Gina Haspel: A Torturer at the CIA

Gina-Haspel-1024-850x672
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.

Torture: A Conservative Defense of Bush/Cheney

Obama

W.J. Astore

About seven years ago, I had an impassioned debate with a conservative friend about whether the U.S. had engaged in torture and, if we had, whether it had been effective.  My position was clear: we had engaged in torture, and it was both wrong and counterproductive.  My friend was unconvinced.  His arguments, which I detail below, provide a contrary perspective on the issue of torture as well as insight into the rationale of those who supported Dick Cheney’s unapologetic stance on torture.

(My friend is now deceased.  I don’t believe he would object to having his views outlined here, but I do believe he would wish to remain anonymous.  I have edited his comments for clarity, putting them in the form of a list.)

1.  Torture. The very word makes us feel a bit uncomfortable. Yet we have yet to come to anywhere near an agreement on exactly what the word means. To some it is hot irons, the rack, and beatings. At the other end are those who maintain the act of keeping prisoners at a facility like Gitmo, or indeed at any facility, is in of itself a form of torture.

I am not in favor of categorically using physical means to obtain intelligence from captives. From the tone of the [White House] memos [on torture], and from what I have read of the views of those in both the White House and the Pentagon, no one there was in favor of that approach either.  That is clearly not in the best interests of anyone. At the same time, it is folly to advertise [to the enemy] exactly what we will and will not do.

Clearly, from the very fact that the memos exist at all, and that questions were asked requiring legal answers, this subject was not approached in a cavalier fashion by anyone [in the Bush Administration].

It was St. Augustine who first offered the admonition that you may not do evil that good might come of it.  But he also said that it is at time permissible to tolerate a lesser evil to prevent a great evil.

2.  Waterboarding did yield results that stopped an attack on US soil. I believe that Cheney is correct in asking that further memos be released that either prove or disprove that point. I also believe that these episodes of waterboarding are being presented [by the media] out of context and without perspective.  In sum, if waterboarding resulted in obtaining info that did indeed foil an operation against the U.S., then I see no problem with having used it.

3.  The Geneva Conventions [on the treatment of prisoners of war] do not apply here. Terrorists are not soldiers of any state.  They do not wear uniforms.  We have a new paradigm to which we must adjust, both in the pure military sense, as well as the way we deal with those we capture.

Are such men to be treated as soldiers?  Are they to be treated as criminals?  Are we to extend such niceties as the Geneva conventions to those who would offer the exact opposite to those who would come under their control?

If we treat all captives as if they were soldiers, under Geneva Convention rules, that would create some problems, and would also effectively end the conversation. There would be no interrogations. On the other hand, if we treat this as a war, and all captives as POWs, then we are well within our rights to keep those same persons under confinement until the war ends.

If we treat these captives as criminals, we have other problems. First, and this may sound silly, but I doubt that they were read their Miranda rights as they were taken prisoner. But if they are to be treated as criminals, then other rules apply as well, and one of those rules is the right for authorities to question them.

As it stands now, how you treat terrorists is open to debate. They are clearly not soldiers. They are also not actually criminals either.

4.  The nature of the enemy: What we have now is a very different paradigm. These are not State actors. There is no fear on their part of betraying their “State,” or of facing consequences relating to betraying the State. There is no “State” in the first place.  These are Islamo-fascist terrorists, who have no state, only a religious conviction from which they draw their motivation.

We also know that they view cooperation and diplomacy and forbearance as weakness.

We know how totalitarian thugs act and react. We know what drives them, and we know what stops them.  We have had ample experience over the centuries.

5.  Abu Ghraib in Iraq, while deplorable, also did not represent an attempt to garner intelligence. And its commander was sacked.  I take exception to any comparisons with such places as the Hanoi Hilton [in North Vietnam]. The objective there was not information, but rather confession.

And what do we do to detainees who, after being treated as “guests,” respond by throwing feces and attempting to assault US guards?  Is no physical response to be permitted at all?

6.  This media focus, some would say obsession, with torture is more about attacking the Bush Administration than it is about protecting the rights of prisoners.

7.  While I have concerns about the prisoners who are the recipients of torture and abuse, I also worry about those on the other side. The act of abusing another human being is not healthy, and leads to many psychological problems. I worry about the effect any of this activity will have on our own people.

8.  The validity of information obtained under torture is always suspect. But we come back then to the very definition of torture. Is the stress of being questioned in of itself a form of torture?  And again, we are not talking about soliciting confessions; we are talking about obtaining and confirming information, from various persons and from different sources. If we decide that we cannot in any way, shape, or form question captives, then we might as well just treat them as we would soldiers. And that would mean keeping them locked up for a very long time.”

If I were to summarize my friend’s views, I’d say he believed that torture was regrettable but necessary to keep America safe, that those who were making a big deal about it were motivated by animus against the Bush Administration, and that those who objected to torture in principle didn’t realize the nature of the enemy, i.e. “Islamo-fascist thugs” who had to be “stopped,” even at the cost of committing lesser evils (torture) to prevent greater evils (attacks on innocent Americans).

And I’d say his views, politicized and biased as they were, were and are widely held in America, which is exactly why the Obama Administration chose not to prosecute anyone for the crime of torture.  “We tortured some folks,” as Obama memorably said, but let’s look forward, not backward.  So, in essence, Obama pretty much agrees with my conservative friend.

Update: Another thought: this debate over torture is much like the current debate over the renewal of The Patriot Act. The Obama Administration is trotting out the usual suspects to argue that, to defend ourselves from Islamo-fascist thugs, we must reauthorize the Patriot Act and consent to unlimited surveillance.

It’s yet another version of “we had to destroy the village to save it.”  In this case, it’s “we must empower authoritarian and secretive governmental agencies to preserve democracy and freedom in America.”  Good luck with that!

The Ongoing Civil War in Iraq: Mission Accomplished?

Yet another "magnificent victory" in Iraq, this time in Tikrit, twelve years after "Mission Accomplished" was declared
Yet another “magnificent victory” in Iraq, this time in Tikrit, twelve years after “Mission Accomplished” was declared

W.J. Astore

American reporting on Iraq focuses on the eternal now, such as the rise of ISIS or recent battles in Tikrit.  Rarely is any context given to these events, and rarer still is any accounting of the costs of war (still rising) to the Iraqi people.

Let’s return to 2003 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  Before the invasion, the U.S. Army War College accurately predicted what was to come.  A report co-authored by Conrad C. Crane and W. Andrew Terrill warned that U.S. forces would have “to prevent Sunnis from fighting Shiites, secular Iraqis from fighting religious ones, returned Iraqi exiles from fighting non-exiles, Kurds from fighting Turkomans or establishing an independent state, tribes within all these groups from fighting one another, Turkey from invading from the north, Iran from invading from the east, and the defeated Iraqi army–which may be the only national institution that can keep the country from being ripped apart–from dissolving,” as summarized in “After Saddam,” a short article in “Primary Sources” in the Atlantic Monthly in June 2003.*

Read that last bit again: America’s military experts stated the Iraqi army had to be preserved so as to prevent Iraq from devolving into factionalism and chaos.  So what did America’s proconsul for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, proceed to do when he took over in 2003?  He dissolved the Iraqi army!  Under the orders of the all-wise Bush Administration.

In a much longer article for the Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows detailed how the Bush Administration went “Blind into Baghdad” (January/February 2004).  Fallows concluded that Bush/Cheney (and Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz) oversaw “a historic failure” in Iraq precisely because they “willfully” disregarded “a vast amount of expert planning.”  Whether this was by design or not is still disputed, but one must recall Cheney’s rosy prediction that Iraqis would welcome U.S. troops as “liberators.”

Hubris is one explanation for such folly.  Other commentators suggest a deliberate policy to destabilize Iraq.  Whatever the case, the big winner of Iraq’s decline and near fall was Iran, followed by various forms of Islamic extremism that arose from the ashes of violence and civil war.

By the spring of 2004, as the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) headed by Bremer prepared to return “sovereignty” to the allegedly newly-democratic Iraq, American officials who hadn’t drunk the kool-aid recognized that civil war was coming.  A friend of mine, an Army major, was at that time serving with the CPA in Baghdad.  He wrote to me at the time that:

“The emperor has no clothes … corruption, private militias, insecurity, and coming civil war [in Iraq] is accepted as given amongst the CPA staff.  The focus is on making some sort of transition on 30 June [2004] to whatever ‘government’ we can get in place by then.  Anything after 30 June is ‘we’ll get to that when we can.’  This whole operation is a train wreck waiting to happen, and the [Bush] administration simply refused to acknowledge it, much less do anything about it.”

Ominously, my friend concluded that “Even the Iraqis who welcomed us after Saddam [fell] have lost patience with us and are pursuing other routes to power and national control.”  This was because the U.S. was throwing its support behind an Iraqi regime “which is seen as completely illegitimate by the people it’s supposed to rule in the name of democracy.”

In short, the CPA and Bush Administration were selling a lie in 2004, and they knew it.  But Bush won reelection later that year, so who really cares if the U.S. lost, in the words of my friend, “serious credibility” in the region as a result?

For informed Americans not suffering from amnesia, the above narrative shouldn’t come as a total surprise.  By its actions and inaction and lies, the Bush Administration brought endless civil war to Iraq.  The U.S. essentially created the conditions for the rise of ISIS and similar extremist groups.  But the U.S. media has cloaked this hard reality in a shroud of myths about the “decisive” Petraeus Surge of 2007 (really a temporary lull in the civil war) or various other “mission accomplished” moments promoted by both Bush and Obama.

Mission accomplished?  A magnificent victory?  Only if the “mission” was the dismantling of Iraq, and “victory” is measured by more and more war.

*The report, dated February 2003, was “Reconstructing Iraq: Insights, Challenges, and Missions for Military Forces in a Post-Conflict Scenario.”

The Torture Was the Message

Proud Acolytes of the Roman God of War

W.J. Astore

Leading figures in the Bush Administration — Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz — fancied themselves to be the new Vulcans.  As in Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and the forge, armorer for gods and mortals.  In the aftermath of 9/11, they didn’t look to Darth Vader in their journey to “the dark side” — they looked to Ancient Rome. They believed that Rome had prospered because of its willingness to use force with unparalleled ruthlessness.  As the “new Rome,” the new hegemon of the globe, America too would prosper if it proved willing to use brutal force.

Call it “shock and awe.”  In the process, they sowed the dragon’s teeth of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and indeed throughout the world.  In attempting to intimidate the enemies they saw everywhere, they tortured widely as well.

In her book Rome and the Enemy (1990), historian Susan P. Mattern noted that:

Rome’s success, its very safety, ultimately depended less on the force that it could wield, which was not necessarily large or overwhelming, than on the image of the force it could wield and on its apparent willingness to use that force at whatever cost.

The American Vulcans, people like Cheney, concluded the same: they had to be willing to use brutal force at whatever cost.  Image was everything.  They had to be willing to project an image of ruthlessness, because the language of brutality was the only language “they,” the enemy, could and would understand.  It wasn’t necessary to sacrifice democracy to defend democracy, since to the Vulcans, America wasn’t really a democracy anyway.  No: America was the new Rome, the new global hegemon, and it had to act like it.

To the Vulcans, torture was not an aberration.  It was method.  A method of intimidation that sent a message to barbarians about America’s willingness to use whatever force was necessary to defend itself.  Whether torture yielded reliable intelligence was beside the point.  The torture was the message.

That’s why you’ll hear no apology from Dick Cheney or the other Vulcans.  They speak the language of naked power. A fiery power that consumes.  And they’re proud of it.

Two millennia ago, in a riposte to Rome’s utter ruthlessness, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote a critique using Calgacus, a Celtic chieftain, as his mouthpiece.  In Agricola, Tacitus wrote:

The Romans’ tyranny cannot be escaped by any act of reasonable submission.  These brigands of the world have exhausted the land by their rapacity, so they now ransack the sea.  When their enemy is rich, they lust after wealth; when their enemy is poor, they lust after power.  Neither East nor West has satisfied their hunger.  They are unique among humanity insofar as they equally covet the rich and the poor.  Robbery, butchery, and rapine they call ‘Empire.’  They create a desert and call it ‘Peace.’

This may not be quite the self-image that America’s new Vulcans had in mind, but it is the reality when you set yourself up as acolytes of the god of fire.  But fire is an especially capricious and elemental force, impossible to master, raging treacherously as it consumes everything in its path.  Beware when you play with fire, for even the Roman Empire burnt itself out.

(With thanks to the reader below who reminded me of the different roles Vulcan and Mars played in Roman mythology.)

More on the Torture Report

An unrepentant Dick Cheney in 2008
An unrepentant Dick Cheney in 2008

W.J. Astore

Six years ago, Vice President Dick Cheney admitted that he had approved waterboarding as one of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Waterboarding had been defined as torture by the U.S. during World War II when the Japanese had employed it (although the U.S. had used the so-called water cure during the Filipino Insurrection in the early 1900s). An unrepentant Cheney claimed that torture had been necessary to keep America safe, and that valuable intelligence had been gathered as a result, a conclusion disputed by this week’s Senate report on the CIA and torture.

Since Cheney’s admission, it’s taken six years to render an incomplete accounting of crimes committed by the U.S. government in the name of protecting America. The American people will never receive a complete accounting of these crimes since much of the evidence, including videos of interrogations, has been destroyed. Other evidence is being suppressed (just as the worst photographs from Abu Ghraib were never shown to the American people), ostensibly in the name (yet again) of keeping America safe from the blowback that would result from a complete accounting.

Who is really being protected here? The American people? Or the people who authorized and carried out the torture?

I wrote the following article back in December 2008 on the futility of torture as a technique and also on the need to punish those accountable for ordering it. However, it already appears that the U.S. Department of Justice has no plans to prosecute anyone for these crimes.

So, after a week or so of media grandstanding and manufactured outrage, this story will fade from view, just as our government wishes it to. Look forward, not backward, as President Obama says. And so it is that the crimes will continue without any possibility of atonement or redemption. W.J. Astore

Cheney says he approved waterboarding. Is that the end of the story?

ASK THIS | December 20, 2008

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.

By William J. Astore

Is our sitting vice president a war criminal because he condoned torture?  In an interview on ABC News on December 15th, Dick Cheney coolly admitted he had approved so-called “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.

Why We Fight? Oil

Pay no attention to the "black gold" in Iraq!
Pay no attention to the “black gold” in Iraq!

W.J. Astore

Rachel Maddow at MSNBC aired a new documentary last night on why we went to war against Iraq in 2003.  In a word: oil.  Bush and Cheney were looking to overthrow Saddam Hussein as a prerequisite to controlling and privatizing Iraqi oil production.  Pre-war planning in the U.S. as well as Great Britain focused on identifying, safeguarding, and ultimately privatizing Iraqi oil facilities.  When U.S. forces took Baghdad, the one building they protected was the Iraqi oil ministry (museums containing priceless objects from the dawn of human civilization, left unprotected, were looted).

This is a familiar story, of course, though many Americans continue wrongly to believe that Saddam had WMD or that he was allied to Al Qaeda (or both).  Watching the documentary, I appreciated the honesty of the Polish government, which admitted that it had participated in the invasion of Iraq precisely to gain access to Iraqi oil resources.  Bush and Blair, naturally, denied any such connection, even as Bush was warning Iraqis not to damage oil facilities, even as Blair’s government was negotiating with British Petroleum on how best to divide the spoils.

When it comes to oil, maybe “The Beverly Hillbillies” song had it right: “Black gold.  Texas tea.”  And whether it’s black gold or the yellow variety, the West has always shown a rapacity for it that borders on the insane.  Just ask the Aztecs and the Incas, for example.

Here’s an article I wrote back in 2012 for Huffington Post on the question of why the U.S. invaded Iraq and not, say, North Korea, which as Maddow points out was identified as one head of Bush’s three-headed “Axis of Evil,” but which unlike Iraq and Iran actually was hard at work on building an atomic bomb, efforts that ended in a successful test in 2006.  But North Korea is not floating on a sea of oil, is it?

Why We Fight? Oil  (written in 2012)

I’m old enough to remember the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and long lines for gasoline in the United States. A joke that circulated among my schoolmates caught the spirit of the moment. It involved calculators, which were fairly new back then for the masses. It went like this: 142 Arabs fight 154 Israelis for control of 69 oil wells for five years. Who wins?

Punch the numbers 142, 154, and 69 into your calculator and then multiply by 5 and you get 71077345. Turn the calculator upside down and those numbers spell out “ShELLOIL,” or so we joked. Call it the cynicism of 11-year-olds.

Thirty years later, as an Air Force officer I recall a discussion of what we should name the operation to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein. Wags in my office suggested the obvious: Operation IRAQI LIBERATION, with lots of chuckles about the resulting acronym (OIL). Call it the cynicism of 40-somethings.

Fighting for vital resources is nothing new in history, and nothing new in U.S. history either. Smedley Butler, the famous U.S. Marine general who penned War Is a Racket, wrote in the 1930s that “those damned oil companies” should fly their own flag — perhaps one with a gas pump on it — over foreign lands that they viewed as their personal property. Call it the cynicism of a retired major-general who twice was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

But is it cynicism — or just plain honesty? Consider the book by Greg Muttitt on the Iraq war and its fallout, which places oil back where it belongs, front and center, in American motivations and machinations. This is hardly surprising, for recall the words of then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz that Iraq floated on a sea of oil, or the background of then-Vice President Dick Cheney and his overweening ambition to dominate global energy resources.

Our nation’s great thirst for oil should come as no surprise to anyone. Even former President George W. Bush gave a speech in which he declared that the U.S. was addicted to foreign oil. What’s surprising is that we continue to wrap our wars in the rhetoric of “freedom” even as we pursue the fix that our leaders believe they need to thrive: foreign oil, and lots of it.

There’s plenty of oil still in the ground in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, and at $100 a barrel for oil and $4.00 a gallon for gasoline, you’re talking trillions of dollars for oil companies over the next few decades.

Considering the vast profits involved, you don’t have to be a cynic to recognize that concerns about oil continue to drive our nation’s foreign policy. But you do have to be willing to face that fact; and you do have to be willing, like General Smedley Butler was willing, to ignore the siren song about waging war for freedom and democracy.

As former President Bush said, we’re addicted to oil. And history has shown we’re willing to fight for it, though the biggest winners may well be powerful energy companies.

Don’t believe me? Read Smedley Butler or Greg Muttitt. Or just ask to see an 11-year-old’s calculator.