Saturday, April 23, 2005

Torture in the gulag: I wish I could be surprised at stuff like this

"I wouldn't join the International Criminal Court. It's a body based in The Hague where unaccountable judges and prosecutors can pull our troops or diplomats up for trial.

"And I wouldn't join it. And I understand that in certain capitals around the world that that wasn't a popular move. But it's the right move not to join a foreign court that could -- where our people could be prosecuted." - George W. Bush 09/30/04

"Men without conscience are capable of any cruelty the human mind can imagine." - Dick Cheney 01/26/05

From Saturday's Washington PostTop Army Officers Are Cleared in Abuse Cases: One General Will Likely Get Reprimand Over Abu Ghraib by Josh White 04/23/05.

Can you say "credibility gap"?  Another useful phrase from the Vietnam War days.

And when the generals eventually figure out that nobody believes them anymore except for blowhard white guys who love to watch wars on FOX, they'll say: it's the wicked media that did it to us!  And the gutless civilians lost the Will to support us in 20 years of war in Iraq.  Victory was just around the corner.  We had reached the tipping point.  We had broken the back of the resistance.  We never lost a battle to The Terrorists.

The Iraq War has created some incredible new problems for the US military, the Army in particular.  But some problems like this that are emerging are problems that were there already.  Bush's little Mesopotamian adventure has just brought them out.

There is a similarity here to the problems the Catholic Church has had in dealing with the scandals over priest sexual abuse.  Both the Church and the Army are authoritarian institutions, the latter with more justification than the former.  Actually, the Army has more democratic controls on the selection of its leadership than the Catholic Church does, but I'm  not trying to make some academic comparison here.  Authoritarian institutions like these have a strong tendency to want to "do their own dirty laundry," which often translates into not much more than hiding the dirty laundry from outsiders.

I wish we could say that it always catches up to them  But that isn't true.  But it often does catch up to them, often with major negative consequences.

The torture scandal isn't going away.  I know I say that in practically every post on the subject, but it's true.  The implications are too far-reaching.   The Army's willingness to cover up for senior officers on this only postpones the reckoning.

White writes in the Post article:

The investigation essentially found no culpability on the part of Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez and three of his senior deputies, ruling that allegations they failed to prevent or stop abuses were "unsubstantiated." A military source said a 10-member team began the investigation in October and based its conclusions on the 10 major defense inquiries into abuse and interviews with 37 senior officials, including L. Paul Bremer, who led the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. The report has not been released.

Of those 10 major inquiries, the inspector general's was designed to be the Army's final word on the responsibility of senior leadership in relation to the abuses. It was the only investigation designed to assign blame, if any, within the Army's senior leadership. Questions about Sanchez's and other senior leaders' role in approving harsh interrogation tactics -- including the use of military working dogs to intimidate detainees -- have swirled since photographs of abuse at Abu Ghraib surfaced almost exactly a year ago.

He also recalls some of the other investigations:

Top-level investigations into the abuses have largely stopped short of calling them systemic, but some found major problems with the way detention operations in Iraq were conducted after President Bush declared major combat in Iraq over in April 2003. A lack of planning and resources, the reports generally agreed, led to the U.S. detention system getting overwhelmed and fostered frustration with a lack of actionable intelligence with which to fight the insurgency. In addition, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have since proposed an overhaul of the military's wartime detention operations.

Previous inquiries have addressed the roles of distinct military disciplines at the prisons. Some of the probes identified senior leadership as being indirectly responsible for the climate that led to abuses but made no findings on culpability. Responsibility for such findings was given to the Army inspector general.

A comprehensive report about Abu Ghraib by Maj. Gen. George R. Fay concluded that there were failures at the highest levels, mainly in oversight lapses. He found that Sanchez and his deputy "failed to ensure proper staff oversight of detention and interrogation operations" and "reacted inadequately" to warnings that abuse was occurring.

This latest decision just reeks of a whitewash.  Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John Warner is quoted as blustering about getting to the bottom of it all and making sure responsibility is clarified at all levels of command, and blah, blah.  When  some Republican-dominated Congressional committee actually does a serious investigation, then I'll start to take hot air like this a bit more seriously.

Telford Taylor, chief counsel for the US in the Nuremberg war crimes prosecution, dealt with the application of the laws of war (international and US) in his 1970 book Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy.  In the first chapter, he discusses the purpose of laws of war.  His reasoning is important in understanding why the torture scandal is so corrosive, and why the apparent Army coverup is a very disturbing sign.  Why do we need laws of war?

The first [reason] is strictly pragmatic: They work. Violated or ignored as they often are, enough of the rules are observed enough of the time so that mankind is very much better off with them than without them. The rules for the treatment of civilian populations in occupied countries are not as susceptible to technological change as rules regarding the use of weapons in combat.  If it were not regarded as wrong to bomb military hospitals, they would be bombed all of the time instead of some of the time.

It is only nececssary to consider the rules on taking prisoners in the setting ofthe Second World War to realize the enormous saving of life for which they have been responsible. Millions of French, British, German and Italian soldiers captured in Western Europe and Africa  were treated in general compliance with the Hague and Geneva requirements, returned home at the end of the war. German and Russian prisoners taken on the eastern front did not fare nearly so well and died in captivity by the millions, but many survived. Today there is surely much to criticize about the handling of prisoners on both sides of the Vietnam war, but at least many of them are alive, and that is because the belligerents are reluctant to flout the laws of war too openly.  (my emphasis)

The Bush administration's decision to ignore the considerations of American and international laws in a number of ways in the Iraq War and the so-called "war on terror," including the torture of prisoners, was surely based in part on the arrogant assumption promoted by "neoconservatives" that because the United States is the most powerful nation in the world, we don't have to worry with such things.  Laws are only for lesser peoples and countries.

Taylor mentioned a second consideration which is also a very important one.  And, like the first, it's not one that our FOX war lovers stop to thing about:

Another and, to my mind, even more important basis of the laws of war is that they are necessary to diminish the corrosive effect of mortal combat on the participants. War does not confer a license to kill for personal reasons - to gratify perverse impulses, or to put out of the way anyone who appears obnoxious, or to whose welfare the soldier is indifferent. War is not a license at all, but an obligation to kill for reasons of state; it does not countenance the infliction of suffering for its own sake or for revenge.

Unless troops are trained and required to draw the distinction between military and nonmilitary killings, and to retain such respect for the value of life that unnecessary death and destruction will continue to repel them, they may lose the sense for that distinction for the rest of their lives. The consequence would be that many returning soldiers wouldbe potential murderers.

As Francis Lieber put the matter in his 1863 Army regulations: "Men who take up arms against one another in public war do not cease on this account to be moral beings, responsible to one another and to God." (my emphais)

To illustrate Taylor's point, think of this: would you want to date a soldier you knew had served at Abu Ghuraib?  Would you feel comfortable knowing that a friend or a family member was doing so?  It would be wrong to assume that every soldier that served at Abu Ghuraib tortured prisoners.  But most of us would wonder, if they might have been involved in something that off-the-tracks, how do I know they will behave within normal boundaries now?

And our blowhard domestic war-lovers aren't going to care about the soldiers who come back and have to struggle with problems like this.  Who find they can't control their tempers properly, or who struggle to respond appropriately to the everyday stresses of civilian life.  The Bush policies are creating a hell for many of our soldiers that is not going away when they come home.  Or, in many cases, even years from now when some subsequent administration decides to declare victory in Iraq and bring the remaining troops home.

Maintaining the boundaries that are incorporated in laws and war and rules of engagement, like the laws against torture, is a very important consideration, difficult as that may be in wartime.  Because, as Dark Lord Dick Cheney says, "Men without conscience are capable of any cruelty the human mind can imagine." I regard Dick Cheney as an authority in speaking on this matter. Creating conditions that undermine the restraints of conscience, as the torture policy of today does, threatens to release those impulses in other ways, as well.

The torture scandal, along with other indications that military discipline has seriously slipped in some ways in the Iraq War, is not going away.


purcellneil said...


The military is infected with the Bush disease.  They believe they can lie through their teeth and get away with it -- just bluff and deny and eventually the clock runs out and people move on.  The notion that Janet Karpinski and some non-coms and privates are the only folks culpable in this scandal defies any rational consideration of such a widespread problem.

The fact that these abuses were identified by the Red Cross and communicated to the highest levels, including Rummy and Colin Powell, and that the abuses continued for months afterward, is proof enough that this stinking pile of crap cannot be laid on the shoulders of those who have so far been named.

If they get away with this whitewash, the cover-up itself will spread the dishonor to every American, and especially to those who wear our uniforms in the military.  To protect the culpable, we will besmirch the good name and honor of men and woman who have acted nobly and deserve better from us.

It is exactly like the experience of the Church -- ask any priest and he will tell you how the cover-ups have created the impression that all the priests are dirty.  This whitewash will spread the guilt and the shame, and will make further abuses more likely.  

Without accountability, the scandals will just continue.  I wonder how bad it will have to get before Americans wake up.


bmiller224 said...

And there's the more immediate question, will the Republican Congress ever wake up?

Will the so-called moderates - "maverick straight-talker" McCain, "realist" Dick Lugar and the rest of the handful of alleged moderate Republicans decide to take an active and vocal stance against the administration's torture policies?  It hasn't happened yet, I'm sorry to say. - Bruce