American Torture

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U.S. troops use the “water cure” in the Philippines, 1902

W.J. Astore

Back in 2009, I wrote a few articles on torture during the Bush/Cheney administration.  With Barack Obama elected on a vague platform of hope, change, and transparency, there was a sense torture would be outlawed and torturers would be called to account.  Obama did sign an executive order to outlaw torture — which really meant nothing more than that the U.S. would abide by international treaties and follow international law with respect to torture — but torturers were never called to account.  The failure to do so has left us with a new president, Donald Trump, who says he supports torture (though his Defense Secretary, James Mattis, does not), and a person nominated to head the CIA who enabled torture and helped to cover it up.

Here are a few points I made back in 2009.  We should consider these as Congress debates whether to place the CIA in the hands of a torturer.

Recently [2009] in the New York Times, Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti showed that the Bush administration, the CIA, and the Senate and House Intelligence Committees failed to ask for any historical context before approving so-called “harsh interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding, in 2002.  No one apparently knew, or wanted to know, that the U.S. had defined waterboarding as torture and prosecuted it as a war crime after World War II.  Did our leaders think the events of 9-11 constituted an entirely new reality, one in which historical precedent was rendered nugatory?

Perhaps so, but their failure to ask historically-based questions also highlights the narrowness of their intellectual training.  Like the accused Nazi judges before the bar in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), they asked themselves only what the law is (or what it became under John Ashcroft and John Yoo), not whether it is just.  If a legal brief authorized brutal methods such as waterboarding, who were they to question, let alone challenge, the (freshly minted) legal opinion?

Clearly, the leaders making and implementing decisions on torture constituted a single, self-referencing, self-identified Washington elite almost entirely divorced from thinking historically, let alone tragically.  And because they could think neither historically nor tragically, they found false comfort in picturing themselves as stalwart defenders of the nation, not recognizing the mesmerizing power of vengeance and hate.

Our elected officials who find history books too onerous would do well to invest three hours of their time to watch Judgment at Nuremberg.  They might learn that a compromised judiciary will uphold any action — discriminatory race laws, involuntary sterilization, even mass murder — all in the name of defending the people from supposedly apocalyptic threats.

Indeed, defending the country from apocalyptic threats is a popular line for those wishing to uphold the Bush Administration’s policy on torture.  After the tragedy of 9/11, and subsequent panic in the wake of Anthrax attacks, our leaders were compelled to “take the gloves off” in our defense, even compelled to exact vengeance as a way of deterring future attacks — or so these torture apologists claim.

In their haste to make America safe, Bush and Company effectively declared vengeance was theirs and not the Lord’s.  But the human lust for vengeance is blinding, even more so when it’s perceived as righteous.  Here our wrathful lawyers/politicians might consider the lessons of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Rigoletto.  The hunchbacked court jester, Rigoletto, delights in other people’s misfortune, and for this he is cursed by a cuckolded husband.  Soon, his own daughter, Gilda, the joy of his life, is kidnapped and despoiled, the first bitter fruits of the curse.  Despite Gilda’s pleas to forgive the transgressor, Rigoletto, blinded by his own murderous desire for vengeance, sets in motion a chain of events that ends with the sacrificial death of his beloved Gilda and the annihilation of any vestige of goodness in his tortured soul.

In Rigoletto, the desire for total vengeance produces total tragedy.  In Judgment at Nuremberg, man’s ability to justify the worst crimes in the name of “safeguarding the people” is memorably exposed and justly condemned.

What we need today in Washington are fewer leaders who base their decisions on vengeance empowered by legal briefs and more who are willing to embrace the toughest lessons to be gleaned from history and tragedy.  What we need today as well is our own version of Judgment at Nuremberg — our own special prosecutorial court — one that is unafraid to elevate justice, truth, and the value of a single human being above all other concerns — especially political ones.

A full accounting of the torture decisions made by the Bush Administration would serve powerfully to reassure Americans that their government is, in fact, transparent and accountable to the law.  Such a result would be more than advantageous: It would indirectly strengthen our national defense as well as people’s patriotism.  Far easier it is to trust a government that owns up to its mistakes than one that cloaks them in bombast and bromides.

Self-serving bromides that excuse torture as the price of keeping America safe from evil-doers must be dismissed.  Self-preservation is no excuse for torture or similar war crimes.  It’s easier to see the truth of this when you look at the abuses committed by countries other than one’s own.

Think, for example, of Germany in the opening weeks of World War I.  As John Horne and Alan Kramer have shown in German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (2001), German soldiers clearly committed atrocities against Belgian civilians.   But the Germans themselves refused to admit culpability.  As Germany’s Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, explained: “We are in a position of necessity and necessity knows no law.”  The court of history, however, has rendered a far different judgment.

When the argument from necessity failed to convince, the Bush administration disputed whether waterboarding actually was torture, even though American soldiers had been punished for it during the Philippine-American War.  Indeed, even in Nazi Germany, government functionaries tried to fight a rear-guard action against the Gestapo and its use of waterboarding.  In a 1979 article on “The Nazi Concentration Camps,” Henry Friedlander cites a complaint made by the Reich Minister of Justice in regards to a murder in 1934 at a concentration camp in Saxony: “The nature of the assault, especially the use of water torture,” the Reich Minister noted, “reveals a brutality and cruelty on the part of the perpetrator that is alien to German sensibilities and feelings.  These cruelties, reminiscent of oriental sadism, can neither be explained nor excused by even the most extreme form of hatred in battle.

If “water torture” was so clearly illegal and so utterly reprehensible to German legal authorities in 1934, even as they battled the baneful influence of Nazism, how can its true nature remain a matter of dispute among some former Bush administration functionaries?

We fancy ourselves to be a nation of laws that apply equally to all.  If our new president truly stands for hope and change, he needs to act appropriately.  “Hope” in this case means full exposure of torture and appropriate punishment for those who authorized and conducted it.  “Change” means accountability for all, even for (especially for) the highest ranking officials in government.

We need a “Truth Commission” to investigate torture.  Efforts to suppress the truth, even seemingly innocuous ones, like looking ahead instead of back, will only make the eventual revelations that much worse.  Delays in holding people accountable may even empower others to commit new war crimes in our name.  Such are the perils of refusing to confront the truth.

Here, the lessons of the French in Algiers continue to resonate.  Think back to the revelations of General Paul Aussaresses in 2001, which scandalized France.  Aussaresses unrepentantly confessed that, in attempting to suppress terrorism in Algeria in the 1950s, detainee abuse, torture, even murder became routine, first-choice, approaches.  The resort to torture simply begat more torture.

Investigators should look at whether this dynamic also applied to America in Afghanistan and Iraq.  How many of our counterterrorist experts became like General Aussaresses: Self-perceived “patriots” who believed torture and even murder were justified in the name of protecting the state?  After all, if the state’s essential purpose is to protect its citizens, and you’re dealing with an enemy that’s malevolently contumacious, as Al Qaeda appeared to be, what’s to stop avowed “patriots” from torturing suspects, especially when the state’s leaders have authorized harsh techniques and are pressing you for results?

In the case of the Bush administration, not only did torture apparently provide unreliable intelligence: It also abrogated America’s fidelity to international treaties that forbade torture, and compromised our own ethos of truth, justice, and the American way.

And in the case of the Obama administration, its failure to confront the legacy of torture and to prosecute those responsible helped to facilitate the rise of Trump, a man who boasts of favoring torture while nominating for high office officials who served as torture enablers and supporters.

The words “American” and “torture” are linked together.  Isn’t it time we separated them?

Gina Haspel: A Torturer at the CIA

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Gina Haspel: Just following orders?

W.J. Astore

President Trump has nominated Gina Haspel to be the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  Haspel had an important role in the torture regimen approved by the Bush/Cheney administration, and she worked to destroy videotaped evidence of the same.  What does it say about the United States that Haspel is now being rewarded both for enabling torture and for covering it up?

As Peter Van Buren writes at We Meant Well, “Unless our Congress awakens to confront the nightmare and deny Gina Haspel’s nomination as Director of the CIA, torture has already transformed us and so will consume us. Gina Haspel is a torturer. We are torturers. It is as if Nuremberg never happened.”

Back in December of 2008, I wrote about torture for Nieman Watchdog.  The title of my article was “Cheney says he approved waterboarding. Is that the end of the story?”  The header to my article read: “The vice president gave the go-ahead for tactics commonly regarded as torture. Was that a war crime or not? William J. Astore provides some background on the issue and urges the press to show that it too can do aggressive interrogations. And do them now, without waiting for a new administration or a new Congress.”

Naturally, our Congress and the press did very little, and the Obama administration chose to ignore torture, urging America to look forward, not backwards.  Hence no one was ever held accountable; indeed, it was whistle blowers who came out against torture who were punished.

Here is the rest of my article from 2008.  Sadly, over the last decade nothing has changed in the U.S.  Indeed, the nomination of Haspel to head the CIA proves only that it’s getting worse.

Is our sitting vice president a war criminal because he condoned torture?  In an interview on ABC News on December 15th [2008], Dick Cheney coolly admitted he had approved “harsh” and “aggressive” interrogation techniques, notably waterboarding, in an attempt to extract intelligence from known or suspected terrorists, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Vital intelligence gathered about Al Qaeda, Cheney claimed, vindicated his decision, though this is much disputed. Subsequently, Cheney claimed that waterboarding and other harsh techniques did not constitute torture; this categorical denial was balanced by a counterclaim that he would have been remiss had he not authorized aggressive techniques in an attempt to safeguard Americans.

For approving these techniques and for other practices, The New York Times has attacked Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and other Bush Administration officials. Calls have been issued for war crimes investigations. Are such calls warranted? Did Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others authorize techniques that constituted torture, and, if so, are they complicit in the crime?

Here, the Holocaust survivor, Jean Améry, and the political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, offer valuable insights. Améry, himself a victim of torture, wrote about it in At the Mind’s Limits (1980). Torture, he observed, was a monstrous immorality because it violated another person’s body, reducing it to a vessel of fear and pain. Under such distress, the victim confesses to anything, even the wildest fictions and fantasies, as Améry himself did when he was tortured.

In its simulation of death by drowning, waterboarding is intended to produce great fear and psychological dislocation. It may perhaps leave no physical traces, but the mental wounds it inflicts are something else altogether. Their insidious effects on victims were captured by Améry in his conclusion on torture:

Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world. The shame of destruction cannot be erased. Trust in the world, which already collapsed in part at the first blow, but in the end, under torture, fully, will not be regained …. It is fear that henceforth reigns over him. Fear—and also what is called resentments. They remain, and have scarcely a chance to concentrate into a seething, purifying thirst for revenge.

Torture, in short, alienates its victims from humanity and generates (or strengthens) vengeful resentments. Améry carried his own resentments as a burden to remind himself—and us—of the moral enormity of any attempt to demolish another human being’s will through torture. For Améry, such attempts are both crimes and mistakes because they sow the seeds of future acts of vengeance.

A further disturbing insight comes from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1964). Adolf Eichmann, desk-bound executioner and “Jewish expert” for the Third Reich, oversaw the deportation of Jews to their deaths during the Final Solution. A bureaucrat who never dirtied his own hands, Eichmann therefore judged himself to be less than fully responsible for the murder of millions. On this point, the judges at Eichmann’s trial reached a far different conclusion: “the degree of responsibility increases as we draw further away from the man who uses the fatal instrument with his own hands.” In crimes against humanity, degrees of separation from the dirty work only add to the offense.

Waterboarding is torture; Cheney and Rumsfeld approved it; and Améry and Arendt’s reflections suggest the immorality of, and culpability for, the crime. What now? Whether we find this distasteful or not, the press needs to show that it too can aggressively interrogate sources. Rather than waiting a month for an Obama Justice Department or a congressional investigation, the press should challenge incoming Obama administration officials now, together with new members of Congress. Outside legal experts should also be consulted. Does Baltasar Garzón—the Spanish judge who pursued Augusto Pinochet relentlessly—have an opinion? These are obvious leads for reporters.

To strengthen America’s moral authority, we need to reject the idea that demolishing our enemies’ resistance through torture is a necessary price of our safety. Let’s not balk at an expeditious and complete accounting of our mistakes—and of crimes committed in our name.

For Shame, Mr. Trump

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Valor, Mr. President?  Where is yours?

W.J. Astore

Trump has done it again.  At the Pentagon, before a backdrop that honors America’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor, Trump signed an Executive Order on immigration.  The backdrop seemed to suggest that Trump was doing something honorable and brave himself in signing yet another Executive Order.  This EO, as the New York Times reported, “suspended entry of all refugees to the United States for 120 days, barred Syrian refugees indefinitely and blocked entry for 90 days for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries. It also allows Christians to be granted priority over Muslims.”

Last week, Trump appeared at the CIA, before its wall of heroes, blustering again about grabbing Iraq’s oil and boasting of the number of times he’d appeared on Time magazine (more than Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, which seemed to please him to no end).

Perhaps Trump will next appear before Christ on the cross to complain about how he (Trump) is being crucified in the press.

You’ve got to hand it to Trump: the man simply has no shame.  And no taste either.

Trump’s pomposity was captured perfectly yesterday in a quip at my local bank.  I was asking the teller about dollar coins (yes, we still have those), and she showed me a couple. They looked too much like quarters so I passed on getting any.  The gent behind me quipped: “Just wait until Trump puts himself on the coin.”  As I laughed and said words to the effect of, I can see it happening, the gent then quipped, “Trump will be on both sides!”

That about sums it up.  Trump would indeed put his own mug on both sides of the coin.  It would be a clear case of “heads he wins, tails we lose.”

Trump, Time Magazine’s Narcissist of the Millennium

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W.J. Astore

Yesterday, I caught President Trump’s speech before the CIA.  As he stood before the wall of honor, surrounded by the stars on that wall that represent those who gave their lives for their country, Trump deviated from his prepared comments to boast about how many times he’d appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

Here’s what he said: I HAVE BEEN ON THEIR COVER ABOUT 14 OR 15 TIMES. I THINK WE HAVE THE ALL-TIME RECORD IN THE HISTORY OF TIME MAGAZINE — IF TOM BRADY IS ON THE COVER, IT’S ONE TIME. I’VE BEEN ON 15 TIMES. I THINK THAT’S A RECORD THAT COULD NEVER BE BROKEN.

Really, President Trump?  You’re giving a speech before members of the CIA, and what comes to mind is the number of times your own mug has appeared on a magazine cover? And you’re doing this in front of the CIA’s wall of honor, which, according to your own words, is “very special”?

Whatever one thinks of the CIA and its history, one thing is certain from this speech: America has elected an appallingly tone-deaf and callous narcissist as its 45th president.

 

America’s Mutant Military

An Ohio-Class Submarine, armed with Trident nuclear missiles
An Ohio-Class Submarine, armed with Trident nuclear missiles

W.J. Astore

I’ve been writing for TomDispatch.com and the amazing Tom Engelhardt since 2007.  When I wrote my first article, “Saving the Military from Itself: Why Medals and Metrics Mislead,” I never imagined I would come to write 37 more for Tom and his site over the next eight years.  TomDispatch has given me an opportunity to write about topics like the elimination of nuclear weapons, the rise of American militarism, the perils of calling all troops in the military “heroes,” the over-hyping of American military prowess by our leaders, and many others.  In all my articles, I hope I’ve offered a contrary perspective on the U.S. military as well as American culture, among other subjects.

My latest article, America’s mutant military, is a personal odyssey of sorts.  I reflect on how the military has changed since I entered it in 1985.  Today’s post-Cold War U.S. military is, to put it bluntly, not as I envisioned it would be as the Berlin Wall was falling and the Soviet Union was collapsing.  Today’s military still has its Cold War weaponry and mindset largely intact, even as a new “mutant” military has emerged, based on special ops and connected to corporations and intelligence agencies, a military hybrid that is often shrouded in secrecy even as it’s celebrated openly in Hollywood action films.

My essay runs 2300 words, so I encourage you to read all of it at TomDispatch.  What follows are a few excerpts from it:

It’s 1990. I’m a young captain in the U.S. Air Force.  I’ve just witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, something I never thought I’d see, short of a third world war.  Right now I’m witnessing the slow death of the Soviet Union, without the accompanying nuclear Armageddon so many feared.  Still, I’m slightly nervous as my military gears up for an unexpected new campaign, Operation Desert Shield/Storm, to expel Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein’s military from Kuwait.  It’s a confusing moment.  After all, the Soviet Union was forever (until it wasn’t) and Saddam had been a stalwart U.S. friend, his country a bulwark against the Iran of the Ayatollahs.  (For anyone who doubts that history, just check out the now-infamous 1983 photo of Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy for President Reagan, all smiles and shaking hands with Saddam in Baghdad.)  Still, whatever my anxieties, the Soviet Union collapsed without a whimper and the campaign against Saddam’s battle-tested forces proved to be a “cakewalk,” with ground combat over in a mere 100 hours.

Think of it as the trifecta moment: Vietnam syndrome vanquished forever, Saddam’s army destroyed, and the U.S. left standing as the planet’s “sole superpower.”

Post-Desert Storm, the military of which I was a part stood triumphant on a planet that was visibly ours and ours alone.  Washington had won the Cold War.  It had won everything, in fact.  End of story.  Saddam admittedly was still in power in Baghdad, but he had been soundly spanked.  Not a single peer enemy loomed on the horizon.  It seemed as if, in the words of former U.N. ambassador and uber-conservative Jeane Kirkpatrick, the U.S. could return to being a normal country in normal times.

[But it didn’t happen.  With the Soviets gone, the U.S. military itself was now uncontained, and many hankered to use its power to achieve America’s goal of global power.]

Yet even as civilian leaders hankered to flex America’s military muscle in unpromising places like Bosnia and Somalia in the 1990s, and Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen in this century, the military itself has remained remarkably mired in Cold War thinking.  If I could transport the 1990 version of me to 2015, here’s one thing that would stun him a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union: the force structure of the U.S. military has changed remarkably little.  Its nuclear triad of land-based ICBMs, submarine-launched SLBMs, and nuclear-capable bombers remains thoroughly intact.  Indeed, it’s being updated and enhanced at mind-boggling expense (perhaps as high as a trillion dollars over the next three decades).  The U.S. Navy?  Still built around large, super-expensive, and vulnerableaircraft carrier task forces.  The U.S. Air Force?  Still pursuing new, ultra-high-tech strategic bombers and new, wildly expensive fighters and attack aircraft — first the F-22, now the F-35, both supremely disappointing.  The U.S. Army?  Still configured to fight large-scale, conventional battles, a surplus of M-1 Abrams tanks sitting in mothballs just in case they’re needed to plug the Fulda Gap in Germany against a raging Red Army.  Except it’s 2015, not 1990, and no mass of Soviet T-72 tanks remains poised to surge through that gap.

[Along with the persistence of America’s “Cold War” military, a new military emerged, especially in the aftermath of 9-11.]

In 2015, so many of America’s “trigger-pullers” overseas are no longer, strictly speaking, professional military.  They’re mercenaries, guns for hire, or CIA drone pilots (some on loan from the Air Force), or warrior corporations and intelligence contractors looking to get in on a piece of the action in a war on terror where progress is defined — official denials to the contrary — by body count, by the number of “enemy combatants” killed in drone or other strikes.

Indeed, the very persistence of traditional Cold War structures and postures within the “big” military has helped hide the full-scale emergence of a new and dangerous mutant version of our armed forces.  A bewildering mish-mash of special ops, civilian contractors (both armed and unarmed), and CIA and other intelligence operatives, all plunged into a penumbra of secrecy, all largely hidden from view (even as they’re openly celebrated in various Hollywood action movies), this mutant military is forever clamoring for a greater piece of the action.

While the old-fashioned, uniformed military guards its Cold War turf, preserved like some set of monstrous museum exhibits, the mutant military strives with great success to expand its power across the globe.  Since 9/11, it’s the mutant military that has gotten the lion’s share of the action and much of the adulation — here’s looking at you, SEAL Team 6 — along with its ultimate enabler, the civilian commander-in-chief, now acting in essence as America’s assassin-in-chief.

Think of it this way: a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military is completely uncontained.

[And an uncontained military, in a country that celebrates its troops as heroes, that boasts of itself as having the best military in all of recorded history, does not bode well for America’s democratic future.]

Go to TomDispatch.com to read the entire article.  Thank you!

Your Wish Is My Commando

W.J. Astore

Privatization of war is making it far easier for America’s imperial state to wage endless war throughout the world.  Consider the case of Afghanistan.  The U.S. military is allegedly leaving that country, turning the fight over to the Afghan military, trained and equipped largely by America.

Ashton Carter, Ready to Send in the Mercs
Ashton Carter, ready and willing to send in the Mercs — there ought to be Mercs — don’t bother, they’re here

But the truth is different: the U.S. has simply privatized the Afghan War, turning it over to military contractors, secretive Special Forces, and the CIA, as reported in this article by Tim Shorrock, in which you’ll find the following quote:

“If you define combat mission as only having large numbers of US combat troops in the field, doing patrols, and engaging the Taliban, then, yes, it [the Afghan War] is coming to an end,” says David Isenberg, a Navy veteran and author who has been researching private security and military contractors since the early 1990s. But if you define it as continuing to attack and degrade those you consider hostile, via drone or Special Forces or CIA paramilitaries, all of which are supported by contractors, then not so much.”

Not so much, indeed.  The future is indeed bright for privatized military contractors.  So much so that I have a slogan to offer the next Blackwater/Xe/Academi, the next DynCorp, the next Triple Canopy, the next global mercenary outfit:

My Slogan: Your Wish Is My Commando

Your imperial wish is also my profit, but we won’t mention that fact too loudly.

America was not supposed to go to war like this.  Remember our Founders and their ideas on war?  War was supposed to be a terrible decision, hotly contested among the people by their duly elected representatives in Congress.  It wasn’t supposed to be an easy choice made by presidents, with no real input or debate by that Congress.  It was supposed to involve citizen-soldiers motivated to defend the Constitution and sacred freedoms, not pay-for-hire mercenaries motivated by profit and spoils.

But our imperial state knows that it can’t fool all of the people all of the time on the need for endless wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, hence the recourse to wars fought largely in secret by hired guns and CIA/paramilitaries.  The mainstream media, of course, is owned by some of the same corporations that profit from weapons sales overseas, so don’t expect push-back from them.  No — the push-back will have to come from us.  We will have to use all the tools at our disposal to fight for enduring peace.

One thing I know: Without our push-back, enduring (as in endless) war is a certainty for America’s future.

Bonus Lesson: Isn’t it nice to know that this is Ashton Carter’s first day on the job as Secretary of Defense?  And that he’s open to sending more American troops to Afghanistan?  Just the man we needed at the Pentagon.  No wonder he was confirmed 93-5 by the Senate.