Sunday, July 16, 2006

Asymmetric Warfare

Asymmetric Warrior par excellence, Gandhi

I was so quick Friday to get what I had written earlier posted that I didn't realize how the title to the post didn't quite fit with what I was writing about, or at least it only half fit. My intention was also to address this other issue, the "one down" in contrast to the "one up" otherwise addressed in that blog entry. That said, this issue on its own seems to be to be deserving of its own post, and so here we go.

A few days ago the Times ran the following article by Damien Cave, U.S. Says Inmate Legal Notes May Have Aided Suicide Plot. The article discusses the legal paperwork tied to the detainees in Guantanamo Bay who killed themselves, and how the government contends that the detainees were using this paperwork to communicate with each other to coordinate their suicides. It also highlights the different perspective that the government has about the suicides, specifically:

"Detainees' lawyers have described the suicides as acts of desperation, while Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., the facility's commander, has described them as acts of 'asymmetric warfare.'"

RADM Harris is not an official government spokesperson so it's not entirely fair to characterize what he says as the "government line", as it were. To what degree anything he said is representative of what DoD itself may think is also not clear, at least to me from my limited perspective. I'd be surprised that he came up with the asymmetric warfare comment on his own, and if he did I'd expect that he's likely a man who doesn't much figure he's going to be promoted past his current rank so why not speak his mind. It's possible this line was fed to him by DoD spinmeisters or whatever, in which case he became the sacrificial goat to put this sort of stupidity into the daily newspapers.

First, I want to clarify something: I don't equate Guantanamo detainees with Gandhi, far from it. I have little doubt that some of the men there are very bad people, though they and everyone else held in Guantanamo (Gitmo for short) do deserve better due process than we're presently giving them. No, the whole Gandhi thing came to mind when I thought about others who've put their lives on the line for a cause, Gandhi certainly being one of them, Martin Luther King Jr., Vietnamese Buddhist monks self-immolating to protest the Diem government in Vietnam, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Susan B. Anthony, and the list goes on and on. These people were willing to give their lives for what they believe in, and historically we look back on them now as great individuals, people who were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for what they believe, which invariably we look back now and say, "Why of course it's worth believing in, and even putting your life on the line for". How the detainees fit into this calculus of sacrifice is not clear to me, but it's worth thinking about and certainly deserves more than to be written off as an act of "asymmetric warfare."

RADM Harris too easily conflated, deliberately or per some oddball DoD script, the domain he's living in, the "war on terror", with his prisoners who may or may not be guilty of crimes in whatever way the current administration defines such. Warfare indicates warriors engaging on similar terms, and asymmetric warfare would indicate some manner of divergence from the normal rules of war. Traditionally asymmetric warfare has meant a guerrilla engagement, such as the U.S. now finds itself engaging in Iraq, though we don't call the "insurgents" guerrillas likely because it would imply some manner of legitimacy equivalent to the last frequently guerrilla war this country engaged in, which was in Vietnam. A man locked in a cell who kills himself is not engaging in warfare, he's making a statement, a rather profound statement when
you get right down to it. But of course we don't want to bother ourselves with such messages, and indeed it's far easier to say the bastards were engaging in asymmetric warfare where the only possible casualty of said warfare was themselves - what kind of war is it when the only victims are the perpetrators? Lordy would wars be a hell of a lot shorter were they all like that.

I have to admire a man or woman who feels so strongly about something that they're willing to kill themselves for it. Now the person in question may have committed acts that weren't worthy of admiration, but then in this case I haven't a clue about these detainees. What I do know is that they were willing to coordinate a group suicide and then act on it, resulting in three of them dying. As I said, that's a profound statement, one worthy of more respect and consideration than our government and the majority of Americans seem interested in giving it's due, and I believe we do this at our peril.


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