Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Why does the Commander in Chief need a lawyer?

I have two words for anyone who doubts that our country’s leaders have slouched into the depths of cynicism: military lawyers. This evening I caught a TV interview (“The Abrams Report,” MSNBC, 3.11.03) with Lt. Col. Jeffrey Addicott, a professorial fellow in a suit and tie. Turns out Addicott is an attorney who will advise strategists if we go to war with Iraq. The colonel explained his job simply: the generals tell him about their planned targets and he advocates either going ahead with the attack or revising their approach.

For a lawyer, Addicott had surprisingly little to say about the law. He began by boasting, “I think most people understand that we have the most powerful military that the world has ever seen, and they’re probably more surprised to learn that we comply with the laws of war better than any military in the modern era.” Welcome reassurance after those stories about American soldiers bombing Canadians while hyped up on “go pills,” right? But the way he described his work had little to do with laws and a lot more to do with limiting the number of incidents that need to be explained to the American people.

Let’s say, for example, that a commander wants to bomb tanks that Saddam has shrewdly stashed in a civilian neighborhood. Let’s say he’s targeted a spot where his troops are likely to knock off a few of those “human shields.” Or imagine the planned attack will cull some of the child soldiers the Brookings Institution says Saddam is sure to use. In those cases, Addicott would “tell the commander, under the laws of war, perhaps the target may be a legitimate military target, but it may not be prudent to attack it because of the public relations backlash.”

This is hardly the job description of a watchdog for international law. It’s a domestic public relations gambit, but we should only have expected as much. By whom, in what court, can the Bush administration fear being taken to task for not adhering to conventions on warfare? Surely not by the International Criminal Court inaugurated in the Netherlands this week—an institution the U.S. does not recognize and refuses to participate in. No, the lawyers are there to make the American military unimpeachable in the court of public opinion. Just as it takes a lawyer to smoke pot without inhaling, it takes a lawyer to convince us that we are making war without killing.

There’s irony here, if you like that sort of thing. The president says paying attention to anti-war protesters would be “like deciding, well, I’m going to decide policy based on a focus group.” (NY Times, Feb. 19) But while President Bush stops his ears to the chanting and drum-beating of hundreds of thousands of Americans in the streets, Commander-in-Chief Bush pays Colonel Addicott to warn him about a “public relations backlash.” If huge demonstrations and a deluge of outraged letters and editorials aren’t a public relations backlash, what are they? Is there any reason Mr. Bush can’t continue to dismiss his critics with the same insouciance after we’ve slaughtered Iraqi civilians?

I welcome attempts to limit the suffering of the innocent. But I’m appalled that our military leaders are subcontracting their ethical responsibility to lawyers, who are busy even now fixing the parameters of Iraqi suffering.

These legal experts are standing at attention, ready to file the death and loss that would result from the comprehensive wrong of a pre-emptive attack into neat stacks of greater and lesser wrongs; willful wrongs and unavoidable wrongs; wrongs that can’t be tolerated and wrongs that grown-ups must accept as the cost of war. They are there to ensure that “shock and awe” in Baghdad doesn’t translate into shock and disgust at home. For some of us, that damage control is already too late.