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Victory and Its Discontents, Or: Law, War and Nonsense

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

"I told him that I thought it was law logic -- an artificial system of reasoning, exclusively used in courts of justice, but good for nothing anywhere else."

-- John Quincy Adams


We live in strange times. Aren't they all? But much like Tolstoy's unhappy families, each strange time is strange in its own peculiar way. And most peculiar, at least this week, may be the little legal brouhaha that some of our fellow Americans -- learned citizens all, maybe too learned -- are trying to raise in the midst of the general acclaim for the latest accomplishment of the armed forces of the United States.

In another victory-by-drone, the armed forces of the United States took out al-Qaida's chief of operations in Yemen and points north on the Arabian peninsula. This achievement was a twofer, for it also eliminated one of his trusted lieutenants. Both were technically Americans. By birth if not by loyalty.

Mission accomplished. How soul-satisfying, like justice itself, to pronounce that old formula with no sense of irony. For there is little doubt -- indeed, no doubt -- that these latest enemies of the United States of America to be blown to kingdom come were enemies of the United States of America.

Nor is there much doubt, or any at all, that these two enemy targets were fully covered by the various resolutions passed by Congress in the wake of the surprise attacks on this country September 11, 2001. And by a line of court decisions upholding the authority of the president and commander-in-chief. Not to mention the demands of simple justice and common sense. Here is another instance in which Mr. Adams' spurious law-logic should not be confused with the real thing.


THE EXTENSIVE LIST of the now late Anwar al-Awlaki's war crimes wouldn't be easy to summarize, but the president and commander-in-chief made a valiant effort when he announced this latest American victory in the war on terror/overseas contingency operations.

This time Barack Obama indulged in no unconvincing euphemisms, but just condensed the criminal dossier on Mr. al-Awlaki to a brief paragraph or two, making it clear that the, uh, gentleman deserved just what he got, if not more. To quote the president at his news conference on this latest accomplishment of the forces under his command:

"I want to say a few words about some important news. Earlier this morning, Anwar Awlaki, a leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed in Yemen. The death ... (here Mr. Obama was interrupted by applause) ... The death of Awlaki is a major blow to al-Qaida's most active operational affiliate. Awlaki was the leader of external operations for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. In that role, he took the lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans. He directed the failed attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009. He directed the failed attempt to blow up U.S. cargo planes in 2010. And he repeatedly called on individuals in the United States and around the globe to kill innocent men, women and children to advance a murderous agenda...."

The bill of particulars against Mr. al-Awlaki's confederate, Samir Khan, may not have been as extensive but it was impressive, too. Until he made the mistake of riding with his leader in a convoy that lethal day. He, too, deserved the attention of a drone and a few fighter jets. And got it.

IN A STATEMENT worth applauding, the president and commander-in-chief noted that this "is further proof that al-Qaida and its affiliates will find no safe haven anywhere in the world." At such moments, our current president sounds as determined as our last one to bring these killers to justice. Indeed, he might be channeling George W. Bush as he expresses the will of a united nation to see this effort through to its completely justified conclusion.

Make that an almost united nation. In the land of the free, the actions of the brave will always inspire the cavils of some, and they need to be heard, too, if only to be reminded of how even victory, like civilization, has its discontents.

Ron Paul, congressman and perennial presidential candidate as well as money crank, can always be counted on to round out (bottom out?) American opinion on such happy occasions. His cavil: "Al-Awlaki was born here; he is an American citizen. He was never tried or charged for any crimes."

How shocking. And just wait till the congressman finds that Osama bin Ladin was never read his Miranda rights.


Naturally enough, The Hon. Ron Paul was joined in dissent by the usual suspects. Like the American Civil Liberties Union, whose duty it is to add a discordant note to all such celebratory choruses, and which the country needs for just such occasions. The way the devil needs an advocate even at the heavenly gates lest even the angels get carried away, as the best of us have a tendency to do. The ACLU said it would prefer that, in such circumstances, the U.S. Army only arrest the terrorist leader and bring him home for arraignment, trial, appeals ... and, well, justice delayed in general.

IN A DIFFERENT WAR, critics of how the United States is conducting this one would probably have asked if the P-38 pilots who finally shot down Admiral Yamamoto over the Pacific had a warrant. That mission had a forthright name: Operation Vengeance. For Americans still remembered Pearl Harbor and Admiral Yamamoto's role in it. They hadn't forgotten December 7, 1941, any more than this generation should forget September 11, 2001.

Back in 1943, there was no doubt that this country was at war, not conducting an overseas contingency operation. The American language was clearer then. And more honest.

And if there had been an ACLU during the Late Unpleasantness of 1861-65, it would surely have wanted the Lincoln administration to put the whole Army of Northern Virginia under arrest for arraignment and trial rather than just firing back after Sumter.


After all, General Lee and his men were American citizens even if they were under the impression that they were acting under the aegis not of the U.S.A. but the C.S.A. As it happened, Mr. Lincoln was more interested in saving the Union at the time than in engaging in law-logic.

The laws of war are probably as old as war itself, or at least as ancient as the Book of Deuteronomy, and where there is law there are bound to be lawyers, critics and carpers. It's not always easy to distinguish among them. But on this welcome occasion, it's easier than usual.

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