During his campaign for the U.S. presidency, Sen. John McCain has frequently criticized the Bush administration regarding abductions, secret prisons and the torture of alleged terrorists from countries around the world. He has co-sponsored a congressional resolution that would prohibit the U.S. from using torture or other abusive techniques against any of its prisoners. Thus, it appears that Sen. McCain has at least partial understanding of the Constitution and its provisions for enforcement of the laws of war and international humanitarian law, which he was required to study as a student at the U.S. Naval Academy. Unfortunately, the senator must have missed class on the day his instructors taught the Nuremberg principles, or he somehow failed to grasp the full meaning of those basic principles.
In that regard, writer Barry Grey describes an exchange that he had with McCain in 2005 at a book signing near the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor – on the world socialist web site, wsws.org. McCain was in town to promote his book “Character is Destiny: Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember”.
Following McCain’s remarks at the book signing, Grey asked: “Senator you have taken a position against torture. But there is an underlying principle that was laid down at the Nuremberg trial after World War II. The prosecutors of Nazi leaders — the lead American prosecutor was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson — asserted that the primary war crime committed by the defendants, from which all other atrocities sprang, including torture, concentration camps and extermination of entire populations, was the planning and carrying out of aggressive war. Do you believe that this principle is still valid? And if so, should not those U.S. government and military officials who planned and carried out the unprovoked war against Iraq be made legally and criminally subject to this principle?”
Grey states McCain dodged the question by saying that he had a different understanding of the Nuremberg principles, and simply said that no soldier or official could legally absolve himself of criminal actions by the fact that he was merely carrying out orders. In so doing, he failed to fully address the question put to him by Mr. Grey. McCain was correct concerning his point on non-absolution, but refused to denounce the Iraq war, which has been based on incredible lies, violations of international humanitarian law and was launched against a country that had not even threatened to attack the United States. (For a discussion of the violations, search online “Bush Administration War Crimes in Iraq - Source Watch.”
In keeping with Grey’s reasoning, it is absurd for McCain and others to detest the torture of prisoners taken in the war on Iraq, while at the same time neglecting to support Constitution and the numerous treaty requirements of international humanitarian law such as the Nuremberg principles, the provisions of the Hague and Geneva Conventions and other laws of war. Grey states that McCain’s approach “is little more than damage control, whose essential purpose is to facilitate new acts of military aggression in the future.”
A New York Post editorial supporting McCain’s candidacy stated: “A naval aviator shot down over North Vietnam and held as a POW, McCain knew that freedom was his for the taking. All he had to do was denounce his country. He refused and as a consequence, suffered years of unrelenting torture.” The ability to endure such pain and humiliation is not something that most of us could, or would be willing to endure. In that sense John McCain fully deserves the title of hero. The problem is that his heroic actions were in support of a war in Vietnam which was undeclared, illegal, immoral and, which like the war on Iraq, involved innumerable war crimes prohibited by the Nuremberg principles.
In a 1997 “60 Minutes” interview, McCain said of his involvement in bombing missions: “I am a war criminal. I bombed innocent women and children.” This admission could have been a first step toward his moral redemption. However, he now readily accepts the title “war hero,” when appearing at rallies or on national television, and continues to ignore the Nuremberg principles and the war crimes that he discussed with “60 Minutes.” Today he talks forcefully about winning the war on Iraq, and is prepared to continue the bombing and ongoing war crimes which he believes will result in a U.S. victory. Clearly, a man with such blatant disregard for the law, who also possesses such an incredibly confused value system, is not morally equipped to be president of the United States, nor its commander in chief.
Bill Wickersham of Columbia is an adjunct professor of Peace Studies at MU, a member of Veterans for Peace and a a national steering committee member of Global Action to Prevent War.