Sunday, April 18, 2004

This Just In: Pigs Fly
I am about to do something I almost never do. I am about to agree with somebody in the Bush Administration.

Condoleezza Rice told Fox News this morning that the United States will not negotiate for the release of an American soldier who has been taken captive in Iraq, Keith Maupin of Batavia, Ohio. And she's absolutely right. There's some speculation that the rise in kidnappings over recent weeks is a psychological warfare tactic by the resistance--by taking civilians captive and displaying them terrorized on Al Jazeera, they weaken the resolve of countries participating in the occupation. Negotiating with hostage takers would only lead to more hostage taking.

But let's be precise about our terminology in this case. Maupin is a soldier, not a civilian, and therefore, he is a prisoner of war, although you'll hear him called a "hostage." (The yellow ribbons are already out in Batavia.) Calling him a POW has certain advantages. For one thing, we make it clear that we expect him to be treated in a specific way under international law. If we simply call him a hostage, we make his status less clear legally. That, of course, would be bad. Those who hold him might claim he's not subject to international law at all, and decide to keep him indefinitely without giving him any rights at all. (Imagine!) Of course, the flipside is that if we call him a prisoner of war, that gives the lie to the idea that the war's been over for nearly a year, and it gives the "insurgency" greater legitimacy.

But whatever we call Maupin, let's hope there's no repeat of what happened when an American pilot was shot down over Kosovo in 1999. That was a perfectly normal occurrence in wartime, but the Clinton Administration nearly went berserk with fear and worry. State Department spokesmen with grave faces gave hourly updates on the search, cable news networks went into full disaster mode, and the whole thing consumed public attention far beyond the event's actual significance. Although the pilot was never taken prisoner, the parallel is close enough. You have a war, you're gonna have people go missing--and you're gonna have prisoners. Soldiers have been taken prisoner in wartime since the first tribe of cavemen threw rocks at the next cave over. (It's never reported in the United States, but we have no doubt taken thousands of them in Iraq over the last year.)

Reading over this post, I find that it sounds quite unlike what one would expect from an antiwar liberal such as myself. My heart should be bleeding, I suppose. I should launch an impassioned screed about why we need to get all of our sons and daughters home from Iraq right now. Yet this post almost sounds . . . Republican. Well, let's be clear about this, because the Bush gang and its supporters won't be. The Bush Administration put Keith Maupin in harm's way--unlike a civilian contractor, who, in a much different sense, chooses to be there. Nobody should act like Maupin was just minding his own business, building bridges or working on a power station, and so nobody should portray his capture as some sort of beyond-the-pale flouting of international law. His capture and the suffering of his family and friends back home, however unpleasant it is for all of us to think about, is part of the price Bush has to pay for his optional war. Responsibility for what Maupin and his family--and the country--are going through ultimately lies with the White House.

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