Assignment America: Rules of estrangement

By JOHN BLOOM, UPI Reporter-at-Large  |  April 2, 2003 at 7:36 PM
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NEW YORK, April 2 (UPI) -- America and Britain both love rules.

We're sticklers for the rule of law, even when it means stern sentences for minor crimes.

We're fanatics about rules in sports, which are, after all, peacetime versions of war. Only in America would you need six officials to play football, four to play baseball and three to play basketball, not counting the officials who operate the clock, which is sometimes the center of disputes involving tenths of a second. We even have formal offenses like "unsportsmanlike conduct," the "technical" foul and the "misconduct" as ways of punishing anyone who shows contempt for rules EVEN WHEN THE GAME IS NOT BEING PLAYED.

The Marquis of Queensbury, of course, was the first to bring uniform rules to the sport of boxing, mainly in an effort to make death result less frequently, but also as part of the gentleman's code that held that all combat should be as equal as possible. Hence the institution of increasingly more specific weight classes -- today they're only 6 pounds apart -- so that mere size wouldn't affect the outcome.

So it makes sense that in real war, it was Britain, and later the United States, that took the lead in writing the rules. We were both there at the foundation of the Red Cross in 1863 and the first Geneva Convention in 1864. We both signed all the subsequent conventions and protocols, of 1899, 1906, 1907, 1925, 1929, 1949 and 1977.

In fact, the only other country that might be said to be equally zealous about the rules of warfare would be Switzerland, which has a policy of not going to war at all.

This is why, every time we talk about rules, make rules, avoid rules, bend rules, or pick and choose which rules apply, the whole world is going to be watching. And when they watch, they're making character judgments. Are we coming across like John Wooden, the UCLA coach who never contested a call in his life and was still regarded as the most successful college basketball coach in history? Or are we coming across like Bobby Knight, who throws chairs when the calls don't go his way and generally tries to manipulate every situation in the name of winning at any cost?

(I'm not saying Bobby Knight is a bad guy -- just that his attitude toward the rules is that it's someone else's problem and his job is to get around them whenever possible, or at least stretch them to the breaking point.)

Of course, we've had both types of leaders. Eisenhower and Nimitz were John Woodens. Patton and MacArthur were Bobby Knights. Colin Powell is a John Wooden. Norman Schwarzkopf is a Bobby Knight. In general, the John Woodens are remembered by history with greater respect.

Right now, in Washington, we apparently have 10 Bobby Knights and no John Woodens. I would FEEL BETTER if there was more of a balance -- because it looks to the rest of the world as if we're using the rules when they suit us, ignoring them when they don't, insisting that our enemies be held to the highest standard and then, when we commit a foul ourselves, howling that it's a bad call.

Let's start with the issue of guerrilla warfare. I find it hard to believe that the Pentagon didn't expect Chechnya-style guerrilla tactics in this war. One thing you can count on when one side has an overwhelming superiority in weapons and troops, is that the other side will refuse to fight in the open. George Washington -- a John Wooden type -- refused to fight in the open, because the British had a navy and a disciplined army and he had no navy and ragtag troops. Nathan Bedford Forrest -- a Bobby Knight type -- refused to fight in the open because he could cause more carnage by operating in secrecy.

Part of running an effective guerrilla campaign under these conditions is using troops who are not in uniform. The Geneva Conventions are vague on this issue. Originally they said that disguising yourself as a civilian was forbidden. But the 1977 protocol, which we agreed to, allowed a lot of categories like militias, volunteers and "organized resistance movements" to make warfare without uniforms and still be protected by the conventions. This also includes someone who "spontaneously takes up arms."

Obviously there's a lot of legal wiggle room here, especially if Iraq is calling on the populace to take up arms. We would be in a stronger position to say these are war crimes if we could assert that we never send troops behind enemy lines out of uniform -- but I would be surprised if we don't. The agent who pinpointed the location of Saddam Hussein on the opening night of the war was operating in Baghdad, and I would be shocked to find out he was wearing an American uniform. Do we really want to insist on the strict enforcement of a convention that would legalize his summary execution if and when he's captured? It's always been acceptable to kill spies, but I think we have more to lose from the execution of spies than the enemy does.

The second issue that has the Pentagon agitated involves prisoners of war. They were outraged that five captured soldiers were photographed and interviewed. Donald Rumsfeld called this a direct violation of the conventions. The only clause that possibly applies to this involves subjecting the prisoners to "insults and public curiosity." That language was adopted in order to stop incidents like the one staged by the fascist officer in Italy who paraded British and American troops through the streets of Rome so that the populace could taunt them and spit on them.

I think the mere photographing of prisoners falls pretty far short of a violation, especially since I've seen quite a few photographs of Iraqi prisoners -- including one on the front page of Sunday's Washington Post -- as well as photographs of the prisoners at Guantanamo. Those prisoners were shown in orange jumpsuits, kneeling, shackled, handcuffed, wearing masks -- which is about as humiliating as it gets. If we think that falls under "insults and public curiosity" -- as we probably would if we received images of American soldiers being treated likewise -- then every photographer who takes pictures of a prisoner should be kicked out of Iraq by the Pentagon. (Hasn't happened.)

The third issue -- not much noted here but hammered by the foreign press -- is our vow to have "war crimes" trials after this is over. Presumably these would be military tribunals run by America and Britain and nobody else. We lost our chance to have any international sanction for the trials when we refused to recognize the new International Court of Justice at the Hague last year. Presumably we didn't trust the court, and in fact our president has said that all Americans should be exempt from all international tribunals.

I've never seen the rationale behind this policy explicitly stated, so I don't know why there's such a fear of worldwide tribunals. We have war criminals in our past -- like Lt. Calley -- just as every other nation does. The fact that we might have to occasionally respond to a court doesn't mean that we couldn't simply prove our innocence.

Iraq, for example, is claiming that the massacre of a car full of women at a checkpoint is a war crime. We're calling it a "tragic incident" and denying that any mistakes were made. The eyewitness account by a Washington Post reporter indicates that a mistake WAS made, but even if you put the worst possible face on it, it doesn't rise to the level of a war crime. It was most probably bungling, not intentional hostility toward civilians. For a defense attorney, it's a no-brainer. We would have much more credibility if we tried BOTH sides -- Iraq's HUNDREDS of cases, and our two or three -- in the International Court of Justice.

Our track record for the past two years has been to court international agreements when it suits us, ignore them when it doesn't, and unilaterally pull out of treaties that the rest of the world sees as universally beneficial -- notably the nonproliferation treaty with Russia and the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. There may be a sort of tactical street wisdom in doing this, and it might be a way to ensure victory wherever we go, but in the long run it isolates us as the arrogant bully who refuses to work for the common good.

To use another analogy from sports: Just last Saturday night, the great Philadelphia middleweight Bernard Hopkins defended his title against a French boxer named Morrade Hakkar. The only reason Hopkins fought at all is that he's required to defend his title at least twice every 18 months in order to keep it. After defeating Felix Trinidad in 2001, he fought once in 2002 and now once in 2003.

His opponent was the weakest possible "contender" who could be found. Hopkins said he was fighting for the money, and to keep his title, and for no other reason.

In the first round, Hakkar was so terrified that he literally ran around the ring to stay out of Hopkins' range, and did something I've never seen in my life -- failed to land a single punch. After Hakkar's corner told him that he had to be a man and throw punches, he gathered himself as best he could and started peppering Hopkins with the occasional jab, although he was brutally punished every time he got close. Although the fighters were the same weight, Hakkar looked like a midget, and an awkward midget at that.

Hakkar's face was pummeled into jelly, his neck was snapped back several times, and even the best punch he threw never fazed Hopkins in the least. After eight rounds, Hakkar's promoter went to the referee and told him to stop the fight. Hakkar sat in his corner sobbing -- I think more from shame than from the pain of losing the fight.

Bernard Hopkins violated no rules. He had the right to choose his opponent and fight him in whatever fashion he chose. He still has his middleweight belt. He's the champion.

And everyone who saw it thinks that Hakkar is the braver and more honorable man.

You can win and still lose. Let's obey the rules, but let's shut up about them.

John Bloom writes a number of columns for United Press International and may be contacted at or through his Web site at Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.

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