Feb
01
2004

POWs on TV a War Crime? It Depends on Who's Videotaping

When U.S. POWs were put on Iraqi state TV during the invasion in March 2003, U.S. newspapers denounced this as a war crime in the harshest possible terms: "The Iraqi regime's outlaw nature was on full display Sunday as it flouted international law on how to treat prisoners of war," editorialized the Kansas City Star (3/24/03). "As of Sunday evening, there was no full accounting of what happened to 12 captured American soldiers, but state-controlled Iraqi television violated the Geneva Conventions by broadcasting pictures of them."

The New York Daily News (3/24/03) was similarly outraged:

Under the Geneva Convention, prisoners of war must be dealt with humanely at all times and not put on display for propaganda purposes. So what does Iraq do with the first Americans it gets its hands on? Whips out the video camera and displays the gruesome images on national TV, which the Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera then spews to the wider world.

After the vile footage aired, and the civilized world raised an outcry, the Iraqi defense minister said POWs would, indeed, be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention. Believe that, and there's a bridge over the Tigris you might like to buy.

This was not a fuzzy issue for U.S. commentators, but an obvious violation of international law: "They paraded before the cameras members of the U.S. military that had been captured, a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions for treatment of prisoners of war," the San Antonio Express-News opined (3/24/03).

The Fort Worth Star Telegram (3/24/03) saw the incident as a dividing line between the good guys and the bad guys. "On Sunday, the Arab satellite television network Al-Jazeera broadcast footage from Iraqi television of what was said to be captured American prisoners of war.... Military leaders noted that such treatment of captives violates international law. They also noted that U.S. forces have taken manyIraqi prisoners--but that their photographs are not being paraded across the airwaves-- and that they would not be."

Of course, when Saddam Hussein--clearly a POW, regardless of what Donald Rumsfeld decides to call him--was captured, his image was "paraded across" airwaves all over the world, day after day. Oddly, none of the papers that had earlier deemed putting POWs on TV to be an obvious Geneva violation found this violation worth objecting to when the government committing it was the United States.

In fact, a Daily News editorial (12/15/03) actually applauded the use of Hussein's image for propaganda purposes:

Here is still another powerful image burned into the soul of all the world, American friend and American foe alike. Here was that jubilant moment when Saddam's statue was toppled in a public square. Here was the gloriously satisfying sight of his two dreadful sons reposing bloodied on their slabs. Here now is Saddam himself, a prisoner, wretched in his defeat, contemplating the harsh judgment he soon will face from the countrymen his torture squads and secret police brutalized for so many years.

(The News ' ghoulish delight in the images of the corpses of Hussein's sons is another reversal of the U.S. media outrage in response to Iraqi TV coverage of dead U.S. soldiers.)

The Star Telegram 's TV critic (12/15/03) referred to the repeated showings of the Hussein footage as "a day of celebration for anyone watching television news."

During the invasion, columnist Charles Krauthammer (Washington Post , 3/28/03) called Secretary General Kofi Annan "disgusting" because, while the U.N. leader criticized the deaths of civilians in the invasion of Iraq (he had said he was "concerned" about them, actually), Annan had not, according to Krauthammer, condemned Iraqi violations of the laws of war--such as "the parading of POWs on television."

But on December 19, Krauthammer awarded "the Oscar for Best Documentary, Short Subject" to "'Saddam's Dental Exam,'" crediting

the anonymous genius at U.S. headquarters who chose this clip as the world's first view of Saddam Hussein in captivity.... We show Saddam Hussein--King of Kings, Lion of the Tigris, Saladin of the Arabs--compliantly opening his mouth like a child to the universal indignity of an oral (and head lice!) exam. Docility wrapped in banality. Brilliant. Nothing could have been better calculated to demystify the all-powerful tyrant. It was a beautiful sight.

How easy it is to praise your own country for the same actions you condemned when performed by its enemies.