Toture Policy Was Far Different in Vietnam

Roundup: Talking About History

John Stuart Blackton, in the Washington Post (June 21 2004):

The Justice Department has advised the White House that President Bush (and those who follow his orders) may contravene treaties, U.S. law and international law under the broad doctrine of"necessity."

This advice contrasts sharply with that of an earlier White House, under Lyndon Johnson, during the Vietnam War. In that war, the decision was made to employ the full powers of the commander in chief to buttress and reinforce the Geneva Conventions and the criminal sanctions under the U.S. Code that followed from these conventions. Attorney General John Ashcroft and others in the administration have suggested that the recent disclosures about abuses at Abu Ghraib prison are simply a reflection of the universal"hard side" of war. It was ever thus and will forever be is the implication. Yet the record of the U.S. military in Vietnam, not our most glorious military undertaking, suggests otherwise.

Far more attention was paid in Vietnam than in Iraq to ensuring an environment in which every American combatant understood the basic rules of the Geneva Conventions. These principles were part of universal military training, reinforced by the chain of command in the field and largely, although certainly not universally, adhered to by the troops.

The International Red Cross sought assurances in December 1964 from the U.S. and Vietnamese governments that their armed forces were abiding by the Geneva Conventions. These requests prompted a policy review that led the U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam to appoint a joint U.S.-Vietnamese military committee in September 1965 to work out details on the application of the Geneva Conventions in Vietnam. Every draftee and volunteer was given, during basic training, mandatory instruction in the principles of the conventions. Soldiers were tested on that training, and the results were recorded in their personnel jackets. This training was repeated at successive stages, and all soldiers arriving in Vietnam received orientation in the Geneva Conventions during their initial processing.

Every soldier also received a plastic pocket card bearing the signature of our commander in chief, Lyndon Baines Johnson. It was headed"The Enemy in Your Hands" and summarized the conventions in simple, clear language. Item No. 3,"MISTREATMENT OF ANY CAPTIVE IS A CRIMINAL OFFENSE. EVERY SOLDIER IS PERSONALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ENEMY IN HIS HANDS," was followed by this unambiguous guidance:"It is both dishonorable and foolish to mistreat a captive. It is also a punishable offense. Not even a beaten enemy will surrender if he knows his captors will torture or kill him. He will resist and make his capture more costly. Fair treatment of captives encourages the enemy to surrender."

A program of instruction for all U.S. and Vietnamese military units was established in Vietnam to teach the basic rules for handling prisoners. Regulations were promulgated instructing U.S. units and advisers to identify and keep records of all captives turned over to the Vietnamese, including specifying to whom the captives were transferred.

The signed order from President Johnson in our pockets was a critical element of accountability and personal responsibility. In the event that any of us might be instructed to treat prisoners in an inhumane manner, we were in a position to recognize and refuse an unlawful order that contravened a signed direct order from the president....

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