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Unconditional Surrender Leads to Atrocities

As U.S. forces try to pacify Bagdad, the chaos and breakdown of civil order which many predicted has been fulfilled. Looting and murder have become common place, often right under the eyes of U.S. troops. One particularly heinous example was the destruction of the National Museum of Iraq, which the New York Times called "one of the greatest cultural disasters in recent Middle Eastern history" ("Pillagers Strip Iraqi Museum of Its Treasure," April 12, 2003). Some 50,000 priceless artifacts, all thousands of years old, were either destroyed or carried off by looters.

Of course, individuals are responsible for their own actions, but it was the unconditional surrender demanded by the pentagon which made these crimes possible. On April 1, for example, Donald Rumsfeld declared at a Pentagon briefing that, "The only thing that the coalition will discuss with this regime is their unconditional surrender."

Traditional moralists have long considered unconditional surrender as inherently immoral. General Douglas MacArthur, a truly moral man, privately opposed Roosevelt and Truman's unconditional surrender policy for months prior to the end of the Second World War, and eventually defied Truman's policy by announcing that he had accepted a surrender with conditions. MacArthur had repeatedly warned Truman that insisting on unconditional surrender was causing the needless deaths of tens of thousands of Japanese and Allies.

Invariably unconditional surrender always leads to unnecessary casualties. It is easy to illustrate this on a personal level. If you know that you have no protections of things like the Geneva Convention but are told you must surrender unconditionally, then you will fight so long as there is a sliver of hope of survival. The same is true of governments, U.S. rejection of any negotiated settlement with Hussein and his government ensured that they had no choice but to fight to the end. It made a surrender and orderly turn-over of the city impossible.

U.S. targeting of the Iraqi leadership was part and parcel of the unconditional surrender policy. Generally it is not a good idea to try to "decapitate" the military or civilian leadership of an army, for the simple reason that once you do that there is no one is left to negotiate a surrender, which can end the fighting in the quickest and most orderly way.

We have no idea what might have happened if the U.S. tried to negotiate for the surrender of Bagdad instead of simply rushing in with tanks. Instead of sending a B-1 to try to kill Hussein as U.S. troops approached the city, what if the U.S. had stopped outside and offered to let Hussein and his family go to Syria if he would surrender the city? Maybe he would have surrendered and maybe he would not have, but the U.S. position of unconditional surrender made the chaos following U.S. entry into the city certain. How many hundreds of civilian casualties would have been prevented from such a course? How many thousands of priceless artifacts could have been saved?

No doubt the Pentagon would argue that there is no way that Hussein would ever surrender, but the Pentagon has consistently been wrong on what Hussein would do. They thought he would torch all the Iraqi oil wells, that he would blow up dams to flood the country, destroy bridges everywhere, use chemical weapons and move most of his Republican guard into Bagdad. In fact, none of these things were done. So it is far from certain that a surrender of Bagdad could not have been negotiated. But the Pentagon has showed no interest in negotiation. Even when pentagon planners were predicting Hussein would concentrate troops in Bagdad and force house to house fighting which would cost thousands of civilian deaths, the pentagon repeatedly indicated that it was willing to accept those deaths rather than negotiate with Hussein. A policy which is willing to fight to the last civilian death to avoid "negotiation" with someone American leadership does not like, cannot possibly be defended as moral. But in fact, that was clearly the American policy. The result was not quite that bad, but it was bad enough, and equally indefensible.

April 16, 2003