Last week, when word that an Al Jazeera broadcast of a videotape showing American POWs reached the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld immediately cried foul, citing Iraqi violation of Article 13 of the third Geneva Convention which states, “... prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.”
For most of us, the Geneva Conventions are a blip in our memory of world history class and it's unlikely that the guy who pushed for their creation is a familiar name. But Henri Dunant was on to something when he encouraged the Swiss government to convene a meeting of nations to create guidelines for humane warfare.
“If the new and frightful weapons of destruction, which are now at the disposal of the nations, seem destined to abridge the duration of future wars,” wrote Dunant, “it appears likely, on the other hand, that future battles will only become more and more murderous.”
The year was 1859. Dunant, a traveling Swiss businessman and sometimes-author, decided to purchase and develop a large tract of land in Algeria. First, though, he had to clear his plans with then-emperor of France, Napoleon. (France had control of Algeria at that time.) Problem: Napoleon was, as usual, at war, headquartered in the town of Solferino in Northern Italy, where French troops were helping the Italian army cleanse their country of Austrians.
For Dunant, war meant nothing on the verge of a potentially lucrative business deal. Undeterred, he headed for Solferino, arriving just in time to, as the story goes, not only witness but also participate in one of the more gory battles of that century-an estimated 80,000 soldiers were killed. He later recorded his experience in a book, Un Souvenir de Solférino (A Memory of Solférino).
Un Souvenir de Solférino captures the gross inhumanity of war that Dunant witnessed-the prolonged suffering of wounded soldiers, left to die on the battlefield due to the severe shortage of medical personnel and the fact that medics were just as likely to get killed as any soldier.
But rather than simply record his observations, Dunant's book looks for solutions. The foremost was an international plan for a body of laws that would, hopefully, make war no more brutal than it had to be.
Dunant's first goal, however, was to form an independent organization of medics to supplement military doctors. In 1863, he founded the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose battlefield neutrality was signified by a red cross on a white background. Just in case the symbol wasn't enough, in 1864 Dunant pressured the Swiss government to sponsor a conference in Geneva to establish a set of laws to ensure humane treatment of the wounded and those caring for them. From this came the first Geneva Convention-formally titled the Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field.
The United States did not sign on to this first treaty until 1882 and, like a handful of other countries, has been accused of not following the conventions, particularly during the Korean War and also with the recent capture and detainment of Afghan soldiers at Guantanamo Bay. As for the latter, Rumsfeld argued that the conventions didn't apply to a “war against terror.”
Since 1864, three more conventions have been added: Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea; Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War; Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.
Each convention is painstakingly detailed. The convention regarding prisoners of war (also known as the third convention) is a prolific 23,042 words long. Certainly there's not a commanding officer out there who has committed the articles to memory, nor could the same be expected from national leadership. And one has to wonder whether the mindset of a solider-the necessity to see the “enemy” as less than human-might at times occlude humanitarian law.
The conventions often seem more ideal than plausible. “Chivalrous” is an adjective often used to describe them. For example, Article 38 of the third convention states:
“While respecting the individual preferences of every prisoner, the Detaining Power shall encourage the practice of intellectual, educational, and recreational pursuits, sports and games amongst prisoners, and shall take the measures necessary to ensure the exercise thereof by providing them with adequate premises and necessary equipment.”
Many public school systems can't promise such things. And it's doubtful POW camps provide the mental and physical stimulants the Geneva Conventions decree.
As Robert E. Lee said in 1862, “It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.”