The war on trial - Page 2

The war on trial: an Army officer risks prison to argue that Bush's war is illegal

But the Constitution is unambiguous: Article VI states, "All Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby."

In a celebrated case in 1900 (United States v. Paquete Habana), the Supreme Court ruled, "International law is part of the law of the United States and must be ascertained and administered by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction as often as questions of right depending upon it are duly presented for determination."

There is no exception for the military, no wall between domestic and international law.

In his speech to the veterans Watada noted that the US Army Field Manual states, "Treaties reutf8g to the law of war have a force equal to that of laws enacted by Congress. Their provisions must be observed by both military and civilian personnel with the same strict regard for both the letter and spirit of the law which is required with respect to the Constitution and statutes...."


In the end, though, none of that may matter.

The strength of Watada's legal case will make little difference if Army prosecutors succeed in preventing him from presenting evidence in his own defense in court, especially if judges adhere to the Machiavellian view that "in war, the laws are silent."

The American judiciary has a long, sorry record of ignoring the right of American soldiers to due process and the treaty clause and war-power clause in the Constitution. Too often, judges and prosecutors, both military and civilian, claim war is a political question, a foreign policy matter, something beyond judicial review. Hence, commanders can do as they please, and those who disagree can be imprisoned.

The political question doctrine, as it is known among lawyers, is the primary way by which judges circumvent international law. It is a way by which prowar judges and commanders foreclose any substantive discussion of the legalities of a war.

Few Americans remember the dark days of wartime jurisprudence four decades ago, when US courts refused to hear GI challenges to the Vietnam War. The full implications of the Watada trial can be understood in that context.

In the mid-1960s and early 1970s, American soldiers and marines were imprisoned for refusing to commit war crimes. For example, Dr. Howard Levy, a Green Beret dermatologist, spent two years in prison after he refused to train special forces in dermatology. He argued that to do so would violate the Hippocratic Oath; the Green Berets, he insisted, used medicine as a political tactic in Vietnam, and for him to assist them would cause increased suffering.

In 1965, David Henry Mitchell II, who was eventually convicted of willful failure to report for induction, challenged the legality of Lyndon Johnson's war. He raised basic constitutional issues: the absence of a formal declaration, broken treaties, a pattern of war crimes on the battlefield. No soldier, Mitchell argued, should be forced to participate in criminal policies, to choose between near-sedition and the commission of war crimes.

Federal Judge William Timbers refused to hear the evidence. When Mitchell's attorneys argued that under the Nuremberg Principles soldiers have a duty to disassociate themselves from war crimes, the judge freaked out. It is, he said, "a sickening spectacle for a 22-year-old citizen to assert such tommyrot." The judge argued that treaties and conventions are "utterly irrelevant as a defense on the charge of willful refusal to report for induction." The message was clear, and a deadly precedent was set: even if war is manifestly illegal, soldiers are still expected to participate. United States v.

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