My father was a machine gunner with the Army's 28th Infantry Division, which was among the first units to march down the Champs-Elysées after the Allied liberation of Paris . In December 1944, having landed at Normandy and fought across France and Belgium, he was captured in the Battle of the Bulge, and sent hundreds of miles through northern Germany in an unheated boxcar in the dead of winter to a prison camp at Muhlberg in the east.
My father survived the war not because of the generosity of the Nazis to Jewish soldiers. The Germans must have been tempted to send captured Jewish American soldiers to Auschwitz along with Polish, German, and Dutch Jews and kindred human garbage. But they did not. My father survived because, amazingly, even the Nazis respected the reciprocal agreements on humane treatment of prisoners.
The doctrine was simple: You don't abuse my soldiers when you take them prisoner, and I won't abuse yours. Mostly, despite the multiple atrocities of World War II, the doctrine held.
In many respects, in a brutal era when the Nazis murdered over 6 million civilian Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, socialists, dwarfs, handicapped people, and the mentally ill, and the Allies killed hundreds of thousands of German non combatants in Allied fire-bombings of cities, enemy POWs often fared better than civilians. High-ranking captured German officers sat out the war in the elegant Greenbrier Hotel outside Washington, where they were not tortured.
I thought of my father as I followed Republican Senators John McCain, John Warner, and Lindsey Graham bravely resisting the Bush administration's insane doctrine that the United States should become the first signatory government to take exceptions to the Geneva agreements on humane treatment of prisoners.
McCain was not as fortunate as my father. After his plane was shot down, he was tortured by the North Vietnamese, who did not respect the Geneva Conventions, and kept in a hellhole for six years. If anyone has the right to dispute the doctrine of reciprocal, humane prisoner treatment, it is McCain. But instead, McCain reasons, correctly, that if the United States of America, of all nations, grants itself the right to abuse prisoners, not only are our soldiers at greater risk, but our national soul.
Thanks to their leadership, the Senate Armed Services Committee rejected the administration bill, and reported the McCain bill, requiring due process in the prosecution of all captives, and respecting the protections of the Geneva Conventions. The administration is still pressing to pass its bill. But for once, it may not prevail.
Finally, on multiple fronts, after nearly six years of blind loyalty, Republican moderates in Congress are beginning to rebel against the sheer recklessness of their president -- excuse me, of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who are the architects of these policies. A higher loyalty is at last trumping partisan fealty to a dangerously radical administration.
Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee, one of the most ardent protectors of the administration, was forced to release a report documenting once and for all that there was zero connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, and that the administration had stupidly relied on self-serving ``intelligence" claims from exile Iraqi pretender Ahmad Chalabi and his henchmen. This report was released over the objection of the committee's chairman, Pat Roberts, an ardent administration apologist, because two other Republican moderates, Senators Chuck Hagel and Olympia J. Snowe, voted with committee Democrats that the information be made public.
And on Wednesday in the House, the Republican leadership of a subcommittee of the Government Reform Committee took lengthy and detailed testimony from the Inspector General of the Interior Department on the festering corruption and incompetence at that agency. The administration's plain contempt for the ordinary functions of government and its use of the executive branch to enrich cronies and reward allied industries have become too grotesque even for its usual defenders on Capitol Hill. Even with an election approaching -- perhaps because it is approaching and some Republicans fear for their seats as well as their consciences -- there will be more such rebellions.
The founders of this republic wisely gave us separate branches of government as checks and balances against tyranny. They may not have imagined Dick Cheney, but they were familiar with his kind. The self respect of Congress has been battered these nearly six long years, but it is coming back to life just in time.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
© 2006 The Boston Globe