Why the SEALS Must Stand Trial

It is one of those stories where Americans have to get stop thinking with their guts and use their brains instead. Guts can be useful, but not this time.

Three Navy SEALs who captured a highly sought terrorist in Iraq are facing court martials because of allegations that they abused him—speaking of guts, they supposedly punched him in his. It is unfortunate that the SEALS are being prosecuted rather than decorated, and it makes the Navy look unappreciative of their own men. The terrorist, Ahmed Hashim Abed, is believed to be behind the murder and mutilation of four Blackwater USA security guards in Fallujah in 2004. Yes, capturing him was a good thing.

Beating him up wasn’t, however; especially after Abu Ghraib, where a breakdown in the chain of command, mixed signals from the brass and a group of badly trained and led recruits combined to create one of the worst and most damaging scandals the U.S. military has ever faced. Soldiers are not permitted to abuse prisoners—not before Abu Ghraib, and certainly not after. When they do, it is an offense that carries serious punishment.

The offense is the abuse. It has nothing to do with the heinous acts of the detainee, or how despicable he may be relative to his captors. The alleged offense itself triggers the charges, because to do otherwise would be to tacitly endorse prisoner abuse. When that happens, more Abu Ghraibs are right around the corner. If there is a credible claim that a captive was abused, the military has no choice but to go by the book. (The lawyer for the SEALS takes the position that no complaint by an accused terrorist should ever be taken as credible. The same logic once allowed police to beat confessions out of arrested suspects.)

It is not at all certain that the Seals will be convicted. They had the option of going to Captain’s Mast for these charges, a non-judicial punishment, but demanded a court-martial so they could prove their innocence. If the Seals are acquitted because there was not, in fact, any abuse, then the system will have worked.  If the Seals are shown to have injured their captive while he was under their control, then the punishment will be appropriate.

There are many Americans, the loudest of which are conservative talk show hosts, who are upset about the proceedings. They are also primarily the same individuals who thought Abu Ghraib wasn’t such a big deal, and they are making exactly the same ethically invalid arguments now that they made then. This letter to the
San Angelo (Texas) Times is typical:

“I find it difficult to believe that brave Navy Seals are being court martialed instead of being given a medal for the capture of a ruthless murderer and terrorist. This terrorist had been on the run since 2004. He masterminded the killing of four Americans who were guarding a shipment of food, burning their bodies, dragging the bodies through the streets, and then hanging two of them from a bridge.

The Navy Seals did not shoot this godless terrorist; they captured him. He later had a bloody lip and accused the Navy Seals of hitting him. I think the American families of the four dead Blackwater employees should be the ones to pass judgment on the terrorist and the Navy Seals.

We are in a war, not a social club debate, and bad things do happen. If a terrorist gets a busted lip or a black eye, so be it. Ask the families of the men whose heads were cut off with a knife which they would have preferred, their husbands or sons being taken prisoner with a busted lip or the horror of a brutal death shown on TV to the world.”


But that’s not the standard. The Seals are not being judged on terrorist standards of conduct; they are being judged on the Navy’s standards, as they should be. The letter-writer’s reasoning would justify beatings, torture and many other atrocities—exactly what the Navy is trying to prevent. The SEALs have to be tried precisely because so many Americans think that our enemies should be treated according to how they treat us, allowing their terrible conduct to lower our values. That  must not happen. It doesn’t matter that a detainee is a terrorist, or “godless,” or a murderer, or would cut off our heads if he had the chance.

What matters is that he was captured by American soldiers.

We should have great empathy for the Navy SEALs who face this predicament. For our own sake, however, and the preservation of American values, they have to be tried. It is an ethical necessity.

5 thoughts on “Why the SEALS Must Stand Trial

  1. As a former member of the U.S. Navy, I am forced to agree, with a caveat:

    No terrorist or enemy combatant should be allowed to credibly charge abuse without compelling physical evidence of same, or a confession. A mere black eye or bloody lip should not enough. This is warfare we are talking about, not tiddlywinks.

    But assuming the evidence, yes, the SEALS should be tried. No matter how evil or reprehensible these terrorists are, and no matter if they are technically non-persons to be killed on sight, if we capture them, we are ethically bound to treat them as we would want our people to be treated — the “Golden Rule,” if you will.

    The evil of these men is irrelevant. No matter if their souls are worthy of Satan’s embrace, we can only judge one thing at the time of capture — that they are living human beings, and no living human beings should be captured and abused. If they resist, they may be subdued as necessary, and if that necessitates violence, fine. But once under our power, they should be treated as human beings.

    Many people say we make rules for war because we don’t want our people to be abused, and that is partially true. But the underlying reason is that those rules represent our moral and ethical principles, and we can’t set them aside because our opponents reject them, or because they are murderers. That’s the cost of espousing high ideals — just like liberty, they don’t come free and the cost for them is often innocent blood.

    The SEALS may not deserve harsh punishment, but since they have rejected mast and demanded a court martial, they must accept the consequences of that decision. I hope it works out for them.

  2. Ethics are commendable attributes and we’re glad you’re proud of yours. However, reason-in-action may sometimes strip us of our ethical luxury. Also, your argument benefits from the fortunate circumstance that your body wasn’t one of those burned and hung in effigy from the bridge. Wrapping oneself in Kant and Leibniz doesn’t help to solve this ongoing, serious and ever escalating cultural conflict.
    http://lwdewhirst.wordpress.com

    • I think that is well-phrased gibberish. 1) Ethics are not “commendable attributes,” but rather essentials of civilized society. 2) If your second sentence means that we are not always thinking about ethics under the stresses of the moment, that is very true…hence “ethics alarms.” The goal is to do the best we can at keeping true to our values as often as we can. 3)Sentence #3 is a cop-out. I’m not even sure I know what it means. That a burned body has trouble making arguments?How true. That I only have a valid argument if I have a personal stake in the outcome? Wrong. That we make the best decisions out of vengeance, pain and anger? That American conduct should be lowered to the level of those we oppose? This is a meaningless statement. 4). I am anything but a Kant/Leibnitz fan, as you would know if you read anything else here. And are you saying that ethics need to be discarded to solve the cultural conflict, that we need to abandon our cultural values to prevail over a toxic culture? How does that figure?

      Finally, I’m not “proud” of “my” ethics; I am satisfied that Western civilization, and America, have developed a sound ethical foundation that should not be ignored every time emotions run high. These are our ethics, and we need to hold true to them, especially in conflict. Snark isn’t argument. Tell me why you think we should allow the abuse of prisoners, and we have a discussion.

      By the way, thanks for commenting, and thank goodness someone with hair has a photo.

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