By Patrick J. Sloyan
It was the standard practice for American infantry in Vietnam, where boobytraps and minefields threatened unspeakable horrors. Lt. William Diehl still remembers the day as a platoon leader on a jungle patrol.
One of their prisoners, a suspected Viet Cong guerrilla, was brought to the front of the line of soldiers. A rope was placed around the prisoner’s neck and the platoon point man prodded the prisoner to lead the way. They had not gone far when the human mine detector broke a tripwire and set off a buried shell. This time, however, the tactic failed. The blast was so powerful that it killed the point man, ripping his heart from his chest. It also wounded Diehl. Some nights, Diehl can still see the point man’s heart pulsating on the jungle trail. He was certain some Vietnamese children, their mothers and grandparents living nearby were responsible. “We always believed the mines were planted by the villagers,’’ Diehl said.
Diehl’s unit violated U.S. Army training and at least three of the laws of war. Prisoners, whether military POWs or enemy civilians, cannot be forced to serve in military operations, be involved in dangerous work, or be subjected to cruel or inhumane treatments. What Diehl observed in Vietnam was specifically banned by Article 52 of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949.
Using human mine detectors had become commonplace during the ten-year war. In the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968, troops of the Americal Division destroyed an entire village and killed more than five hundred old men, women, children, and infants. Only about twenty were spared; “In case we hit the minefield,’’ Lt. William Calley later told an Army court-martial.
The motive for making civilians walk through minefields was survival. Almost a third of the fifty-eight thousand American soldiers who died in Vietnam were killed by a boobytrap or a mine; 40 per cent of the 153,000 wounded fell to a similar weapon. But the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which cover international, and, as in the case of Vietnam, “internationalized” conflicts, leave no doubt it is a war crime to force a captured soldier or civilian to “walk the point.”
“Compelling a prisoner of war to serve in the forces of the hostile power” is a grave breach, according to the Third Geneva Convention. Unless he volunteers, employing a POW on unhealthy or dangerous labor is banned. The Third Convention specifies that the “removal of mines or similar devices shall be considered as dangerous labor.” POWs also cannot be forced to do dangerous work or work for which they are physically unsuited; they can only be forced to work in sectors that are not military in nature or purpose.
Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, civilians cannot be forced into military service but can be interned and compelled to work under the same conditions as nationals of the occupying party. Internees may volunteer to work for the “needs of the army of occupation” but not its “strategic or tactical requirements” such as digging trenches, or building fortifications and bases. Noninternees may not be compelled to work.
The U.S. Army was well aware of the practice of using enemy POWs and civilians to clear mines during the war and of its criminal nature. By the time of Calley’s trial, the Infantry School at Fort Benning had produced a training film showing an army platoon in a Vietnamese village. The lieutenant tells his sergeant to take some of the villagers and run them through a suspected area. “You want me, Lieutenant, to take the villagers and run them through a minefield?’’ the sergeant asks. Pressed to repeat the order, the officer backs down.
During the 1991 Gulf War, the lesson was remembered. Norman Schwarzkopf, a lieutenant colonel in Calley’s Americal division in Vietnam, was in command. Confronted by desert belts of Iraqi landmines and aware that thousands of Iraqi prisoners would surrender rather than fight, Schwarzkopf ordered perhaps the most ambitious effort to prevent war crimes ever conducted on a battlefield. Every officer and enlisted soldier was lectured on the rules of land warfare and the proper treatment of prisoners. According to personnel in the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) legal division, they were contacted almost daily by members of Schwarzkopf’s staff on the finer points of the laws of war.
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