[lit-ideas] The Fog of War

  • From: "Peter D. Junger" <junger@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: Literature and Ideas List <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Wed, 19 May 2004 11:12:27 -0400

                               The Fog of War

I feel compelled to assure you at the very beginning that when I was
the Noncommisioned Office in Charge of a Prisoner of War Compound
neither I nor any of my subordinates tortured anyone.  

I had no subordinates. 

It was all make believe.

Or, rather, it was mostly make-believe.  There were in actuality some
rather unhappy aggressor prisoners, who had had a little training in
being POW's: give only name, rank, and serial number and don't answer
any other question.  And there was a rather nice chap, wearing as I
recall a class A uniform---though perhaps my memory is playing tricks
and he was just wearing fatiques like the rest of us.

What I do remember without a doubt is what he did not wear:  He bore
no indication of his rank  

He was the interrogator.  Not that he pretended to do any
interrogations.  As I recall, he claimed that his linguistic specialty
was Czech and he apparently assumed---undoubtedly correctly---that
none of the captive aggressors spoke Czech.

And then there was myself, the supposed NCO in Charge, who had never
had any training whatsoever in the treatment of prisoners of war, and
was not even an NCO.

But as I write that I now recall that I had had some training in that
subject years before back in what we called ``the Land of the Round
Doorknobs,'' which was known more officially as ``CONUS,'' the
``Continental United States.''` In my first year at the College I had
taken an ROTC class as a protection against being prematurely drafted 
and, as I now recall, some fifteen minutes in that class were dedicated 
to instructing us future officers on what we were supposed to do if, in
the heat of battle, we took a prisoner.  We were told to interrogate
the prisoner and then, if there were the slightest possibility of the
enemy forces counter-attacking, kill him.  I don't recall whether the
Lt. Colonel teaching that class told us what to do with the prisoner
if there was no possibility of a counter-attack.  I don't think that 
that was considered to be a real option.

There was, of course, no way that I could have followed those
instructions.  They clearly did not apply to prisoners in a POW
compound; I wasn't an officer; and I had not been issued any
ammunition for my rifle, an M1 that had been modified so that it could
be equipped with a sniper scope.

But I digress.  As I was saying, I had had no training in commanding a
Prioner of War compound. I was carried on the Table of Organization
and Equipment as a sniper. 

That too was make-believe. There was no way that I could be a sniper
for, though I was not a bad shot---at least not on a known-distance
range---, there was no way that I could use a sniper scope, which fits
on the right side of the rifle, since my left eye is so dominant that
I can only aim a rifle when I hold it in my left hand.

But I just digressed again, didn't I?

Although I did not torture my prisoners, I did not 
feed them either, even though almost certainly under the Geneva 
convention they were entitled to dinner.

I have, however, a defense:  tne Geneva convention was not applicable.
The prisoners in my POW compound were not lawful combatants; they
were make-believe combatants, US troops assigned to play the role of
the ``agressors.''

In any event, my problem was not the sort of matter to which the Geneva
convention applies.  The simple fact was that everyone had forgotten 
about us and neither I nor my prisoners were going to get any dinner 
nor were the prisoners going to be returned to their unit---unless, 
of course, they walked there.  It would not have been a long walk, at
least not for a bunch of combat-ready infantrymen.

It was not long after they realized that they would not be fed that
the prisoners began to discuss the possibility of walking back to
the agressor chow line.  

I felt obliged to discourage such discussion, and, as I recall, I
even made some threatening gesture with the butt of my rifle, not
that I possibly could---as they carefully explained to me---cause
significant damage to the eight or nine of them if they decided to
disarm me.

At that point I fell back on my legal training.  ``I am the NCOIC of
this compound and I order you to stay here,'' I said.  ``If you
leave you will be disobeying a lawful order and be court-martialed.''
That actually stopped them for awhile, although it put an end to
the friendly relations I had previously had with them.

The interrogator seemed amused.

And there we stood, or lounged around, or whatever it was that we did,
and the prisoners got hungrier, and hungrier.  It became clear that 
it was I who was shortly going to be facing a court-martial for allowing 
the prisoners to escape---or something catastrophic like that.

And then, just as the prisoners began to form into a column of two's
in anticipation of their march back to their unit and their dinner,
reinforcements arrived, not in the form of the United States cavalry, 
but rather in that of our Battle Group Sergeant Major, complete with
jeep and driver, although without his usual---and totally 
unauthorized---swagger stick.

The Sergeant Major wanted to know what we were doing there, cluttering
up his battle field.  The Sergeant Major did not like clutter.

I explained that we were a prisoner-of-war compound.  The prisoners
moved as far back as they could.

``But why haven't these troops been fed or returned to their units?''

``I don't know, Sergeant,'' I said, ``I think everyone forgot about us.''

The Sergeant Major made it very clear that that was not an acceptable
answer.  I had no doubt that he was one of those who had done the

He chewed me out.  And then chewed me out again.

But finally the Sergeant Major had his driver radio for a four-by-four 
to transport the agressors back to their lines and left, if not in a 
huff, at least a small cloud of dust.

As we waited for the truck to arrive, the interrogator said to me:
``No one has ever spoken to me like that.''  I don't think that he
really understood what war is all about.

Peter D. Junger--Case Western Reserve University Law School--Cleveland, OH
 EMAIL: junger@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx    URL:  http://samsara.law.cwru.edu   
     NOTE: junger@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx no longer exists
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