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Bush’s Jane Fonda-esque mistake

Jane Fonda announced Monday that she’s heading to Iraq for an anti-war tour in a bus powered by vegetable oil.

Doesn’t Fonda ever learn? In 1972, after she visited Hanoi and accused U.S. leaders and POWs of war crimes, Fonda became America’s most despised anti-war activist. Her Iraq jaunt will only give the hawks something new to snicker about.

But if Fonda learned little from her Vietnam escapades, the U.S. military learned many lessons from both the Vietnam War and the protests it generated.

Many in the armed forces felt bitterly undermined by Fonda’s accusations and her cavalier attitude toward American POWs. Although the overwhelming majority of U.S. soldiers served honorably during our terrible war in Vietnam, the military has since come to accept that some of Fonda’s points, while exaggerated, were not wholly unfounded.

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After the testimony of scores of veterans appalled by their own brutalization, after the photos of children running from napalmed villages, and after My Lai, no credible voices inside or outside the military now deny that some American soldiers committed atrocities in Vietnam.

To U.S. military leaders, one lesson of Fonda’s escapades was that preventing war crimes is not only a matter of law and morality, but also crucial to preserving military morale and public support for the troops.

In the three decades since the Vietnam War, our armed forces have worked hard to integrate material on the Geneva Convention into every soldier’s training, and to develop internal procedures to prevent and punish violations. Members of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps work with service members at every level to ensure the mistakes of Vietnam are not repeated.

Though not perfect, these efforts have met with enormous success. As Maj. Gen. Jack Rives, the Air Force deputy judge advocate general, put it, while military “culture and self-image ... suffered during the Vietnam conflict” because of accusations of war crimes, post-Vietnam military programs emphasizing principles of the laws of war have “greatly restored the culture and self-image of U.S. armed forces.”

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Given this history, it’s no surprise that the chief opponents of Bush administration efforts to gut prohibitions on torture and mistreatment came from the military.

On Monday, Republican Sen. (and former JAG officer) Lindsey Graham released several 2003 memos from JAG Corps leaders to their civilian Defense Department bosses. Unlike the syntax-parsing drivel from the Bush Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel -- asserting that neither international law nor federal criminal law prohibited the president from authorizing interrogation techniques long viewed as torture -- the JAG memos don’t mince words.

Rives warned the general counsel’s office at the Pentagon that “several of the more extreme interrogation techniques, on their face, amount to violations of domestic criminal law and the [Uniform Code of Military Justice].” His Navy JAG colleague, Rear Adm. Michael Lohr, wrote that at least one of the interrogation techniques suggested by the Justice Department “constitutes torture under both domestic and international law.”

The Army’s judge advocate general, Maj. Gen. Thomas Romig, said the Justice Department analysis could damage military “interests worldwide ... putting our service personnel at far greater risk and vitiating many of the POW/detainee safeguards the U.S. has worked hard to establish over the past five decades.”

Marine Corps JAG Brig. Gen. Kevin Sandkuhler cautioned that the techniques suggested by the Justice Department would “adversely impact ... public support and respect of U.S. armed forces [and] pride, discipline, and self-respect within the U.S. armed forces.” Also at risk would be military intelligence-gathering, efforts to encourage enemies to surrender and efforts to obtain support from allied nations.

It was Lohr who put the bottom line most poignantly: If questionable and harsh interrogation techniques are used, he asked, “will the American people find we have missed the forest for the trees by condoning practices that, while technically legal, are inconsistent with our most fundamental values?” His words were written in 2003, so we know the story’s unhappy ending. The Bush administration ignored the JAG Corps warnings and permitted the use of numerous interrogation tactics -- including “waterboarding,” forced nudity and sexual humiliation -- that make a mockery of the military’s decades-long championship of the Geneva Convention.

Although the Bush administration silenced its JAG Corps critics, all their predictions are coming true: The administration’s disregard for law has weakened support from allies, provided a propaganda boon to our enemies, and appears to be contributing to lowering the morale of U.S. troops in the field. The JAG Corps itself, which once attracted the best and brightest young military attorneys, has seen its applicant pool diminish substantially in recent years.

In the Vietnam War era, escapades such as Fonda’s left American soldiers feeling bitterly undermined by some of their fellow citizens. It’s a crying shame that this time around, those undermining the military are in the Bush adminstration.

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