A Mutiny By Any Other Name

Georgetown law professor Jonathan Turley revisits the history of soldier mutinies in order to help us understand issues surrounding the 18 Army Reserve soldiers who refused to go on a mission in Iraq claiming the conditions were too dangerous.

After returning from a mission marred by inadequate or broken equipment, the soldiers were ordered to take a shipment of jet fuel to Taji, a perilous route even for armored and functioning equipment. According to family members and media accounts, many soldiers objected that their trucks lacked essential armor, vehicles were broken down, there was no plan for adequate combat support and, finally, the fuel shipment was contaminated (and thus unusable). They reportedly raised these concerns with their command but were ordered to carry out the mission anyway. It was then that the 18 soldiers refused to go on the convoy.

Turley says mutinies more reflect problems with commanders than with individual soldiers. He reminds us of how Roman commanders dealt with mutinous soldiers:

In Roman times, reluctant or mutinous soldiers were punished through "decimation," a word often used incorrectly to refer to total destruction. Generals would "decimate" units by executing every 10th soldier as collective punishment.

Even now, mutineering soldiers are judged harshly. Is it time to revisit the policy?

Whereas cowardice is usually a failing of an individual soldier, mutinies involve groups of soldiers and are often more about the commanders than their troops. The U.S. military has always refused to condone defiance of orders except in cases where the orders were unlawful, such as calling for committing war crimes. Soldiers are not allowed to refuse an order because it is illogical or wasteful or wrongheaded or dangerous.

Even where the refusal makes sense, Turley says, the U.S. considers such justification as a sentencing issue, not a guilt issue.

Bush administration officials are now trying to defuse the controversy by emphasizing in interviews such phrases as a "confused situation" and "temporary breakdown." What was a technical mutiny may be downgraded in the interest of politics to a misunderstanding. As in many past mutinies, we seem to be moving toward a symbolic gesture of discipline.

Symobolic except for one or two of whom the Administration may decide to make an example of for appearance sake. As Turley says,

It is a result the ancients would love; two out of 18 is just about right for a good old-fashioned Roman decimation.

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