Monday, December 11, 2006

Stalag 2006

I'm going to excerpt this piece about the classic movie Stalag 17 the exact same way Andrew Sullivan does:
While Stalag 17's [American] prisoners are planning their escapes, and the Germans are trying to stop them, both sides keep referring to this dopey sort of rulebook called "the Geneva Conventions." These appear to be rules about the fair treatment of prisoners - I dunno, not torturing them, for instance - and even the Nazis obey them. Weird, huh?

A lot hinges on them, as a plot gimmick, but the characters seem to take them for granted. Even though it's a war, there are still things you don't do. Which, if only for story purposes, explains why the movie isn't two hours of Otto Preminger holding William Holden's head under water ...

This isn't supposed to take anything away from the Nazis as the villains of the piece --you can see it in the kommandant's beady little burgher eyes that he wishes he could get around the Conventions - but the rules are the rules.

Even if the rules are - how did the Attorney General put it? - "quaint."

But here's the thing. If you accept that the Geneva Conventions are just an annoying formality, like recycling - and I guess we do now - it ruins the whole movie. There's no drama in it. Because the Third Reich isn't even trying. The prisoners get mail from home. They get visits from the Red Cross. They aren't even kept in cages. No one hoods them, or electrocutes them, or pretends to execute them, or places them in a "stress position" or walks them around on a leash. At one of the darkest points in the story, one of them is forced to stand for a few days without sleep. Like that even hurts.

Don't the guards want their country to win? ...

It is rather amazing, when you think about it.

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3 comments:

Mark said...

Ok. How "respectfully" would the Germans have treated illegal enemy combatants? Did they give the French underground the same treatment. I think not.

I don't understand your insistence that we must give Geneva violators full protection of the convention or even that there is a understanding that is expected.

Russell said...

The premise of the Geneva conventions is reciprocity. Nations who follow them have their combatants protected when they follow the rules (which includes uniforms, accountability, etc.). If you get the benefits without following the rules, why would anybody follow the rules when, as you note, there seem to be advantages to breaking them?

David Schraub said...

Mark, as I've told you on numerous occasions, the Geneva Conventions are divided into certain sections only guaranteed to legal combatants, and other sections which are guaranteed to everyone regardless of status. We've been through this. All I ask is that we a) give these people a fair hearing to determine if they are combatants are not, and then b) operate under the requirements of Geneva that clearly apply to all persons regardless of status. That means no waterboarding. Nazis are evil creatures (no need to tell me that), but I don't think we should have to mix and match to figure out who is coming out worse in what category.

Russell: I'd agree that reciprocity is an important aspect of Geneva, but I don't think its the whole baby. I'd say that reciprocity gives otherwise reticent states an incentive to enforce the convetions, but the conventions don't become inapplicable just because one party doesn't do it. As noted above, several aspects of Geneva explicitly apply even to illegal combatants. I think there is a strong anti-brutalization norm in the convention that does not require reciprocity to become obligatory. Moreover, I think you're misstating the proferred reasons why we say we're violating Geneva. We're don't say we're doing it to be punitive. That argument would never fly in front of any federal judge without metaphorically waterboarding the 8th amendment. The argument we're putting forth is that these people are too dangerous not to do things like waterboard--hence, the Stalag analogy.