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.)

The U.S. Military’s Limited Critique of Itself Ensures Future Disasters

War is political, human, and chaotic.  Who knew?
War is political, human, and chaotic. Who knew?

W.J. Astore

In the New York Times on July 20, Major General H.R. McMaster penned a revealing essay on “The Pipe Dream of Easy War.”  McMaster made three points about America’s recent wars and military interventions:

1.  In stressing new technology as being transformative, the American military neglected the political side of war.  They forgot their Clausewitz in a celebration of their own prowess, only to be brought back to earth by messy political dynamics in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

2.  Related to (1), the U.S. military neglected human/cultural aspects of war and therefore misunderstood Iraqi and Afghan culture.  Cultural misunderstandings transformed initial battlefield victories into costly political stalemates.

3.  Related to (1) and (2), war is uncertain and unpredictable.  Enemies can and will adapt.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these points, or in the general’s broad lesson that “American forces must cope with the political and human dynamics of war in complex, uncertain environments. Wars like those in Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be waged remotely.”

The last sentence is a dig at the Air Force and an argument for the continuing relevance of ground forces, which is unsurprising coming from an Army general who commands Fort Benning in Georgia.

But the sum total of McMaster’s argument is remarkably banal.  Yes, war is political, human, and chaotic.  Did our military professionals and civilian experts really forget this before making their flawed decisions to go to war after 9/11?

McMaster ends his critique with a few words of praise for the U.S. military’s adaptability.  The usual refrain: We messed up, but we learned from our mistakes, and are ready to take on new challenges, as long as the department of defense remains fully funded, and as long as America puts its faith in men like McMaster and not in machines/technology.

If those are the primary lessons our country should have learned since 9/11, we’re in big, big trouble.

So, here are three of my own “lessons” in response to McMaster’s.  They may not be popular, but that’s because they’re a little more critical of our military – and a lot more critical of America.

1.  Big mistakes by our military are inevitable because the American empire is simply too big, and American forces are simply too spread out globally, often in countries where the “ordinary” people don’t want us.  To decrease our mistakes, we must radically downsize our empire.

2.  The constant use of deadly force to police and control our empire is already sowing the deadly seeds of blowback.  Collateral damage and death of innocents via drones and other “kinetic” attacks is making America less safe rather than more.

Like the Romans before us, as Tacitus said, we create a desert with our firepower and call it “peace.”  But it’s not peace to those on the receiving end of American firepower.  Their vows of vengeance perpetuate the cycle of violence.  Add to this our special forces raids, our drone strikes, and other meddling and what you get is a perpetual war machine that only we can stop.  But we can’t stop it because like McMaster we keep repeating, “This next war, we’ll get it right.”

3.  We can’t defeat the enemy when it is us.  Put differently, what’s the sense in defeating the enemies of freedom overseas at the same time as our militarized government is waging a domestic crackdown on dissent (otherwise known as freedom of speech) in the “homeland”?

Articles like McMaster’s suggest that our military can always win future wars, mainly by fighting more intelligently.  These articles never question the wisdom of American militarization, nor do they draw any attention to the overweening size and ambition of the department of defense and its domination of American foreign policy.

Indeed, articles like McMaster’s, in reassuring us that the military will do better in the next round of fighting, ensure that we will fight again – probably achieving nothing better than stalemate while wasting plenty of young American (and foreign) lives.

Is it possible that the best way to win future wars is to avoid them altogether?  As simple as that question is, you will rarely hear it asked in the halls of power in Washington.