at Gitmo. Al-Qaeda is too loose a confederation to ever formally “surrender”, so your “not until” is the same as never.

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      • Presuming TVD can prove definitively that all of the Gitmo detainees are members of and fighting on behalf of Al Quaeda, PERHAPS he’d have a leg to stand on. Unfortunately, I have no faith in our government’s ability to determine who is who, especially when it comes to brown folks.

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        • Ah, BJK, always nice of you to stop by and drop the race card…again. It never changes. The narrative appears to be etched in stone:Whitey Bad; All other racial colors: Good. No offense, but have you ever been dropped on your head? Maybe even a few times? Don’t feel bad–I have. I’m curious about the “brown skin” accusation. “I have no faith in our government’s ability to determine who is who, especially when it comes to brown folks.” What brown-skinned Gitmo detainee do you feel has been wrongly incarcerated? or denied his rights? Or has been deprived of his Geneva Convention rights? And what situation are you aware of that would cause you to have no faith in the government’s ability to determine who is who especially when it comes to brown folks?
          Just kidding with drop on head

          This has to be the oddball comment of the year: “But why start from a position that assumes the keeping of POWs is itself acceptable?” HUH??? You related this to German POWs. Now if you feel detaining German POWs during a time of war was immoral or improper or whatever, what should have been the proper course of action in how we should have detained our POWs?

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          • I’ll try to simply go point-by-point through this…
            “Ah, BJK” … it’s BSK…
            “[A]lways nice of you to stop by and drop the race card…again.” If you start from a position that any mention of race or racism is playing the race card, you are essentially removing yourself from the conversation. It is a nonsensical rhetorical tactic as far as I’m concerned.
            “It never changes. The narrative appears to be etched in stone:Whitey Bad; All other racial colors: Good.” I never mentioned white people, only our government. Last I checked, our government is headed by a black man. And I made no mention of the relative morality or general “goodness” or “badness” of any racial group; only that our government has a piss poor track record of accurately ascertaining who the bad guy is (be it domestically via the criminal justice system or in our diplomatic relations) and that this track record is only worse when the supposed offender is a person of color.
            “No offense, but have you ever been dropped on your head? Maybe even a few times?” Offended. Remember, preceding an offensive comment with “no offense” only indicates that you know acutely that what you say is likely to offend and presume that offering a disclaimer somehow disavows you of your obvious intent.”
            “Don’t feel bad–I have.” No comment.
            “I’m curious about the “brown skin” accusation. “I have no faith in our government’s ability to determine who is who, especially when it comes to brown folks.” What brown-skinned Gitmo detainee do you feel has been wrongly incarcerated? or denied his rights? Or has been deprived of his Geneva Convention rights? And what situation are you aware of that would cause you to have no faith in the government’s ability to determine who is who especially when it comes to brown folks?” Much of this is asked-and-answered above, but to your questions about the specific individuals in Guantanamo, are you ignoring that the Bush administration vigorously denied that detainees were qualified for Geneva Convention protections? And that at least one American citizens has been arrested and held there, thus denying his his constitutional rights? And that John Walker Lindh (white American), who was caught fighting in Afghanistan was offered comparatively cushy service throughout his detainment and trial?

            To your second paragraph, my point is that maybe we should not have been on the battlefields with Germans in the first place. Again, you are supposing that we must find ourselves in war and, once there, we are forced to confront the issue of how to handle POWs. I’m arguing that maybe we should never put ourselves in that predicament.

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        • BSK:

          If they were captured on the field of battle and the US is going to be nice enough to give them POW status then we should be able to keep them until the end of hostilities. You can have it both ways, i.e. claiming they are POWs and should be released before the end of hostilities.

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          • Scott-

            My larger point is that perhaps we should not be on the field of battle in the first place, thus not forcing us to decide how we should treat those we capture there. If you are specifically referring to the Gitmo detainees, it is my understanding that many of those there were captured state side. If America as a whole has turned into a “battlefield”, that is a scary proposition indeed.

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            • BSK:

              We are in Afghanistan as they were harboring OBL. Even if were weren’t there, we would still capture Al-Qaeda and have to deal POWs at some point. As for American Gitmo detainees, how many do you think are there? Do you have any hard numbers?

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              • Scott-

                My initial statement was somewhat misinformed. It seems there are three American citizens who’ve been held at Guantanamo. There were other citizens detained state side, but they were not sent to Guantanamo.

                To your point, the problem is that we have vigorously fought against the classification of Guantanamo detainees and others captured in the “War on Terror” as POWs. Are we fighting a real war? Is this a policing action? When will the POWs be released if the “War on Terror” is presumably interminable?

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                • BSK:

                  Questions of what you call this conflict aside, the fact is that captured enemy have gotten the protection of the Geneva Conventions, even though personally, I don’t think they deserve them. That being said, you still seem to want the benefits of the GC without the burdens of it. I can’t think of a modern war where POWs were let go before the conflict was over, can you? I could care less if we keep our POWs as long as the conflict continues or until they are no longer a threat.

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    • “As I recall, the Germans were held until Germany surrendered. When al-Qaeda surrenders, the Gitmoians can all go home. Not until.”

      That’s so – Soviet – of you, Tom. And BTW, it’s not Al Qaida, it’s ‘Terror’. We’re in a war with ‘Terror’, remember?

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      • Great; you’ve proven that they aren’t POWs, but are instead non-state actors engaged in combat against uniformed armed forces of a sovereign country. Meaning that they’re dangerous thugs who should have been shot where they stood.

        Congratulations on the own-goal!

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        • No, because once they’re caught, we still have to try them. We can’t summarily shoot them, if that’s what you’re advocating, because even illegal combatants aren’t permitted to be treated that way.

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  5. Bush kept Gitmo open for two reasons as best I can tell: worst-of-the-worst fearmongering and the problems of a civilian criminal trial, especially regarding torture and mismanagement of evidence. Obama does less fearmongering but doesn’t want to get attacked as weak on the War on Terror, and still has the 4th and 5th Amendment violation problems.

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  6. The Greatest Generation housed four hundred thousand Nazis on American soil during the war.

    Mr. Kuzinicki:

    I understand and agree with the main point of your post, but it calling these POW’s Nazis stretches matters a bit. My understanding is that members of the regular army were forbidden to join the Nazi party (although there were SS and other military units that were Nazi), and when someone was drafted or even chose to enlist in the German army, they were not necessarily Nazis or share all of the Nazi ideology.

    I’m not trying to excuse them, but one of the main points of the pro-Gitmo crowd is that the people detained there are allegedly (although they might drop the “allegedly”) committed to the ideology which supposedly provides the motivation for terrorism (of which they are presumably guilty because, hey, they’ve been caught). I find the pro-Gitmo argument failing, but their claim more likely resonates with the reasons behind the detaining of the relatively (compared to Japanese) small number of American Germans and Italians detained on suspicion of treason or 5th-columning.*

    *I don’t know much about internment in general, or the internment of non-Japanese, but my understanding is that at least some Germans and Italians, perhaps on some (reasonable?) suspicion of treason or espionage, were detained without due process. I stand to be corrected by someone who knows more.

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