Thursday, July 13, 2006

If I had one question...

I sometimes imagine that I'm facing President Bush on national television. There's an army of fact checkers waiting for my question. The President can answer my question, or admit he doesn't know... but if he answers, and the fact checkers find out he was wrong, he's branded a liar or a bullshitter.

And the President knows this, of course. He knows that if he doesn't know the answer, he better not bluff, and if he says something, he'd better tell the truth.

What would that question be?

Well, my first thought is always the question I've most wanted to ask him, but that question wouldn't work.

That question is "why hasn't the military engaged in the kinds of investigations that would reveal the truth about torture of prisoners?"

You see, a lot of investigations have been launched, but a lot of charges were found to be "baseless". What does that mean?

Well, imagine that you've been picked up in a sweep, and you "mouth off" to a soldier. That is, you say "Hey! I'm not supposed to be here! I was just on my way to a racquetball game when some goon grabbed me and stuck his boot on my neck! I'm not one of the bad guys!"

And let's say the soldier decides to let you off easy, with a couple of quick punches to the gut, and two other soldiers laugh and congratulate him on showing "that two-bit towel head who's the boss". Just pretend that these are three of the "bad apples" that we're told are responsible for all the abuse.

And let's say you register a complaint. And let's say you're lucky, and it's investigated.

Well, if you're one of the bad guys, they can't just take your word for the abuse. I mean, wouldn't it be great for the terrorists if they were believed every time they claimed they were abused? They could have a bunch of US soldiers put in jail. So, the word of the prisoner who was abused is automatically suspect. So, they investigate other avenues.

If there were other prisoners present, well, they can't be sure you didn't ask those other prisoners to tell a lie about the guards, so they can't trust the other prisoners, either. Instead, they ask the soldiers.

The soldier who hit you insists that, "if" he hit you, it would only have been in self defense.

When the other two soldiers are interviewed, well... they have a problem. See, if abuse occurred within their sight or hearing, they had a positive obligation to stop it. If they couldn't stop it, they had to report it. If they did neither, they are guilty of a crime.

They might lie. I mean, they thought you were one of the bad guys, and really, a couple of punches? What's the big deal? And besides, the guy who punched you is a fellow soldier. He would willingly lay down his life to protect them. Are they going to tell the truth, and get him put in jail, for losing his cool and just punching someone?

But let's pretend these two witnesses are as honest as the day is long. Well, they're likely to stand mute, under their Article 31 rights (the military equivalent of one's Fifth Amendment rights). After all, yes, their fellow soldier did hit you... but the only way they can tell the truth now is to be willing to go to jail because they didn't do anything to stop him.

The investigation is concluded; the only people who claimed you were hit are people who can't be believed without further substantiation. The people who could provide that substatiation refuse to talk, or lie.

Now, the military investigators might know damn well that you were hit, but the standard of proof in a court martial is not "the investigator knows damn well what happened". If the only witnesses can't be trusted (for good reason; we can't let terrorsts put our soldiers in jail by making accusations of abuse), and the trusted witnesses don't talk (for good reason: this country can't force self-incrimination), then the charges will be declared baseless, and dropped.

The military can, of course, provide immunity from prosecution, just like a grand jury can. Once that immunity is granted, the Fifth Amendment and Article 31 no longer apply; whatever you say isn't incriminating yourself, because nothing you say can lead to criminal charges.

But that hasn't happened. Why not, Mr. President? Would we find out that there was more going on than "a few bad apples"?

But the fact checkers wouldn't allow that kind of question. The only person who knows "why?" is George W. Bush, and no one can read his mind, and tell us that he's lying, bullshitting, or telling the God's honest truth.

So, instead, I'd ask this question:

"What is our military readiness like? Could we engage in a conventional war in Iran or North Korea?"

You see, a while back, I heard an interesting story. Obviously, the military has large stockpiles of weapons, ammunition, food, clothing, tents, blankets, ordinance, etc., so that when a war starts, we don't have to wait until, e.g., tent makers make enough tents for our soldiers to sleep in before we can ship them overseas. Sure, you can send them out with not-quite-enough of some items, but even the mildest of shortages can lead to additional combat deaths. You might laugh to think a man could die from a bootlace shortage, but if a man is charging a machine gun nest and his boot comes loose because the laces snapped, he will, in fact, probably die because of a bootlace.

Well, the story I heard was that those large stockpiles are now, essentially, gone, used up in the Iraq war. Weapons, ammunition, food, spare parts for vehicles, and such, etc..

I've heard - and I don't know if it's true - that if we wanted to fight another war, we'd have to wait until we could order enough MREs, guns, bullets, bombs, tents, blankets, etc., to send along with the soldiers who'd fight the war.

I've heard that this is one of the nasty little tricks that's been played on us. Sure, the war has cost hundreds of billions of dollars, but that's just the start. Restocking is going to cost a lot more, and it's going to take a lot of time, and, of course, to keep it from looking like the deficit is a lot worse than it is, the Bush administration hasn't been restocking as they've used things up.

This isn't as good a question as the first one. The first one is a great "gotcha!" question, because there isn't a good answer. This one, well, it's possible that the answer is "we're in fine shape; we have plenty of supplies for another war, if one should start."

And the relief I would have if it's true would make up for me using my one and only question.

But I'd sure like to know, and have the rest of the country know, if the answer is "we're tapped out; we're stuck - well, that's not what the quartermasters said, they said something that rhymes with "stucked". Honestly, we're just praying that nothing else happens for a few years."

Because it would show us, once and for all, that no, we do not have a "war president". If our supplies are as bad as I've heard in the stories I've seen, we have a wartime wanker who'd better remember that money talks and bullshit walks, and it's time to resupply now, rather than hope that nothing else happens, until it's someone else's problem.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

But it's not a flip-flop, really...

It's not a flip flop, it's not a policy reversal, it's really just more of a reaction to polls an acceptance of the Supreme Court decision. The Bush administration has decided to grant Geneva protections to prisoners.

All cynicism aside, this is a good decision to make. I'm glad that the administration has chosen not to defy the courts on this, and I'm glad that the United States might someday once again be trusted not to mistreat prisoners. This is too little, much too late, to redeem the administration in my eyes... but they did make the right call, even if it was under pressure.

I don't trust that they made this correct decision freely; I do think that they realized that the polls were against them if they tried to defy the Supreme Court. But treating prisoners by the minimum standards of decency is always a good thing, even if it's not done for the best of reasons.

Torture doesn't work; revenge sets you down the path towards evil; everything you're willing to do to the guilty, you are certain to do to the innocent, sooner or later. Those were all good, pragmatic reasons we should have followed the Geneva Conventions from the start.

But at least we're moving in the right direction again.

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