In the end, after a sharp and pretty public debate, George W. Bush and John McCain came to an agreement. They probably hadn't been as far apart in the first place as the media made it sound. But neither should anyone oversimplify the issue of how to treat prisoners of war.
The media, of course, made it sound as if President Bush wouldn't be satisfied until Congress gave him permission to torture prisoners whenever he felt like it. And sometimes they portrayed Sen. McCain as wanting to read every terrorist his or her Miranda rights before capturing him on the field of battle. Neither was an accurate picture-and the fact that the two men and their cohorts agreed so quickly suggests their differences weren't all that profound.
But the treatment of enemy prisoners is a very hard issue-and especially so for Christians who want to live by biblical principles. Just how far can you legitimately go in trying to force an enemy prisoner to cough up vital information? The classic question, of course, involves how roughly you can treat a prisoner who you think has information about an impending nuclear attack on a major city. The variables include many shades of gray. Some physical torture is obviously "rough"; but is it "rough" to deprive a prisoner of sleep-or to make him think he's drowning even if there is no risk to him at all?
As I listened over the last several weeks, my mind kept coming back to two men I know and respect who have some firsthand awareness of the subject.
One of them was a fighter pilot during World War II. After being shot down over Italy, he spent many months as a prisoner of war. On two or three occasions, I've broached the subject-only to get the distinct impression it's not something he's eager to discuss.
He's a brilliant man, and a godly student of the Bible, eager to help Christians develop a consistent worldview. But this, I sense him saying, is just too hard. I want to respect his judgment.
The other man, J.D. Wetterling, served his country a generation later in Vietnam. He too was a decorated fighter pilot. It was only God's mercy, he says, that kept him from sharing a grungy cell with his contemporary, John McCain. "I went through POW training only," Wetterling told me, "but even that was so realistic that the men who played the role of enemy captors had to use an alias, just in case the trainees nurtured a grudge and had a long memory."
But the prospect of spending time as a POW-along with vivid memories of what actually happened to some of his colleagues-has prompted Wetterling to think hard through the years about the issue. "If a war is just," he asks, "and POWs are an integral part of war, what is the biblical/moral difference between killing the enemy on the field and doing harm to him in captivity in pursuit of victory? If inflicting pain on a captured enemy combatant, sworn to destroy my country and its men, women, and children, leads to information that prevents the deaths of hundreds or thousands of its citizens, how can the citizenry be against it?"
Part of what frustrates people like Wetterling is "the unspoken belief, at least among the vociferous left, that America can fight any war with one hand tied behind its back, as we have done ever since World War II."
Or should we deliberately tie that hand behind our backs just to restrain our own evil inclinations? McCain argues that as soon as we lower ourselves to our enemy's ethical standards, we have that much less worth fighting for.
All my inclinations during the recent debate were on the side of giving our military the tools they need for the hard pursuit of victory. So I was glad when analysts said the Bush agenda gave up fewer points in the final agreement than did the McCain plan.
Yet, at the end of our brief exchange, my friend Wetterling sounded pensive: "In my latter years," he said, "I understand much more clearly why old men send young men out to fight their wars." And I reflected on how much there was to learn not from my older friend's words of wisdom, but from his total silence on the matter.