Senator Tom Cotton, the first-term Republican senator from Arkansas, is a retired Army captain. He deployed to Iraq in May 2006 with the 101st Airborne, during the time of Gen. George Casey’s catastrophic strategy; Cotton left before the “surge” and Gen. David Petraeus’s brilliant winning-hearts-and-minds strategy. Cotton then served with the storied Old Guard, the regiment best known for the ceremonies it performs at Arlington National Cemetery. (He discussed the latter experience in a Bulwark podcast last year.) In 2008-09, he deployed to Afghanistan, where he was involved in counterinsurgency and reconstruction planning. Since coming to the Senate in 2015, Cotton has served on the Armed Services Committee.
Someone with so much experience should not speak as stupidly and crudely about the military as Cotton did on Monday.
Three days after President Trump tweeted that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” Cotton told a Fox News interviewer that “if local law enforcement is overwhelmed, if local politicians will not do their most basic job to protect our citizens, let’s see how these anarchists respond when the 101st Airborne is on the other side of the street.”
Cotton then doubled down on Twitter:
And, if necessary, the 10th Mountain, 82nd Airborne, 1st Cav, 3rd Infantry—whatever it takes to restore order. No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.
The phrase “no quarter” means killing enemy combatants rather than taking any prisoners.
Cotton was immediately and deservedly dunked on by everybody. David French pointed out that a no-quarter order would be a war crime. Eliot Cohen, with his typical dry wit, tweeted: “Also a bit odd for a Senator from Arkansas to recommend ‘no quarter’ for ‘insurrectionists.’ William Tecumseh Sherman did not go that far.”
Cotton’s remarks on Monday suggest that, notwithstanding his service in Iraq, he did not learn the fundamental lesson of that war’s two strategies, one failed and the other successful: Just shooting at insurgents does not reestablish order, it adds gasoline to the flame.
At the risk of oversimplifying, our strategy against the insurgency in Iraq was for about three years one of Let’s see how tough these insurgents and terrorists are against the might of the American military! It turned out they were quite tough. Then Petraeus came. The Army’s foremost expert on counterinsurgency—he literally wrote the book on the subject—Petraeus aimed to win the hearts and minds of the local population, and even insurgents—remember the Sunni awakening?—by being the good guys. We won the war and Petraeus became a national hero.
In Iraq’s neighboring country, Iran’s state TV has been showing the suppression of the protests in the United States nonstop for the past few days. Has Cotton—who is way too enthusiastic about going to war with Iran—thought for a second about whether giving “no quarter” to American citizens will help our troops to be welcomed by the Iranian population if we ever invade Iran, or any other country? Would any foreign people think of our military as liberators if they see the U.S. Army shooting at fellow Americans?
American troops are not any less human than the rest of us are. They are not robots. You can’t ask them to deploy to American cities and give “no quarter” to fellow Americans—which, if taken literally, would mean shooting them in cold blood—like it’s another day in the week.
There are other considerations, as well. The U.S. military is obliged to follow the orders of the commander-in-chief, with one caveat: The orders must be lawful. And a “no quarter” order would violate Geneva Convention IV and Hague Convention—treaties that were ratified by the U.S. Congress, which means they are the law of the land. The prohibition of “no quarter” orders spelled out in those treaties, it should be noted, was influenced by a general order signed by President Lincoln during the Civil War—General Order No. 100, also known as the Lieber Code.
So if we are to take Cotton as meaning what he wrote, he is suggesting that the U.S. military should commit war crimes—against American citizens.
Imagine how Americans would react to the sight of the U.S. military shooting at Americans in cold blood. It is often noted that Americans nowadays lack faith in nearly all institutions—except for the military. This would be one sure way of leveling the field.
If Cotton meant what he wrote, then he has a dangerous fundamental misconception of the U.S. military, and he should be removed from the Senate Armed Services Committee and voted out of office.
And if Cotton didn’t mean what he wrote—if he was speaking loosely or figuratively, despite being a policymaker who understands the power of words, despite being a combat veteran who understands the meaning of the terms he used, despite being a law school graduate trained to think and speak with rigor—then he should clarify and apologize. Right away.