Torturing Prisoners and Practical Effects

Marc Danziger takes down the NYT editorial board for making the specious argument, “The Geneva Conventions protect Americans. If this country changes the rules, it’s changing the rules for Americans taken prisoner abroad. That is far too high a price to pay so this administration can hang on to its misbegotten policies.”

After providing a litany of examples of American soldiers being tortured by our enemies, he Danziger considers a hypothetical future:

Iraq, Vietnam, Korea. In which of these wars were captured American or allied troops treated in accord with the Geneva Conventions? What is the liklihood that a future American soldier, captured by Hizbollah will meet the standards in Guantanamo?

This is meant as a rhetorical question but the answer is that the likelihood approximates zero.

Danziger goes on to note that there are plenty of good reasons not to torture prisoners and I agree. But the “we have to play nice so that the other side will, too” argument last applied when we were fighting our fellow Westerners in 1945. It’s hard to conceive of a potential American adversary likely to follow suit.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Even our fellow Westerners didn’t always play nice (see Malmedy).

  2. Michael says:

    Here’s the funny thing though, according to the Geneva Conventions, we are only obligated to follow them so long as the other party in the conflict follows them.

    From GCIII, Article 2:

    Although one of the Powers in conflict may not be a party to the present Convention, the Powers who are parties thereto shall remain bound by it in their mutual relations. They shall furthermore be bound by the Convention in relation to the said Power, if the latter accepts and applies the provisions thereof.

    So, if Hezbollah or Al Qaeda where to apply the provisions of the convention, we would be held to the same provisions. Since Al Qaeda has not, and has in fact violated most of the conventions, we are NOT required to apply the Geneva Convention’s protections to Al Qaeda prisoners that we capture.

    I’m not in favor of torturing them, I agree with analysts who say torture provides unreliable information, but we are not bound the terms of the Geneva Convention in our treatment of Al Qaeda prisoners.

  3. legion says:

    Feh. I am deeply underwhelmed by Danziger’s piece. He starts out rationally:

    I’m flatly against torture, although I’m not sure that I subscribe to a set of standards that would make the ACLU happy; but I’m against them for three core reasons: they damage the people who do the torturing irremediably; they don’t necessarily work very well; the damage to they do to the perception of American might and behavior is typically out of proportion to any benefit gained (see “they don’t necessarily work very well”); and they damage my society through the acceptance of that kind of behavior.

    Even though that’s actually four reasons, I agree with them all. But then he goes into a pure rationalization mode that totally negates his own stated position… if other people don’t play by Geneva rules then we don’t have to either.

    Am I the only one who sees a direct connection between things like “the perception of American might and behavior” and “damage (to) my society” and our adhering to standards even when the going gets rough? Things like the Geneva Conventions, the Code of Conduct, and national policy instruments give us a way to define our own society and morality in absolute terms – not relative to other countries or people. Whether or not other people play by those same rules should not affect our own moral center. To quote Don Henley, “Evil is stil evil; in anybody’s name”.

  4. James Joyner says:


    I don’t see where he says “if other people don’t play by Geneva rules then we don’t have to either.” (Although Michael makes the argument in the comment above yours.)

    I read him as merely saying that our abiding by them won’t cause our likely enemies to do so. It’s like Cap Weinberger’s famous quip on arms control with the Soviets: “We build; they build. We stop; they build.”

  5. madmatt says:

    If we can’t be better than them, what reason do the hearts and minds of the people have to follow us…we can offer them what? And then it is always going to be a matter of better the devil you know…

  6. Anderson says:

    (1) And yet, oddly, John McCain and others make the same argument. So let’s not attribute it to the NYT as if they invented it.

    (2) Michael, I’m not sure that that negates the application of Common Article 3 to al-Qaeda. They’re not a “nation,” the Court held in Hamdan. So far as CA3 is concerned, Afghanistan & Iraq are High Contracting Parties and any conflict with al-Qaeda members therein is “armed conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties.”

  7. Legion, that’s not at all what I said…and while you’re free to dismiss my points (as well as my counting), please do it based on what I wrote, mmmmkaaay?


  8. legion says:

    Fair enough, A.L. – I humbly withdraw my ire. I appear to be generalizing baesd on where others often try to take the argument you make, but you quite clearly stop before the cliff.

  9. Bithead says:

    If we can’t be better than them, what reason do the hearts and minds of the people have to follow us…we can offer them what?

    What you fail to calculate with his that they want nothing that we would offer them.

    A better question to ask: how can we won a battle, one were the only ones playing by the rules?

    A referral back to our own history is probably worthwhile here; our own American revolution was fought as a guerrilla action. Bill Cosby had a classic bit of, 30-35 years ago probably, what, 1961, perhaps 63… he called it “the toss of the coin”. It’s likely the best tactical description of the American revolution I’ve ever heard.

    At the beginning of every football game, he said, there’s a toss of the coin, so that they can determine who kicks the ball and who receives the ball on the first play. Says he, I wondered what would happen if we’d start a war that way.
    And so we see it:

    “General Cornwallis of the British, this is General Washington of the Continental Army.”

    “General Washington of the Continental Army, this is General Cornwallis of the British.”

    “If you’d shake hands, gentlemen.”

    “O.K., British call the toss.”

    “British called heads, it is tails.”

    “General Washington, what are you gonna do?”

    “General Washington says his troops will dress however they wish, and shoot from behind the rocks and trees and everywhere…..”

    “…and you British, you will all wear bright red, and march in a straight line.”

    Certainly that kind of decision making process would have an impact on the outcome of the event. Particularly if the Brits didn’t adjust to the conditions at hand.

    Civilized as the British were, they didn’t adjust, instead sticking to tradition. That tradition made them ill prepared to fight and win against the revolutionaries. It tied their hands. By the very definition anyone fighting a “civilized” war is destined to lose said war, hands down, no questions asked, end of story. It was true then and it’s true now.

    I made the same argument that this was the state of play in Iraq, and made it louder when the Americans were charged with “war crimes”. War is not a time to be nice, or ‘legal’. A state of war is in fact the absense of legality and of civil behavior. That’s the reality of it, and we’re fooling ourselves to act otherwise.

    Take particular note please, once again, of what I said in the article about Jonbenet Ramsey:

    Thing is, last I knew, we are not living in an ideal world. Responsible people make adjustments, to something called REALITY.

    Leaving aside for the moment the concept of oxymoronic phrases for a moment…. (What the bleeding hell is ideal, or even particularly civilized, about having a war in the first place) …sticking to the tradition of “civilized warfare” in this situation is irresponsible to well beyond the point of being stupid and self destructive. That was true in revolutionary times for the British and it’s true now, today, for the western world as a whole… of which Israel and the United States are but a part. For as it was with the Brits, vs the Americans, so it is, with the world versus radicalized Islam.

    Now, before you start… I’m not making comparisons of the values of our troups fighting the British, to the islamic nutcases….I’m talking about the sheer weight and type of opposition in the respective wars, and what is necessary to defeat such an opposition. Understand me clearly…. I am by no means suggesting that we should abandon what ideals we have. However, as I say, we’re not living in an ideal world. The reality is that if we are to remain alive as a society as a culture, much less able to apply those ideals, we first have to win against those who would destroy us physically by any means at their disposal, inclduing means outside the boundies of what we consider “civilized warfare”. We don’t get to dictate the terms of reality, folks. We can’t keep wearing red uniforms and marching in a straight line, just to satisfy world opinion that expects us to do precisely that. Including, dare I say it, those parts of the world that would like to see is defeated. Have we forgotten there are those?

    We cannot solve this with United Nations resolutions, high level cabinet meetings, are being nice to them and hoping everything all works out OK. We’ve been trying all that, since 1948. We’ve been trying it with different fascists before ; The spectre of Neville Chamberlain comes to mind.

    We’ve been trying to wish this away for 50 years and more. It never works. Never has. Never will.

    Wow! Reality. What a concept, huh?

  10. Herb says:


    Forget about your efforts to get liberals and democrats to face reality.

    Reality to them is Lie, Cheat, and Steal, or bend the truth to suit their agenda. They don’t care one bit if our troops suffer torture at the hands of our enemies or those who want to kill us,as long as they can make political hay out of “Being Nice to our Enemy”. These “hate Bush” people will latch on to anything to make their political point in their effort to gain control of the Presidency and Congress. They don’t care one bit about who tortures who as long as they can point a finger at the present administration.

    Reality is, the Liberals and Democrats want power and they will convict their own if it archives their lust. Look at Murtha and his “conviction” of the marines in Hidetha without any evidence to back himself up and look at the statements of Dean, Gore, Kerry and the rest of the Hate Bush crowd. If that doesn’t convince one then nothing will.

    And, don’t think for one minute that our enemies are not looking at us with a microscope and taking full and complete advantage of the division in America with the constant negative rhetoric from the democrats.

    I laughed when you mentioned Neville Chamberlain. These “Hate Bush” people never heard of him nor do they care.