DATE March 25, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Roy Gutman discusses the rules of war
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The Iraqis appear to have violated international law in showing dead American
soldiers on TV and in the behavior of troops that pretended to surrender and
then attacked American soldiers. President Bush has warned that Iraqis who
mistreat POWs, take innocent life or destroy infrastructure will be held to
account as war criminals. But even the legitimacy of this war has been the
subject of great international debate.
What are the rules that are supposed to be regulating the behavior of the
Iraqi army and the US military? My guest, Roy Gutman, is the co-author of the
book "Crimes of War." He's a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace and
president of the Crimes of War Project at American University. He won a
Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in 1992 on atrocities and other human rights
violations in Croatia and Bosnia. He was the first reporter to give lengthy
accounts of mass murders in the prison camps of Bosnia. He wrote a book about
covering the war in Bosnia called "A Witness to Genocide."
There have been photos of dead American soldiers, soldiers who look like they
were executed, that have been shown on Iraqi TV and Al-Jazeera. Still
photographs of this are circulating on the Internet. What do the Geneva
conventions have to say about this kind of display?
Mr. ROY GUTMAN (Senior Fellow, US Institute of Peace; Co-author, "Crimes of
War"): Well, first of all, if they were executed after they were taken
prisoner, that itself is a crime under the Geneva conventions. And, secondly,
to display them in a way that degrades or humiliates them or affronts their
dignity is itself another breach of the conventions. And a breach of the
conventions is also known as a war crime.
GROSS: So what kind of recourse do we have about that?
Mr. GUTMAN: There hasn't really been much recourse over the decades since
the 1949 Geneva conventions. I mean, there were the Nuremberg tribunals. And
there was, in the 1990s, a tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda.
But, on the whole, there's been no form of actually punishing somebody for a
Now, in this particular case, the United States has said it's going to hold
trials and put those people who it suspects are responsible for crimes on
trial, so there actually will be recourse. I'd say, though, in the more
immediate sense, the real recourse is publicly embarrassing those who are
responsible. So what the US government has done, and I think it's the proper
thing, is if there is what seems to be a violation to talk about it publicly.
And sometimes simply the spotlight of shame and embarrassment will force the
other side to stop what seems to be a violation.
GROSS: As a journalist, once these photos have been shown on Iraqi TV and on
Al-Jazeera, do you think it's appropriate or inappropriate for the American
media to say, `Well, it's already made news, so we should show it'? I mean,
what should the American media do?
Mr. GUTMAN: It's a tough judgment call for every news organization, and I
think, on the whole, editors prefer to avoid causing undue pain and suffering
to the families. That being said, if once they're in circulation, you know,
they can find them on the Internet or they might be able to find them on some
satellite channel or other, and I'm not sure you can seal these forever, it's
just the nature of the world we live in right now that there is no such thing
as a photo or a film clip that can be suppressed. So I think, eventually,
editors do then make the films available to the public. But I can understand,
for the sake of the families, why they would not.
Now there's another reason, frankly, for not showing films of people who were
mutilated or executed, which is that it's going to lead to a very public and a
very negative reaction, and it might kind of even bring political pressure.
And, you know, photographs can have great motive force. And, of course, you
can't really calculate that as an editor, but you do have to bear it in mind
when you decide whether or not you're going to show a film or a clip.
GROSS: Now if American media showed these images is it still a war crime to
Mr. GUTMAN: Well, I think the crime is initially in the filming and the
making available of that film on state TV, in this case Iraqi television.
But, you know, Terry, there's another side to the same coin, which is that, as
Iraqis have been arrested or have surrendered and have been taken captive, the
American television has shown them being captured. And I think that it's
quite legitimate and reasonable as journalism to have their pictures, if
they're just shot incidentally in the course of being captured or in the
course of surrendering. But once television or newspapers or still photos
start showing the faces so that the people can be identified, there is literal
risk to that person's family, you know, in the case of an Iraqi, because if
they're surrendering, the government might very well be able to locate their
families and start punishing them.
It is simply--for that reason, you know, the general prohibition on taking
pictures of captives, of surrendered prisoners is a good one, and I think it
makes sense for both sides. And the thing is the American government should
not be urging the Iraqis to observe the rules and then allowing the suspension
of the rules, you know, for American reporters. It's got to apply in both
GROSS: Roy Gutman is my guest. He's a journalist and co-author of the book
"Crimes of War," which is about war crimes and the Geneva conventions.
Is Iraq a signatory to the Geneva conventions?
Mr. GUTMAN: It is. You know, nearly every country on Earth is a party to
the conventions. As I say, not just a signatory, but they've actually
ratified them. And so, in fact, by doing that it becomes part of your treaty
law and it becomes part of your obligations. I think Iraq joined the
conventions in around the mid-1950s.
GROSS: What is Iraq's track record on treating prisoners of war?
Mr. GUTMAN: Not very good at all. Frankly, if you go back to the first Gulf
War, they took American prisoners. They did not allow the International Red
Cross access to the prisoners, which is really vital for making sure that they
stay alive and well, and, in fact, tortured American prisoners and then showed
some of them on television. It was really an appalling record. And, of
course, they took a large number of Kuwaiti prisoners as well, some of whom
have never been accounted for. I think it's an abysmal record in all regards.
GROSS: So you're worried about the American soldiers who are now being held
as prisoner of war by Iraqis.
Mr. GUTMAN: Oddly enough, less so, because I think the Iraqi track record has
become a subject of many, many news reports and features and questions. And
now, you know, with this global village that we live in, multiple full-time
television news organizations who are constantly asking the question of the
Iraqis, and raising the question about how are the Iraqis going to treat
prisoners. The Iraqis are under the spotlight, and so much so that when Tariq
Aziz held a press conference the other day, I mean, he was asked, and top
officials are repeatedly being asked, `Are you going to observe the Geneva
conventions? Are you going to treat people according to the rules?' And they
have really no choice but to say, `Yes, we will.' So it's a slightly
different picture than it was 10 years ago, and I have slightly more hope
simply because the spotlight is shining, and it's being focused by quite a few
of our colleagues in the field.
GROSS: There have been Iraqi soldiers who pretended to surrender to the
American military, and then the Iraqis attacked the American troops they were
surrendering to. What does international law have to say about that?
Mr. GUTMAN: Well, very simply, that is a crime. The crime is if you pretend
to be somebody you aren't. You know, if you put on a UN uniform or if you put
on an American uniform or something like that, it is, you know, regarded in
the first instance as, you know, a clever trick or even a dirty trick, a ruse
they call it in military parleys. And if you attempt by doing that to fool
the other side into an action that causes them harm, then that is known--it's
kind of an ancient term--as perfidy, or perfidious use of symbols.
If, however, you then use that opportunity as a soldier or as a military unit
to deceive the other side and cause them significant harm, and certainly to
kill them, then it is considered treachery. And it is listed as a crime, and
it is a--I don't really know if there's been too many cases brought before too
many tribunals 'cause, as I said earlier, there haven't been very many
tribunals since these laws were drafted. But it is a crime, and it is a grave
breach of the Geneva conventions and a war crime, and the party which perhaps
takes control, as I assume the Americans and British will be in charge after
this whole thing is over, have every right under international law to bring
war crimes proceedings against anybody responsible for that sort of a breach.
GROSS: Is the act of surrender supposed to be considered somewhat sacred so
that surrender can exist without it always being suspect?
Mr. GUTMAN: Well, precisely. The symbols are important under international
law. I mean, also it makes international law sometimes a little bit dry and a
little bit artificial because, you know, does everybody wear their rank
insignia exactly where it's supposed to be? Is everybody always in uniform
when they're fighting? We all know that's not the case. But surrender is one
of those sacred events in a war, and it has to happen in every war; there's
only going to be one winner on the whole for most wars. And if somebody holds
up the white flag it is a signal that they have decided to give up the fight,
and, therefore, under international law, they become protected persons of the
Once you start playing around with that symbol, you make it almost impossible
for the next guy to surrender because the superior force is going to assume
another ruse, another example of treachery, and they may start to shoot first
and ask questions later. So a lot of innocent people can be killed. A lot of
wasted lives result from this. And for this reason, over the decades, over
the centuries, it's become part of military custom and part of law that a
surrender has to be respected, has to be dealt with in a certain form, and not
to do that is treachery.
GROSS: We've also heard about Iraqi soldiers who were dressed as civilians
and then opened fire on American troops. Is that also considered perfidy or
Mr. GUTMAN: Well, that's slightly different. I mean, it depends precisely
on the circumstances, but my understanding is that if you give up your uniform
and you're still bearing arms, you are no longer a legal combatant. You no
longer have the right to use arms against the other military side, and
therefore you becoming an illegal combatant and to shoot as an illegal
combatant is itself criminal. But we know that in so many wars, you know, one
side or other will decide to use what they call guerrilla tactics, and they
will give up their uniforms and try to melt into the crowds and use the crowds
as a kind of a shield. And using civilians as a human shield is itself a
And, you know, Terry, you can boil down this law to its essence, and it really
amounts to this, you've got to avoid at all costs casualties among civilians,
among non-combatants. They are protected people. And the second aspect is
that soldiers are themselves legal combatants. They're allowed to kill the
other side. But once they have surrendered or they have taken ill or they're
wounded and captured, they are themselves protected persons. So those are the
two major elements in the law. And, you know, violating these principles is a
breach of the principles.
GROSS: My guest is Roy Gutman, co-author of the book "Crimes of War" and
president of the Crimes of War Project at American University. We'll talk
more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Roy Gutman. He's co-author of the book "Crimes of War:
What the Public Should Know." He's also a journalist and president of the
Crimes of War Project at American University.
We're all afraid that American troops will face chemical weapons when they
enter Baghdad. We know that Iraq used chemical weapons in the Iran/Iraq war.
Was Iraq ever brought up for violation of the Geneva conventions for using
Mr. GUTMAN: The unfortunate fact of life of the Iran/Iraq war, and most
wars, is that, until very recently, there was no place, no neutral location,
no UN body, for example, that could actually investigate, prosecute and, you
know, conduct trials and then incarcerate the responsible people. Right now
there is an international criminal court that could operate in such a
situation, but it didn't exist when that war was going on.
The second interesting element, if you think back to that period--and, you
know, if you recall this was a war that got very little coverage in the
American and the international press, very little focus, and one of the
reasons is that the US government's attitude in the Iran/Iraq war--the fear
was that Iraq, having started the war and having, you know, mounted incursions
into Iranian territory and then being thrown back by the Iranians, that
Iraq might lose. And, as a result, the US government was willing to
countenance, to close its eyes to quite a few violations by the Iraqis; among
them, the use of chemical weapons.
The US government may have formally taken exception to what the Iraqis were
doing, but in a very private way, in a clandestine way they were actually
assisting the Iraqis because the CIA was providing data to the Iraqis to
indicate how well the chemical shells were being targeted. So the US
government, which is, in a sense, you know, not just the strongest on Earth,
but also the one that tends to set the rules for international life, by virtue
of assisting the Iraqis indirectly and really hoping for their victory no
matter what means they were using, the US government, in a sense, compromised
the high ground and basically in no way tried to stop or punish the Iraqis,
and they got away with it.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about the United States' behavior in this war
with Iraq. The first, quote, "target of opportunity" that we had was a bunker
that the US military believed was housing Saddam Hussein. Under the
international code of war, the Geneva conventions, is it legal to target a
head of state?
Mr. GUTMAN: Well, the head of state is the top of the chain of command, in
fact, and in Iraq, and nearly anywhere else, therefore becomes part of the
chain of command and is a legitimate target. You know, in practice--go back
to World War II--governments tend not to target the head of state because
they know then that they're going to have, you know, a huge effort to defend
their own head of state. And it's sort of been an unwritten code that they
don't do that.
GROSS: Is there a US order banning assassination, and would that order apply
Mr. GUTMAN: Well, of course, you're absolutely right, but that is a peacetime
order. If you're at war, I mean, the man who is the head of state or, you
know, at the top of the chain of command is a legitimate target, and so those
orders about assassinations in peacetime do not apply.
GROSS: Now the Bush administration is calling this a war of liberation in
Iraq, but not everyone in Iraq agrees. Is there a body of law that determines
what a just war is?
Mr. GUTMAN: Well, it's really a branch of political philosophy or theology,
and it goes back to the Middle Ages, you know, in this sense. The mostly
Roman Catholic theologians devised a set of rules for what is a just war, and
among other things there has to be a legitimate government which declares the
war. There has to be what they call a just cause. The use of force has to be
proportional. The resort to force has to be the last resort. The aim of the
war has to be peace. There has to be a reasonable hope of success. Now these
are the criteria that existed throughout the ages.
You know, since the creation of the United Nations, the term `just war' has
sort of gone into advance, and the more-used term, more frequent term is
`legitimate use of force.' And essentially this comes down to whether a war is
declared and it comes under the provisions of the UN Charter. You know, the
UN Charter allows every state the right of self-defense, but it also brings in
collective defense and collective security.
And so, you know, this is sort of at the essence of this debate that's going
on in the Security Council throughout March, whether the US was threatening to
use force legitimately. The argument on the one side of nearly everybody else
on the Security Council, except for three or four US allies, was that the
Security Council had to approve yet another resolution. The US administration
and others said, like Britain, that, `No, there are sufficient resolutions.'
So it's a bit of a debate, and I don't think that one can give a crystal-clear
answer. But if you had what Jefferson called a decent respect for the
opinions of mankind, I think you would say that the Americans operated without
full support of the world community and are operating in a somewhat unilateral
way and that the claim that this is a just war is definitely disputed and
GROSS: Roy Gutman is the co-author of the book "Crimes of War" and president
of American University's Crimes of War Project. He'll be back in the second
half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Roy Gutman. We're
talking about the international rules of war which should be regulating the
behavior of the Iraqi and American military. Roy Gutman is the co-author of
the book "Crimes of War." He's the president of the Crimes of War Project at
American University and a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace. He won
a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the concentration camps in Bosnia.
During the so-called shock and awe campaign the US military has dropped an
extraordinary number of bombs on Iraq, though the military says that these are
very precisely targeted bombs, and in most cases it seems, from what we know,
that the bombs have, in fact, hit their targets. What are the conventions
surrounding what is considered an appropriate target of war?
Mr. GUTMAN: Well, a legitimate military target is one that is used
exclusively for military purposes. It can be an object, a building, it can be
weapons or a system, and it can be the individuals who are operating those
systems or who are part of that military establishment. And so there's, you
know, a lot of clarity on what is a military target. It's also--there's a lot
of clarity about what is a civilian object or target, and that is not a
legitimate target. The problem is, Terry, that you have gray-zone cases. You
have many dual-use kinds of facilities--you know, bridges, tunnels, roads,
many buildings, power plants, dams, and it's not always easy to distinguish
whether this is primarily a military or a non-military target, and so this is
where the real debate occurs on whether, you know, a particular target is a
pure military target.
The other thing that confuses and, you know, complicates the picture is that
militaries often will take a civilian target--it might be like a school. I
remember in Kosovo when the Serb army moved into the schools in the center of
several towns in Kosovo--and making it very difficult--I think I recall the
town of Urosevac, and I heard this from people in the town, that the army
moved into the school and turned it into a barracks. Now, of course, a school
is not a military target, and yet if it is taken over by a military force for
military purposes then it becomes a legitimate target. And probably the
object in taking over the school was that if the US bombed the school the
Serbs would come out and say, `You see? They're committing a crime because
they're bombing a school.' So that is a very tough issue for every military,
and on the whole they tend to--certainly the US military tends to try to avoid
that sort of attack at all costs.
You know, another thing just to point out, though, is that the US military
takes enormous efforts to ensure that the targets it attacks are legitimate
and that they are limited and that collateral damage will be minimized. They
take efforts that the public doesn't really know about. But it involves
having lawyers, in fact, taking, you know--once the target is selected by the
target selection committee, it goes to the lawyers, and the lawyers look at
both, you know, the location, the surroundings, the kind of weapon or
explosive that's going to be used, the angle it's going to be attacked from,
and they study this. They do computer simulations to try to determine whether
the target is legitimate, whether the target is limited enough, whether
there's enough precision that collateral, unnecessary civilian damage can be
GROSS: President Bush has said to Iraqi generals that they should, quote,
"Clearly understand that if they take innocent life, if they destroy
infrastructure, they will be held to account as war criminals." Now to a lot
of Iraqis it's the United States that's coming in and destroying life and
destroying infrastructure, no matter how unintended it is on the US military's
part to actually destroy infrastructure and take the lives of civilians. Do
you have any reflections on that?
Mr. GUTMAN: I think the American side may be overstating its case when they
accuse the Iraqis of potential war crimes in attempting to destroy their
infrastructure. It is a completely legitimate act of war to destroy
infrastructure if you think that's going to be in the supreme interest of your
self-defense. So if they blow up bridges, even to some degree--I don't know
how oil wells come into this, but I think it's what the Americans have mostly
in mind. If the Iraqis booby-trap and set oil wells on fire, well, I mean,
there might be some military argument for even doing that. What there is not
a military argument for doing is destroying, burning, torching oil wells when
the intention is to, in a sense, destroy the environment and create a scorched
earth for, you know, the next regime. That is an environmental war crime, by
the way, which has never been prosecuted in any tribunal that I know of.
But, in general, the defending force does have the right to destroy or to, you
know, blow up bridges as it evacuates an area so that the other side cannot
GROSS: My guest is Roy Gutman, the co-author of the book "Crimes of War" and
the president of the Crimes of War Project at American University. We'll talk
more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Roy Gutman. He's a journalist,
he's co-author of the book "Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know," and
he's also a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace and president of the
Crimes of War Project at American University.
In thinking about crimes of war and writing about crimes of war you've
actually been critical of the United States' treatment of detainees at
Guantanamo, detainees from the war on terrorism. What are your criticisms
about the people that the United States has been holding as prisoner?
Mr. GUTMAN: When the US decided it had to go to war in Afghanistan, I think
under international law, and certainly the mood of the world, opinion was that
it was a completely legitimate and just cause. And, obviously, when you have
overwhelming force and you're fighting against an opponent who has most
primitive means of defense you're going to win and you're going to capture a
lot of prisoners, and that's exactly what happened. The US, in taking the
prisoners, broke precedent in a way. The administration decided that they
were not combatants. In fact, every person they detained they decided either
was a illegal combatant or was in some ways--or an unlawful combatant. They
had different terms. And they have 600 or 700 detainees right now at
Guantanamo in Cuba.
Ordinarily in wartime the Geneva conventions are the rules that everybody
quotes from, and the conventions allow you to hold a prisoner for a fairly
long time, as long as the war goes on. But they do have some requirements on
you, and the requirements include that you've got to be sure that you actually
have a legitimate combatant, that you're holding a real fighter in your
prisoner-of-war camps. The US government decided to suspend the rules,
basically, and by calling everybody an unlawful combatant they said the Geneva
convention rules do not apply. So nobody of the 650 detainees in Guantanamo
basically has combatant status. They're not being treated as they're supposed
to be under the conventions.
And the real problem there is that, I believe, and I've done research on this
with Newsweek, that they're holding a lot of people there who never fought,
who are not terrorists, who are not actually a threat to them and who have no
way of proving this because there is no law under which they have any rights
or any procedure for claiming that they're not combatants. They're being held
indefinitely, without any rules and without any protections. And I think it's
egregious. I mean, I think this as a citizen, but I don't know of a single
expert anywhere who thinks, in fact, that this is legal or proper, and it sets
completely the wrong precedent.
GROSS: If the United States wants to bring Iraq to court on charges of
violations of the code of war, violations of the Geneva conventions, would the
place be the International Criminal Court?
Mr. GUTMAN: Well, this administration has decided that the International
Criminal Court is anathema, and they have mounted a worldwide campaign to try
to weaken and even cripple the court. So I would be rather surprised if the
ICC, which is just beginning to set itself up--they've just elected the
judges; I don't think they even have a prosecutor yet--would be brought into
this. I think it's more likely--there are other forms that justice can take.
For example, we've had the Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals, set up in the
1990s, which are ad hoc UN Security Council organized tribunals with judges
from many countries, and they worked very well. And I think the US
government, the administration would be willing to countenance that kind of a
A second possibility is a US-led military commission with probably the British
and maybe the Australians taking part, the sort of thing we saw after World
War II at Nuremberg. And the third possibility is to have an Iraqi tribunal,
maybe with international participation, possibly on the order of what's going
on right now in Sierra Leone, possibly some new kind of tribunal.
GROSS: What are America's objections to the International Criminal Court?
Mr. GUTMAN: The argument is--I found it rather hard to understand, frankly.
But they basically say: Look, the United States has a far greater
responsibility and role than anybody else in keeping the international peace.
Its troops are going to be involved in a lot more places. It's likelier to
become the target of a UN panel, you know, looking for cases to bring up
because there's a tendency in the UN--and this is also true, as you know--to
say, `Well, one from column A and one from column B.'
The case--I think it's really, when you come down to it, ideological. I think
there's simply an attitude in this administration that we're the United
States. We're the most powerful country. This is an issue of sovereignty.
We don't give up any of our sovereignty to anybody else. And just as they
have, you know, backed out of the ABM Treaty with Russia, the Anti-Ballistic
Missile Treaty, they have quit the Kyoto Protocols on climate warming and
other international treaties. I think that that is really the context in
which they have decided to oppose and to fight the International Criminal
It's a big mistake, it seems to me, in many ways because the International
Criminal Court could deal with so many cases of wars that go on between, you
know, small countries in far-away locations where the war crimes are horrific,
and could actually try to bring some reason and some law and some order and
some focus on those wars, which in a sense helps the US in its own security in
avoiding going to all those places. And so I think that there's a very
shortsighted attitude by the administration, but they are determined and they
are fighting very hard to limit the court in any way they can.
GROSS: You covered the war in Bosnia for Newsday and won a Pulitzer Prize for
Mr. GUTMAN: Yes, indeed. Yeah.
GROSS: Was it your coverage of Bosnia that led to your interest in and your
research into the subject of crimes of war?
Mr. GUTMAN: Very much, but not exclusively. I'm a foreign affairs reporter,
and I've wound up, however, covering not just diplomacy and treaty
negotiations, but wars are part of the foreign affairs scene. And I guess the
thing in the Balkan Wars that disturbed me the most was that I, as a reporter,
came upon stories of what seemed to be total abuses of non-combatants, and
this however was not reviewed by most people as a news story. I mean, my
editors came along with me and agreed eventually that some of the things I was
writing about--concentration camps, systematic rape, the destruction of the
culture--were really horrific things and also news. And I started to think
about that fact, that crime in a domestic sense is news; crime in an
international sense we don't usually, you know, during wars define it as news,
and yet it is pure news.
The problem is for reporters, that we are sometimes the only people on the
battlefield who don't know what the rules of war are. Very few reporters
nowadays have gone through military service, and almost nobody, if you ask
colleagues in the field, will be able to tell you very much about what's in
the Geneva conventions until you're in the middle of a thing where you have
prisoners of war. And so it struck me that it might be useful for us as
reporters to know what the rules of war are--it's not just the Geneva
conventions; it's also the genocide convention and the various crimes that
were defined at the Nuremberg tribunal--and to know what military
practices--we should know the difference between what is legal in war, what is
illegal and what is criminal. And if we know those distinctions we might be
able, actually, to spot news stories sooner, real stories, you know, stories
of things that shouldn't be happening.
What sometimes happens is that this can embarrass the country involved, or the
government involved, that's responsible, embarrass them before the
international public to the point that everybody starts asking them questions,
and it becomes so embarrassing that they cannot carry on with that crime.
GROSS: Did that happen to you after any of your reporting?
Mr. GUTMAN: Well, in a sense it did. I reported--it's been over 10 years
ago--about the concentration camps in northern Bosnia that the Bosnian Serbs
had set up. One of them, Omarska, was a place where they were killing people
at the rate of 50 to a 100 to 200 a day. I found people who had been in
Omarska, for some reason had been released. They talked about that camp and a
second camp in the town called Brcko. And very factually--I couldn't even use
their names, but I could show their pictures. I then got every kind of backup
I could to the facts that I was collecting--that's to say the International
Red Cross had something to say, the European Union, the American Embassy and
other people said that they thought that this might be true--and wrote the
And the result of that story was that the camp, Omarska in this case, closed
down within two days and people were freed. And I think that that is kind of
the model that--I mean, you know, this happens once in a journalistic career
that you write a story that actually has that kind of impact. But I think in
general, putting a spotlight on violations is not only a good news story but
it also sometimes might affect the crime that's going on. It might cause
people to take notice and maybe even stop doing what they're doing.
GROSS: My guest is Roy Gutman. He's the co-author of the book "Crimes of
War" and the president of the Crimes of War project at American University.
We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Roy Gutman, co-author of
the book "Crimes of War." He's a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace.
What do you think of the Pentagon's embedding of reporters? Do you think that
that's a good thing, both for the information that we're getting at home, and
also do you think that that might possibly help in preventing war crimes or in
shaming people responsible for them?
Mr. GUTMAN: Embedding is such a new concept that we'll have to see how it
works. But my initial reaction is that it's a very positive contribution both
to news reporting, and in the field of preventing war crimes it really might
be a real impetus. I don't really have great worries about the American
forces. I think they're well-trained. I think they know that they've got to
answer--they're accountable at the end of the day for what they do and they
have to live with themselves. And that's just the nature of our open society.
But, nevertheless, I think it's a good idea for reporters to be along, and
everybody's going to have to be on their best behavior. And, you know, it's
quite possible that reporters who are embedded--there are some 500 of
them--don't have our little book along, you know, and they may not have an
idea of what the rules of war are. But a lot of it's intuitive. A lot of
it's just common sense, and if there's a violation you sort of smell it, you
feel it, you have some sense of it and you start asking questions. And then
somebody might, you know, dredge out what the rule is under the Geneva
conventions. And so everybody in the American Military Officer corps is aware
that they're going to be questioned on that. All these things now are
questions, and I think that embedding might be the best thing that's ever
happened to international humanitarian law.
GROSS: How do you feel about it as a viewer, as a spectator? I think for a
lot of us it's so odd because it's gripping to watch it, but it almost makes
you feel like this bizarre kind of voyeur sitting comfortably in your kitchen
or in your living room or your office watching people risking their lives on
the battlefield. And then also there's the sense that I think a lot of us are
feeling like, how can we possibly go on with daily life as we bear witness to
this on the television?
Mr. GUTMAN: Well, don't forget there's a trend in American television now to
have reality shows.
GROSS: I know, and that's adding to this feeling of--well, my fear is that
reality television risks almost cheapening the grave reality of what we're
seeing in the war.
Mr. GUTMAN: I mean, last night on one NBC channel, they had bathing beauties
diving into tanks full of dead fish. And on another one they have a reporter
in Nasiriyah describing the ambush of the day and the number of people who
were killed. And I tend to think that I prefer the war channel myself, but
other people may have another choice. I mean, I think people have a hard
time--we all have a hard time with real reality. I can tell you, when a war
is going on, especially if atrocities and crimes are going on, on the whole
the public doesn't want to know about it because, on the whole, people
probably feel psychologically, `There's nothing I can do about it, and this is
really just too awful for words, and I'll flip the channel.' And so they
watch a so-called reality show which is totally fictitious and coming up with
horrific punishments for everybody who's taking part in it.
I think I find one of the problems in watching the news as it's coming out of
these embedded, you know, journalists is confusing, because you have a little
slice of life from one location and you have no slice from 11 other locations.
You have a hard time putting things together and providing an overview. And I
think television has not--you know, the editors and presenters have not yet
quite figured out how to sum up and how to, you know, paint both the broad
context and relate that to the specific item that is just coming in, you know,
from their man on the scene. And I think that's a matter of adjusting, and so
it's rather confusing at first.
But that being said, I think some of the television reporting and also the
newspaper reporting is really as good as it gets. It's--obviously if you're
embedded with a unit, you have a very limited view, and yet you do see real
things. You can't give the broad context, but you can describe a real slice
of life. And so long as that is somehow presented in context, I think the
viewer is going to have a much better grip on the reality and the horror of
war. I mean, those of us who were--everybody was quite impressed by the first
day's advances. But then by day two or day three you had ambushes; you had
the fragging of three tents full of military officers in Camp Pennsylvania;
you had Marines, you know, losing their vehicle in the swamp, people taking a
wrong turn. This is what war is all about, and it's not a pretty picture.
GROSS: Well, Roy Gutman, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. GUTMAN: Thanks, Terry. Nice to be here.
GROSS: Roy Gutman is the co-author of the book "Crimes of War." He's
president of the Crimes of War Project at American University.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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