Can members of one nation's army kill soldiers of an opposing army? Some people don't think so.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder gave a remarkable speech last week, remarkable not necessarily for its conduct but because Holder felt the need to explain himself.
War is cruel, Civil War General William Sherman once said, and the crueler it is, the sooner it will be over. In other words, the goal is to subjugate the opposition in whatever form it takes. Since 9/11, the United States has been engaged in a different kind of war, one against members of a terrorist group not identified with any single nation.
Last September in Yemen, an American drone launched a bomb that killed well-known terrorist leader Anwar al-Awlaki.
There are civil libertarians who object to killing members of al-Qaida with unpiloted drones. But they were especially upset because, although al-Awlaki was a senior al-Qaida leader, he was born in New Mexico and was, by virtue of his birth and not his allegiance, an American citizen.
Critics suggested the military violated al-Awlaki's due-process rights under the U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment by killing him. They suggested he should have been arrested and brought back to this country for trial.
A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project characterized the federal government's killing of al-Awlaki as a "chillingly broad claimed authority to conduct targeted killings of civilians, including American citizens, far from any battlefield without judicial review or public scrutiny."
The ACLU's contention is, no doubt, sincere, but the organization could not resist shading the facts — al-Awlaki was not just a civilian, he was a leader of a terrorist group that declared war on this country years ago.
In war, soldiers die, and al-Awlaki, whatever his place of birth, was a proud and dedicated soldier in an opposing army.
In Holder's address at the Northwestern University College of Law, he stated that the "realities of war" dictate this country's military actions and that President Obama's status as commander-in-chief is not restricted by the Fifth Amendment.
"Given the nature of how terrorists act and where they tend to hide, it may not always be feasible to capture a United States-born terrorist who presents an imminent threat of violent attack. In that case, our government has the clear authority to defend the United States with lethal force," he said.
Most Americans have no problem with this interpretation of the law. Indeed, to them, it's a no-brainer. They see war as the generally lawless enterprise that it is.
But the critics not only blanch at drone attacks on terrorists, they also interpret the killing of an American-born citizen as the first step down a road of egregious abuse of government power. They are entitled to their view, however unrealistic it may be.
But al-Awlaki was not subjected to summary execution. He knew he faced criminal charges in this country for his terrorist activities, but stayed with al-Qaida because he was a high-ranking member of that army.
Holder's speech won't end the debate on the propriety of military action under these kinds of unusual circumstances. But his explanation will almost assuredly be accepted by those who realize that war is hell and the goal is to make the other guy die for his country or, in this case, his terrorist organization.