IN THE NEWS
[All quotes in this posting come from The Torture Garden by Octave Mirabeau.]
The Occidental snobbery which is invading us, the gunboats, rapid-fire guns, long-range rifles, explosives... what else? Everything which makes death collective, administrative and bureaucratic - all the filth of your progress, in fact - is destroying, little by little, our beautiful traditions of the past.
It’s time to write about That Topic again, which means that the pain in my chest will return.
There's no escaping it. The topic of torture is inherently sickening, and the fact that American soldiers and contractors are guilty of it, in the name of a noble struggle against bloodthirsty enemies, is damaging to the soul.
However, the pain doesn't come because I have to admit that yes, Americans are capable of this kind of brutality. Americans are a nation of ordinary people, and when circumstances conspire, ordinary people are capable of extraordinary wickedness.
Not savages? And what else are we, I ask you? We are worse savages than the Australian bushmen, since possessing the knowledge of our savagery, we persist in it.
No, what weighs on my heart, as I've written before, is the horrid inevitability of the torture story. You could see it coming from far away, growing closer until the infamous photos first appeared. (If more people had been paying attention, they might have heard the first-hand accounts of these crimes long before they saw the photographs.)
Now we have several analyses, from the Taguba Report to the Schlesinger Commission, giving different versions of the same story. However, there isn't any Rashomon-like quality to it, in the sense that the witnesses saw different events. Only the stated conclusions are different—and privately, the authors of these different conclusions may fundamentally agree on how matters at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere spiraled out of control.
For example, the Army's investigations into torture, such as the Fay Report, may turn out to have been unfairly criticized. Accusations of whitewash may be justified, but so might be another interpretation. While the Fay Report may have explicitly ended the chain of responsibility with the commanders running Abu Ghraib, they may have expected an implicit accusation of even higher-ranking culpability to be understood. Frequently, according to the military ethic, a harsh rebuke of a subordinate is in reality an even harsher slap in the face of that subordinate's commanding officer. An officer is responsible for those under his or her command; an official report does not have to spell out what that means in a particular scandal. (Nor do the involved parties in the private sector have to dutifully play the role of scapegoat. CACI, for example, is vehemently denying its responsibility for what happened at Abu Ghraib.)
The mistake that may lie here, of course, is expecting dishonorable people to do the honorable thing. Prior to 9/11, Donald Rumsfeld was bemoaning what little control he as the Secretary of Defense had over the Pentagon. After 9/11, Rumsfeld replaced his shrugs of fatalism with angry fist-pounding. Nothing about Rumsfeld's comprehension of the world affairs or his management skills have changed, however. He may only have become more bellicose in denying that he was the wrong man for the job.
For several moments both of us were the unconscious and cosmic toys of our own deception.
If you need further evidence, look no further than the newest in a string of intelligence fiascos, the investigation into Larry Franklin, Douglas Feith's deputy who now stands accused of illegally passing information about Iran to the Israeli government. Feith, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, heads the Office of Special Plans that created the "B team" conduit for information and analysis about Iraq—and, of course, historically failed. Feith had too few people for a task as large as sifting the data about pre-invasion Iraq, but more important, Feith went about the analysis in exactly the wrong way. In a haste to provide the White House with a cassus belli, Feith and others in the Office of Special Plans doggedly read the most sinister implications into the available information.
If you want to see the cloven hoofprint of demons in this world, you can interpret everyday events—the odd glance from your co-workers, the check that never arrives in the mail, the odd habits of your neighbors—in the most diabolical ways. Saddam Hussein had planted his cloven hoof on the backs of his subjects, but, as it turned out, no stockpile of demonic weapons of mass destruction existed in his arsenal.
Given how Feith comports himself as a civil servant, it should therefore be no surprise that someone in his corner of the Pentagon behaved irresponsibly. What's leaves one speechless, however, is the willfulness with which Larry Franklin, a supposed expert on Iran, repreated the mistakes of the Reagan Administration 20 years earlier—with exactly the same untrustworthy people. Franklin's chief contact was Manucher Ghorbanifar, the arms dealer who, in the Iran/Contra scandal, proved to be a self-important blowhard who led credulous Reagain Administration officials around by the nose. Twenty years later, yet another attempt at "skunk works" diplomacy, behind the back of the State Department and the CIA, has ended up in the same place: exactly nowhere, with Ghorbanifar chuckling at the depth of American gullibility.
There is only one trait which is irreparable in a statesman: honesty! Honesty is negative and sterile; it is ignorant of the correct evaluation of appetite and ambition - the only powers through which you can found anything durable.
Perhaps the defining characteristic of the Bush Administration's foreign policy is its heedlessness. Never mind decades of lessons learned about dealing with the Middle East. Never mind the hundreds of experts in civilian and military portions of the executive branch ready to contribute anything and everything they could to crafting a wise policy for protecting American interests in a tricky, dangerous part of the world. Never mind the information available to anyone who can read a newspaper, do a Google search, or visit the local library, that might point to opposite conclusions than the ones the Bush Administration preferred. The higher-ups have made the decision in advance of any discussion. Either get on the juggernaut, get out of its way, or be crushed by it.
Before anyone gives the CIA another kick in its ribs for what happened in Iraq, look beyond the Franklin incident to other ways the Administration as misused or abused the intelligence community: the Plame scandal; the Chalabi/ayatollah connection; the dismissal of warning signs about Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs…This Administration has a problem with intelligence that rivals any of its predecessors in the last century, if not longer.
I don't have unrealistic expectations of tidiness in diplomacy or war. For example, I know that few military operations are neat affairs—even the most surgical of strikes contain all sorts of incidents of friction at work. Scratch the surface of Operation JUST CAUSE, the invasion of Panama, and you'll find delays in getting the paratroopers to their targets, mistakes about the toughness of the Panamanian resistance, and a number of hasty improvisations.
However, the Bush Administration long ago exceeded its quota of acceptable operational pandemonium. Too few troops for an occupation, too many contractors clouding the lines of command and accountability, too little experience in urban warfare or interrogation, too much anti-American animus from the, too much demonstrated indifference to the Iraqis themselves, too much willingness to blur the lines between Iraq and al Qaeda, too much pressure for "results"…Again, the inevitability of the torture stories is extremely painful to realize, let alone see them unfold.
To take something from a person and keep it for oneself: that is robbery. To take something from one person and then turn it over to another in exchange for as much money as you can get: that is business. Robbery is so much more stupid, since it is satisfied with a single, frequently dangerous profit; whereas in business it can be doubled without danger.
This heedlessness renders any praise of Bush's resolve or boldness meaningless. Yes, he stood at Ground Zero soon after 9/11 and proclaimed that the United States would track down and kill the al Qaeda terrorists responsible. Is that truly how the history of the last years has played out? And how recklessly has the Bush Administration fought the war it thought was the right one, now that the bloody results are plain to see?
The ethic of politics, as Max Weber said, is based on results. Intentions don't matter. Neither does something as ephemeral as "character," except when it contributes to success instead of failure. I personally think that there is an astonishing amount of cynicism, often bordering on nihilism, among people in the Bush Administration. However, my lay psychoanalysis is utterly pointless, as is the choreographed praise of Bush's traits as a leader during this week's Republican National Convention.
The only thing that matters is how we arrived at a point where Americans, either soldiers or mercenaries, tortured Iraqis. Many, if not most, of these men, women, and children, had no information of value. Even if all of them had, the costs far outweigh the benefits. Not only have the various reports on Abu Ghraib produced any substantial evidence that these "interrogations" provided useful information, but no one is even exercising themselves to make that claim. Torture happened; if you'd rather cling to the word "abuse," I'll direct you to the many accounts of the involvement of doctors in torture. When the interrogators take pains to ensure that doctors are present, so that the pain they inflict won't lead to unconsciousness or death, torture happened. When doctors conspire with the interrogators to disguise what really happened, such as the false death certificates military doctors fabricated at Abu Ghraib, torture happened. This was no spontaneous eruption of violence, a kind of wilding on the part of prison guards. This was torture.
What may be as worse as the torture itself is the cynicism of top leaders who refuse to accept any responsibility for what happened—or the fact that it happened during a conflict that had nothing to do with 9/11. Perhaps I'll never have the qualities needed for higher office, but I cannot imagine accepting anyone's applause, as long as the United States' reputation is soiled by torture, or Americans and Iraqis die daily.
You're obliged to pretend respect for people and institutions you think absurd. You live attached in a cowardly fashion to moral and social conventions you despise, condemn, and know lack all foundation. It is that permanent contradiction between your ideas and desires and all the dead formalities and vain pretenses of your civilization which makes you sad, troubled and unbalanced. In that intolerable conflict you lose all joy of life and all feeling of personality, because at every moment they suppress and restrain and check the free play of your powers. That's the poisoned and mortal wound of the civilized world.
I've written some very dour paragraphs here, and I don't want you to leave in a cloud of fatalism. The situation I describe is far from hopeless; the remedies are so commonplace that we might overlook them.
Some of the anguish many feel over the outrages at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere is the knowledge that many people involved believed themselves to be defending our civilization. Worse than some loss of innocence is the degradation or exploitation of nobility that this implies.
At this moment, it's important to ponder the meaning of the words we use, because again, there is power in them that we may not realize. Civilization is one such word. When we talk about civilization, we often mean all the good aspects of our society that deserve to survive and flourish. The word also implies generations of effort and sacrifice required to create a civilization that also deserves to be honored, not discarded carelessly. For example, when someone uses the phrase American civilization, they're not just talking about Constitution as a single document, but also the progress of constitutionally-guaranteed liberties through over two hundred years of American history. Just as we look backward to our heritage when we speak of civilization, we also look forward, hoping that future generations will build even greater accomplishments upon what we and our predecessors have bequeathed them.
Who stands on the ramparts of a civilization, ready to defend it? In part, it's people in uniform, whom we often hear described as heroes. I think that's a grave misuse of the word. Many soldiers, sailors, and airmen have performed heroic deeds, deserving of general recognition as such. No one expects every person in uniform to perform at that level of self-sacrifice and bravery, so I suspect the word hero in this context means something different: a caste of military professionals who have sworn to defend our civilization (in the meaning outlined above). We also expect that people in uniform will fight nobly, honoring the principles of our own civilization, refusing to descend into the casual savagery that's often far too tempting during wartime.
If heroic is the wrong word, then let me offer something equally good as an alternative: chivalric.
Chivalry encompassed as much a fighting style, a knightly ethos, and an expression of generally-held ideals as the way people loosely use the word hero to describe a soldier today. Anyone could, during the Middle Ages as much as in any era, pick up a branch or a rock and lunge at someone. Only a knight could fight in the proper fashion—and only by following several critical steps.
First, the authority waging the war—a duke, king, whomever—had to demonstrate that the conflict fit the definition of a just war. In all honesty, few struggles ever met the Aquinian standard for just war. Nonetheless, everyone generally understood where that bar lay, and how far from it a particular conflict fell. Spiritual and temporal authorities, most notably the Pope, could condemn a war if it fell too far short of the just war standard, and these were no mere words emanating from the Vatican. When William the Conqueror's forces unfurled the papal banner at the battle of Hastings, the Saxon king Harold Godwin knew that the church had nullified his claim on the English throne. According to some interpretations of the battle, Harold was so emotionally devastated that he distractedly and weakly commanded his forces to defeat.
Second, the knight had to have trained both how to fight, and how to live honorably. Knights also took pains to learn virtues other than fighting—piety, an appreciation of beauty, humility, and so forth—that all expressed the values of medieval civilization. Only after years of training and testing could someone take the oath of knighthood.
Third, the knight fought as part of a unit, not on his own. The knight was part of a retinue mustered by his lord. He was bound by oath to answer the call to arms, and to obey his lord's directives during the battle to come.
Fourth, the knight fought in a particular fashion—primarily as heavy cavalry, but sometimes dismounted—with particular equipment. The sword and lance were not the only knightly weapons, but they were the defining ones. Every knight, however, wore a similar suit of armor. His squire and other assistants helped him into the armor, assisted him in mounting his horse, and tended to him after the battle if he were wounded. Putting on his armor, every piece of it—cuirass, greaves, gauntlets, helm, shield, mail—reminded him of the threat he would face from the enemy. When his assistants unclasped and removed his armor, every piece also reminded him of the weight of his responsibilities, of his oaths and the reasons for which he swore them.
One of many myths of military history is that the English longbow ended the era of knightly combat. From Crécy to Agincourt, the battles of the Hundred Years War pitted the English longbow against the mounted French knight—and the longbow won every time. In fact, soldiers of all social classes continued to wear some form of armor on the battlefield for centuries to come, through the early years of gunpowder weapons. Ultimately, however, firearms did render armor obsolete, since even the most impressive plate armor could not stop a bullet.
The day of knightly orders also ended. The growing centralization of the modern nation-state could not tolerate independent military organizations like the knights, so either they were dismantled, as were the Templars, or they faded into insignificance, as did the Knights of Malta.
Chivalry, however, survived, and in its own way, prospered. Today, there is no oath reserved strictly for a small number of warrior nobles. Instead, every soldier in every army swears some form of oath. The fact of the oath itself, as well as the promises made in it, would not look unfamiliar to a medieval person. The requirement that so many people in uniform had to swear it would be a bit astonishing, however.
Chivalry, as part of the feudal order, wasn't merely the emanation of authority from superiors to inferiors. The feudal contract, including the knightly oath, was a reciprocal promise between lord and vassal. If the lord failed to honor his part of the bargain—for example, by revoking taxation rights, land grants, or other entitlements and protections—vassals could (and often did) make their grievances felt, often violently. No one challenged, however, the right of a dutiful vassal to rebel against an unjust lord.
That expectation is not too far from what the modern, unrecognized form of chivalry demands. If young men and women make promises to defend their country and the principles for which it stands (in other words, their civilization), they expect something in return from their leaders—something sacred, of course, which is blasphemed when leaders condone immoral conduct, or order soldiers into wars which are neither necessary nor just. The medievals had no doubts about what should happen next, once a lord failed in his duties to his vassals, or to the suzerain a step above him in the feudal order: either rectify his behavior, or be stripped of his titles and benefices.
Another historical misconception is that Western civilization is the story of a relentless, downward diffusion of power, from unelected monarchies to popular democracies. As I've described some important facets of medieval civilization, they're not too far from what many people feel today. Between the medievals and the moderns, of course, is the Age of Reason, when the principle of absolute monarchy was one of several great controversies. How could anyone trust an absolute monarch, particularly if the sovereign claimed no obeisance to any principles but God and national necessity? Absolute monarchy had its day in the sun (or the Sun King), and then quickly faded, occasionally reappearing in historical hiccups like Napoleon's claim to imperium.
What's the purpose of this digression into medieval history? Just to point out some pillars of our own civilization—the things we dearly value, for which past generations dearly sacrificed, and for future generations we think worth defending from terrorists with boxcutters. My other point is that, as tumultuous as Western history has been, the progress away from bad lords and absolute monarchs has been steady and successful.
I'll also add one other word of hope, by way of historical anecdote. The English could have lost the battle of Crécy, even with the vaunted longbow. The outnumbered, haggard English army had a key ally: the impatience of the French knight. Eager to win glory by cracking some English skulls, the French knights charged forward, crashing through their own allies on the battlefield. Having created havoc in their own lines, the knightly charge, as well as the supporting actions by other French troops, didn't do nearly as much damage to Edward III's army as they could have. In other words, the "flower of French chivalry" fought in a needlessly heedless, self-destructive fashion.
Having learned from the French error at Crécy, we can avoid committing the same mistake ourselves.