Following the Law of War

I don’t want to make too big a deal about Ari Fleischer’s lamentable use of a Nazi analogy to justify how we run Gitmo. But having just re-read Timothy Snyder’s essential and deeply distressing book, Bloodlands, about German-Soviet atrocities before and during World War II, and also having just read about the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, I think it kind of important to address the underlying issue.

In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, this is from ThinkProgressaccount of Fleischer debating Jeffrey Toobin (man, what a mismatch!) on CNN about Gitmo:

“This country fought Adolf Hitler. And I don’t really believe that Osama bin Laden and his group are worse or more dangerous than Adolf Hitler,” CNN legal expert Jeffery Toobin countered Fleischer, adding, “We managed to defeat Adolf Hitler by following the rule of law.”

Backed in a corner, Fleischer then went a bit off the rail:

FLEISCHER: They [the Germans] followed the law of war. They wore uniforms and they fought us on battlefields. These people are fundamentally, totally by design different. And they need to be treated in a different extrajudicial system.

So, the Germans followed the “law of war,” eh?

The more we know about World War II, the more it’s clear the Wehrmacht was an integral part of the Final Solution (along with the Order Police, basically middle-class police officers from Germany deployed behind the lines of the Russian Front to “keep order” by shooting Jews). Indeed, Snyder argues that after the initial invasion of the Soviet Union failed, the extermination of the Jews became the only significant German war objective. As for following other “laws of war,” there’s this little matter of the German military authorities deliberately starving millions of Soviet POWs, not to mention the slaughter of vast numbers of civilians in the guise of “anti-partisan” operations.

Again, I don’t expect Ari Fleischer to think through of all that in the midst of a rapid-fire exchange on CNN. But he is rich and famous and presumably influential, and what he said does matter not just in terms of keeping the historical record straight, but because this conservative fantasy of the wretched prisoners at Gitmo representing an unheard-of, unprecedented existential threat to the United States and the very existence of law betrays an extraordinary incapacity for moral reasoning.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.