Yesterday, Ron DeSantis announced his candidacy for President on Twitter; it didn’t go well due to “technical difficulties.” Something about his butchered announcement is telling. Yet what creeps me out about him isn’t his botched announcement with Elon Musk or even his record in Florida, which is bad enough, but rather his record in the U.S. military.
As a JAG (military lawyer), he seems to have facilitated torture at Gitmo (the prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba) and assassinations by Special Forces teams in Iraq. He was also fond of posing like a combat officer in desert camo holding an assault rifle. I doubt DeSantis was ever truly in harm’s way (same with me, by the way, but I never posed like a commando), but he loves to strike a pose. He even made a campaign commercial based on Tom Cruise’s “Maverick” in which DeSantis, of course, is the “Top Gun” of Florida.
Meanwhile, speaking of image-making, according to the New York Times his wife Casey is cultivating a Jackie Kennedy-like image with her fashion choices (as a former TV news anchor, she knows the power of positive visuals). If image is everything, as those old camera commercials claimed, Ron DeSantis is burnishing his as a warrior-dad, which, I suppose, is better than the reality of a Harvard-trained power-hungry lawyer with no scruples.
There is something “off” about DeSantis, something inauthentic and dishonest, even more so than the typical politician. Call it a gut feeling.
But, moving past my “gut,” there’s the stunt DeSantis pulled in shipping immigrants seeking asylum in Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. People are just pawns in his political power game. Again, not that unusual for an ambitious pol, but that doesn’t mean I want this charlatan to have his finger on the nuclear button.
I see him as a proto-Greg Stillson (from Stephen King’s “The Dead Zone”). A dangerous man. Strange as it may sound, Donald Trump strikes me as more authentic and less dangerous than DeSantis. Which, by the way, is no endorsement of Trump.
Five years ago, President Obama infamously said, “We tortured some folks.” And no one was held accountable; indeed, as Tom Tomorrow put it in a cartoon from that time, “The only government official who went to jail for it [John Kiriakou] was the whistleblower who exposed it.” In the cartoon, Tom Tomorrow has Obama say that, “Still, we must accept responsibility! Which is to say. we must briefly acknowledge the unpleasantness in the upcoming torture report, and then quickly move on.”
And that’s exactly what America did: quickly move on, without consequences (except for Kiriakou). And then candidates like Donald Trump emerged, boasting of how much he’d increase the use of torture. And thus Trump as president could pick Gina Haspel, implicated in the torture regime, as the new head of the CIA. Well done, President Obama.
Recently, one of my readers alerted me to concerted efforts to “unredact” the redacted CIA report released in December 2014, based on open source research and logical deduction by a number of British researchers, concerning extraordinary rendition and black sites. Check out this link https://twitter.com/renditionprjct for further details; the full report (403 pages) can be downloaded as a pdf file at this link:
Here’s the first paragraph of the report, and an excerpt from the executive summary:
CIA Torture Unredacted presents the findings from a four-year joint investigation by The Rendition Project and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism into the use of rendition, secret detention and torture by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and its partners in the ‘War on Terror’. We have focused our efforts on understanding the evolution, scope and human impact of the CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation (RDI) programme, which operated between 2001 and 2009. During this time, the CIA established a global network of secret prisons (so-called ‘black sites’) for the purposes of detaining and interrogating terrorism suspects – in secret, indefinitely, and under the most extreme conditions. As a result, scores of men were captured, at locations around the world, and disappeared into the programme for weeks, months or years on end, whereupon they were subjected to sustained torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
This report, and The Rendition Project’s website (www.therenditionproject.org.uk), provide, without doubt, the most detailed public account to date of CIA torture.
We are publishing here:
→ A detailed profile of the prisoners held within the torture programme, including their nationalities; capture locations and dates; detention locations, dates and treatment; and fate and whereabouts afterwards; → The identity of those prisoners held in the black sites in Thailand, Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Morocco, and Guantánamo Bay; → A detailed reconstruction of the shifting geography of secret detention operations in Afghanistan; → A granular account of the complex network of companies which provided aircraft to the CIA for rendition operations; → Extensive documentary evidence relating to over 60 rendition circuits by these aircraft, which involved over 120 individual renditions; → A detailed overview of complicity by a number of key states, including the United Kingdom and those which hosted the black sites.
CIA Torture Unredacted stands as a comprehensive public account of one of the most disturbing elements of the ‘War on Terror’: a global programme of systematic disappearance and torture, carried out by the world’s most powerful liberal democratic states. In the face of continued obstruction and denial by the governments involved, which refuse to allow for a full accounting of the crimes which took place, we hope that this report will stand as a central reference point for all those who still seek redress and reparations for the victims of CIA torture, as well as some measure of the truth for us all.
Weekends are a good time to sit back, reflect, and think. Here are a few ideas I’ve been thinking about:
1. Remember 9/11/2001? Of course you do. Almost everyone back then seemed to compare it to Pearl Harbor, another date that would live in infamy — and that was a big mistake. In 1941, the USA was attacked by another sovereign nation. In 2001, we were attacked by a small group of terrorists. But international terrorism was nothing new, and indeed the U.S. was already actively combating Al Qaeda. The only new thing was the shock and awe of the 9/11 attacks — especially the images of the Twin Towers collapsing.
By adopting the Pearl Harbor image, our response was predetermined, i.e. the deployment of the U.S. military to wage war. Even that wasn’t necessarily a fatal mistake, if we’d stopped with Afghanistan and overthrowing the Taliban. But, as Henry Kissinger said, Afghanistan wasn’t enough. Someone else had to pay, in this case the unlucky Iraqis. And then the U.S. military was stuck with two occupations that it was fated to lose. And millions of Afghan and Iraqi people suffered for our leaders’ mistakes.
But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of 9/11 was how no one in Washington took the blame for it. I don’t recall any high-level firings. The buck stopped nowhere. Same with torture. The buck stopped nowhere. Officialdom looked the other way, including the next administration under the “change” candidate, Barack Obama. He changed nothing in this area. His mantra about “looking forward” meant learning nothing from history.
It’s this lack of accountability, perhaps, that made Trump possible. He lies constantly and blunders and blusters, yet (so far) there’s no accountability for that either. People just expect our government to be composed of con men and serial liars, so why not just elect one as president?
No accountability after 9/11 and torture led to “no accountability” Trump.
2. Another thought on 9/11: The 9/11 war-driven response was part of American exceptionalism. What I mean is this: America is not supposed to be on the receiving end of “shock and awe.” We are supposed to be the givers of it. As Americans, we were totally unprepared, psychologically, for such a blow. (A Soviet nuclear attack, a million times more devastating, would have made more “sense” in that the danger was drummed into us.) An attack by hijacked airliners, a mutant form of airpower? Well, America is supposed to rule the skies. We bomb others; they don’t bomb us. Right?
It was all so shocking and destabilizing, hence the “rally around the flag” effect and the blank check issued by Congress to Bush/Cheney for what has proved to be a forever war on terror — or something. And now, with Trump and crew, is the new “something” Iran?
3. In our military-first culture, projects like the B-21 stealth bomber are just accepted as business as usual — the cost of keeping America “safe.” We had more debate about weapons systems during the Cold War, when we truly faced an existential threat. Now, weapons ‘r’ us. It’s a peculiar moment in American history, a sort of cult of the gun, whether that “gun” is a bomber, missile, aircraft carrier, etc.
Put differently, our personal insecurities (due to debt, health care, jobs, weather catastrophes, fear of immigrants, etc.) have driven a cult of security in which guns and related military technologies have been offered as a palliative or even a panacea. Feel secure — buy a gun. Feel secure — build a new stealth bomber. Stand your ground — global strike. The personal is the political is the military.
4. If Reagan’s motto was “trust — but verify” with the Soviet Union, Trump’s motto with North Korea is simply “trust.” Yes — it’s a good thing that Trump is no longer threatening to bring nuclear fire and fury to the North Koreans, but his recent meeting with Kim Jong-un, large in image, was short on substance. Will those verification details be worked out in the future? Do the North Koreans have any intent to give up their nuclear weapons? Both are doubtful. So, does Trump deserve a Nobel peace prize? About as much as Obama did.
5. I’ve never witnessed a man destroy a political party like Trump has taken apart the Republicans. It’s a remarkable achievement, actually. And I don’t mean that as a compliment. I was once a Gerald Ford supporter in the 1976 election, and I voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984. (We make mistakes when we’re young; that said, Walter Mondale was an uninspiring Democratic candidate.) I thought the Republican Party had principles; I think it did in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, the only “principles” are money and power, as in getting more of both. If that means kowtowing to Trump, so be it. Kneel before Zod, Republicans!
That’s enough for my Saturday afternoon. Fire away in the comments section, readers!
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  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?
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 , 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 Timeshas 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.
In the crusade against Communism, otherwise known as the Cold War, the U.S. saw “freedom” as its core strength. Our liberties were contrasted with the repression of our chief rival, the USSR. We drew strength from the idea that our system of government, which empowered people whose individualism was guided by ethics based on shared values, would ultimately prevail over godless centralism and state-enforced conformity. An important sign of this was our belief in citizen-soldiers rather than warriors, and a military controlled by democratically-elected civilians rather than by dictators and strong men.
Of course, U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War could be amoral or immoral, and ethics were often shunted aside in the name of Realpolitik. Even so, morality was nevertheless treated as important, and so too were ethics. They weren’t dismissed out of hand.
Fast forward to today. We no longer see “freedom” as a core U.S. strength. Instead, too many of us see freedom as a weakness. In the name of defeating radical Islamic terrorism, we’ve become more repressive, even within the USA itself. Obedience and conformity are embraced instead of individualism and liberty. In place of citizen-soldiers, professional warriors are now celebrated and the military is given the lion’s share of federal resources without debate. Trump, a CEO rather than a statesman, exacerbates this trend as he surrounds himself with generals while promising to obliterate enemies and to revive torture.
In short, we’ve increasingly come to see a core national strength (liberty, individualism, openness to others) as a weakness. Thus, America’s new crusades no longer have the ethical underpinnings (however fragile they often proved) of the Cold War. Yes, the Cold War was often unethical, but as Tom Engelhardt notes at TomDispatch.com today, the dirty work was largely covert, i.e. we were in some sense embarrassed by it. Contrast this to today, where the new ethos is that America needs to go hard, to embrace the dark side, to torture and kill, all done more or less openly and proudly.
Along with this open and proud embrace of the dark side, America has come increasingly to reject science. During the Cold War, science and democracy advanced together. Indeed, the superior record of American science vis-à-vis that of the Soviet Union was considered proof of the strength and value of democracy. Today, that is no longer the case in America. Science is increasingly questioned; evidence is dismissed as if it’s irrelevant. “Inconvenient truths” are no longer recognized as inconvenient — they’re simply rejected as untrue. Consider the astonishing fact that we have a president-elect who’s suggested climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China.
Yesterday, I saw the following comment online, a comment that summed up the new American ethos: “Evidence and facts are for losers.” After all, President-elect Trump promised America we’d win again. Let’s not let facts get in the way of “victory.”
That’s what a close-minded crusader says. That the truth doesn’t matter. All that matters is belief and faith. Obey or suffer the consequences.
Where liberty is eroded and scientific evidence is denied, you don’t have democracy. You have something meaner. And dumber. Something like autocracy, kleptocracy, idiocracy. And tyranny.
I’d never watched a U.S. presidential candidate who scared me – truly scared me – until the Republican debate on March 3, 2016. This candidate literally gave me the creeps. As a historian and as a retired U.S. military officer, his answer to a question on torture and the potential illegality of his orders if he became the military’s civilian commander-in-chief horrified me. The next day, I wrote a short blog post in which I argued that this candidate had disqualified himself as a candidate for the presidency. That candidate’s name was Donald Trump.
What did candidate Trump say that so horrified me? He said this: They [U.S. military leaders] won’t refuse [my illegal orders]. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me. After again calling for waterboarding and more extreme forms of (illegal) torture, as well as not denying he’d target terrorists’ families in murderous reprisal raids, candidate Trump then said this: I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.
As I wrote at the time, “Our military does not follow blindly orders issued by ‘The Leader.’ Our military swears an oath to the Constitution. We swear to uphold the law of the land. We don’t swear allegiance to a single man (or woman) as president.”
“Trump’s performance … reminded me of Richard Nixon’s infamous answer to David Frost about Watergate: ‘When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.’ No, no, a thousand times no. The president has to obey the law of the land, just as everyone else has to. No person is above the law, an American ideal that Trump seems neither to understand nor to embrace.”
“And that disqualifies him to be president and commander-in-chief.”
Yes, I wrote those words just before the Ides of March. And yet here we are, with Trump as our president-elect and, come January 2017 the U.S. military’s next commander-in-chief. What the hell?
Confronted with criticism of his remarks that the U.S. military would follow his orders irrespective of their legality, Donald Trump soon walked them back. But for me his dictatorial instincts, his imperiousness, and, worst of all, his ignorance of or indifference to the U.S. Constitution, stood revealed in horrifyingly stark relief. Little that Trump said or did after this major, to my mind disqualifying, gaffe convinced me that he was fit to serve as commander-in-chief.
Here’s what I wrote back in March about the prospect of Trump serving as commander-in-chief:
Donald Trump: Lacks an understanding of the U.S. Constitution and his role and responsibilities as commander-in-chief. Though he has shown a willingness to depart from orthodoxies, e.g. by criticizing the Iraq War and the idea of nation-building, Trump’s temperament is highly suspect. His bombast amplified by his ignorance could make for a deadly combination. Hysterical calls for medieval-like torture practices are especially disturbing.
Another disturbing tack he took was to suggest that he’d clean house among the military’s senior ranks — apparently, America today doesn’t have enough men like George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, Trump’s all-time favorite generals. Patton was a notorious hothead, and MacArthur was vainglorious, egotistical, and insubordinate. Leaving that aside, Trump doesn’t seem to understand that the president is not a dictator who can purge the military officer corps. Officers are appointed by Congress, not by the president, and they serve at the will of the American people, not at the whim of the president.
Combine Trump’s ignorance of the U.S. Constitution with his cavalier attitude toward nuclear weapons and you truly have a combustible formula. Clearly, Trump had no idea what America’s nuclear triad was during the Republican primary debates, but few people in the media seemed to care. (Gary Johnson, meanwhile, was pilloried by the press for not knowing about Aleppo.) Trump gave statements that seemed to favor nuclear proliferation, and seemed to suggest he saw nuclear weapons as little different from conventional ones. He also repeated that hoary chestnut, vintage 1960, that some sort of “missile gap” existed between the U.S. and Russia: the lie that Russia was modernizing its nuclear forces and the USA was falling hopelessly behind. Again, there was little push back from the press on Trump’s ignorance and lies: they were enjoying the spectacle and profits too much.
When it comes to nuclear war, ignorance and lies are not bliss. Can Trump grow up? Can he become an adequate commander-in-chief? America’s future, indeed the world’s, may hinge on this question.
To hear Republican candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz talk, almost any act of violence is justifiable to defeat the enemy. Trump talks of torture, far worse than waterboarding, and total destruction. Cruz ups the ante, speaking of carpet bombing and making the sand glow, apparently via nuclear weapons. Both appear to treat the enemy as inhuman.
Sadly, for America this is nothing new. Just read Bernard Fall on America’s war against Vietnam. In an article for Ramparts (“This Isn’t Munich, It’s Spain”), Fall wrote late in 1965 that the American military strategy in Vietnam was based on massive killing through overwhelming firepower:
The new mix of air war and of land and seaborne firepower in Vietnam is one of technological counter-insurgency — if you keep up the kill rate you will eventually run out of enemies. Or at least armed enemies. Of course, the whole country will hate you, but at least they won’t resist you. What you will get is simply a cessation of resistance — an acquiescence in one’s fate rather than a belief that your side and your ideas have really prevailed.
In other words, America sought to bludgeon the Vietnamese into compliance, rather than winning their hearts and minds through ideas or ideals.
“But what I really fear most,” Fall continued, “is the creation of new ethics to match new warfare. Indications are that a new ethic is already being created, and such influential men as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson have begun to provide its intellectual underpinning.”
Fall cited a speech at Amherst College in 1965 in which Acheson declared:
The end sought by our foreign policy . . . is, as I have said, to preserve and foster an environment in which free societies may exist and flourish. Our policies and actions must be decided by whether they contribute to or detract from achievement of this end. They need no other justification or moral or ethical embellishment. . .
To keep the free world free, America was justified to do anything it desired, irrespective of ethics and morality. Acheson’s words in 1965 have become the essence of U.S. foreign policy today as advanced by men like Trump and Cruz. In short, the end (a “free” society) justifies any means (torture, carpet bombing, perhaps even nuclear weapons) to preserve it.
Fall went on to cite a Pastoral Letter from French Cardinal Feltin in 1960 during France’s war with Algeria. In that letter to French military chaplains, Cardinal Feltin noted:
There cannot be a morality which justifies efficacy by all means, if those means are in formal contradiction with Natural Law and Divine Law. Efficacy, in that case, goes against the very aim it seeks to achieve. There can be exceptional laws for exceptional situations. . . there cannot exist an exceptional morality which somehow takes leave of Natural Law and Divine Law.
Too often in the past as well as today, U.S. foreign policy has taken leave of natural and divine law. The ends do not and should not justify the means, especially when the means (torture, carpet bombing, and the like) contravene the end (a “free” society based on ethical and moral principles).
Rather than posing as protectors of the free world, people like Trump and Cruz should admit their own amorality. They should admit they see the world as a brutal place, occupied by brutes, and that only by slaying those brutes in a brutish way can America preserve its dominant position as chief brute.
Doubtless many of their followers would still salute them for this view. But more reflective souls would see the honesty of Pogo’s famous insight that “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
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!
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.)