Candidates too eager to strain military
Donald Trump was well-advised to do an about-face on ordering troops to commit war crimes.
The fledgling lawyers in the class I teach, “The Law of Armed Conflict,” know that torture and targeting civilians violate domestic and international law, as well as go against military tradition.
These earnest students of law have been rightly shocked by legal cases that involve these crimes. They’ve been outraged by the commanders who ordered their soldiers to raze villages of civilians who were accused of supporting “the enemy.” This occurred during World War II and more recently, in the multiple conflicts across the former Yugoslavia.
In fact, the doctrine of command responsibility makes the commander accountable for serious crimes committed by the “boots on the ground.” What hubris to assume that American soldiers, who have been trained to respect the 1949 Geneva Conventions — born out of the horrific treatment of detainees and civilians during WWII — would follow a clearly illegal order, even if it came from the president.
Yet, Trump’s stance raises an issue that has been drowned out by all the loud chest puffing around defeating the Islamic State group. This bravado by Trump and other presidential candidates not only obscures the law, it fails to recognize the impact on our young men and women in uniform.
Marco Rubio wants to put American troops on the ground and model his national security policy after Liam Neeson in “Taken,” stating, “Our strategy should be: ‘We will look for you, we will find you, and we will kill you.’ ”
Ted Cruz wanted to carpet-bomb terrorist groups into “oblivion” and only back-pedaled slightly when he was reminded of the law of war’s fundamental principle of distinction between civilians and fighters.
To get to terrorists, Trump is willing to cut down every law until they all lie flat — yet he wants our military to do it. It seems many of the candidates — not just Trump — need a lesson on what is legal and what is illegal during armed conflict.
While Hillary Clinton does a better job of using Washingtonian speak, such as referring to her “Smart Power” strategy to defeat the Islamic State group, she would also increase airstrikes and the use of ground forces to retake territory and eliminate Islamic State. No matter what it’s called, our military will be strained even further.
The recent attack by the U.S. on a Somalian training camp reminds us that American troops are engaged, not just against the Islamic State group in Syria, but on many fronts. In Africa alone, U.S. forces currently assist in combating al-Shabab in Somalia and Kenya, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad, and al-Qaida in Mali, Niger and Burkino Faso.
Not to mention, we also fight the Islamic State group in Iraq, and al-Qaida everywhere, including the “home front.”
The candidates, however, like to ignore the fact that killing the enemy not only requires manpower — even drones need operators — it requires people who are willing to kill. No candidates are talking about the human cost of sending American troops to fight the Islamic State group, al-Shabab or al-Qaida across the globe.
A recent report by the Center for New American Security names mental health care as a critical issue facing the military and veteran community. It should be a priority for the presidential candidates not only when talking about how to fix the Department of Veterans Affairs, but just as importantly, when discussing going to war.
As contenders to be commander in chief, the candidates have an obligation to consider this when planning on how to defeat the Islamic State or other terrorist groups with military might. They also have an obligation to make the public aware of the sacrifices that will be made by many of the 2.4 million active-duty and reserve servicemembers.
Since 9/11, we’ve already deployed more than 2.7 million servicemembers to Iraq, Afghanistan and other theaters of war. Almost 2 million have left the service and at least half seek services from the Veterans Health Administration.
Roughly 25 percent of these men and women have been diagnosed with some type of mental health condition, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. That number will grow, as the symptoms often take months or years to manifest. Imagine what the number will be if we send more and more troops to fight elusive terrorist groups that hide among civilians.
Going to war does not just mean making the decision that sounds tough; it means recognizing and reminding the public that there is a cost of blasting terrorists into “oblivion.” That cost is a human one. It is the very lives and physical and mental health of our brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers and children.
Kristine A. Huskey is a professor of law of armed conflict and director of the Veterans’ Advocacy Law Clinic at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law and a Tucson Public Voices Fellow with The Op-Ed Project. She is the author of “Justice at Guantanamo: One Women’s Odyssey and Her Crusade for Human Rights.”