Here’s a story (*) from today’s Washington Post that turned my stomach, twice: first for the facts reported, and second for the language the reporter and headline-writer use to describe them.

U.S. Adopts Aggressive Tactics on Iraqi Fighters

Intensified Offensive Leads To Detentions, Intelligence

By Thomas E. Ricks

Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, July 28, 2003; Page A01

BAGHDAD — Over the past six weeks a small but intense war has been conducted in the mud-hut villages and lush palm groves along the Tigris River valley, fought with far different methods than those used in the campaign that toppled president Saddam Hussein.

As Iraqi fighters launched guerrilla strikes, the U.S. Army adopted a more nimble approach against unseen adversaries and found new ways to gather intelligence about them, according to dozens of soldiers and officers interviewed over the last week.


Col. David Hogg, commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division, said tougher methods are being used to gather the intelligence. On Wednesday night, he said, his troops picked up the wife and daughter of an Iraqi lieutenant general. They left a note: “If you want your family released, turn yourself in.” Such tactics are justified, he said, because, “It’s an intelligence operation with detainees, and these people have info.” They would have been released in due course, he added later.

The tactic worked. On Friday, Hogg said, the lieutenant general appeared at the front gate of the U.S. base and surrendered.

Now, class, please notice the delicate use of language. “Aggressive” and “nimble.” Aren’t those interesting words to refer to kidnapping wives and children to put pressure on husbands and fathers?

Can anyone in the class suggest other words? Yes, Tom Spencer? “Morally bankrupt,” you say? Very good, Tom. Anyone else?

Okay, Atrios. Yes, I saw that you had your hand up. You always have your hand up, don’t you, Atrios? Atrios says “criminal,” (*) class. And see the nice piece of the Geneva Conventions Atrios brought for show-and tell?

For your assignment, please write a brief essay either supporting or rebutting the assertion that the action described in the Washington Post constituted the crime of hostage-taking as prohibited by Article 75 of protocol I of the Geneva Conventions. (*)

Phil Carter, I will ask you to read your essay out loud at the beginning of tomorrow’s class.

And Glenn Reynolds, how often must I ask you to pay attention when we’re discussing matters not consistent with your prior beliefs?

Class dismissed. Yes, Atrios, I know it’s early. But I’m feeling very, very ill.


Phil Carter points out (*) that Atrio and I cited the wrong treaty: the U.S. hasn’t signed Protocol 1, but did sign the Fourth Geneva Convention (*), which also prohibits hostage-taking. Phil also points out that the practical results may not be entirely desirable. Matt Yglesias agrees. (*)

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: