America's Credibility and the Torture Scandal


The lessons of Vietnam seem lost in the story of the second Iraq war. In
Hanoi stands an institution with a title that translates roughly to the
American war crimes against the Vietnamese Museum. Inside are walls of
grisly photographs of the massacre at My Lai and pictures of American
soldiers torturing and otherwise abusing Vietnamese prisoners. The pictures
bear an uncomfortable resemblance to recent photos of the goings-on in Abu
Ghraib Prison in Iraq. In the first instance, the American leadership
expressed a fear that in Vietnam they were facing some kind of global
crisis, that the civil war in Vietnam was really a proxy war between the
communists and capitalists and that if Vietnam were to fall there would be
a "domino" effect throughout Southeast Asia. Therefore, American
involvement in that sad conflict was intended to make the world safe for -
democracy, capitalism, freedom, etc.

In a documentary film currently circulating in movie theaters, "The Fog of
War", Robert MacNamara, one of the major architects of Vietnam, makes-some
startling statements. He said he now thinks they made a mistake in Vietnam,
that the war wasn't about world communism and Soviet domination but rather
about Vietnamese nationalism. The Vietnamese could claim they had fought
against outside invaders for a thousand years, from the Chinese to the
Japanese to the French and now, the Americans. Americans were so fixated on
their own fears and beliefs that they could not countenance the motives and
aspirations of others.

Documentary films are replacing the nightly news as credible sources of the
big picture, and far too few people make a point of seeing them. The U.S.
military has made an industry of image and news distortion and the mass
media has cooperated to the extent that some stories, most notably the
heroics and heroic rescue of Private Jessica Lynch, were created and
promoted by a military disinformation service. Remember when the Bush
administration talked about the need to create such a service to make
friends and influence people in the Arab world? Guess what. There's a very
effective service of that kind to confuse and disorient Americans about the
war in Iraq. A documentary film, doubtless to be seen by few Americans,
will circulate later this year with the story. Here's a fact to help people
think about how the Vietnam War relates to Iraq Two: in the 20th century,
every nationalistic insurgency movement to expel invaders was successful.

Early in the War on Terror, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld announced that the
rules of the Geneva Convention were not going to be applied to prisoners in
American custody who were deemed to be stateless enemy combatants. (Not
long after the hostilities in Iraq, the U.S. complained that the television
network, Al Jazeera, was violating the Geneva Convention by showing
pictures of captured American combat personnel. The Geneva Conventions,
apparently, apply to other people, not the United States.) The Washington
Post announced on May 9 that in April 2003, the highest levels of the
Pentagon had approved 20 "psychologically stressful" interrogation methods,
newspeak for "torture." Various human rights organizations began
complaining that abuse, even torture, was being used at Guantanamo shortly
after prisoners captured in Afghanistan were taken there. Meanwhile, in the
United States, Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz was advocating torture
as a way of getting information, citing a case in which it had apparently
worked with one prisoner.

It is one thing when an under-educated unsophisticated windbag neo-con like
Rush Limbaugh characterizes the torture at Abu Ghraib as "blowing off
steam" while he verbally denigrates Arabs (see, but it is reprehensible that
a Harvard law professor would actually advocate the use of torture. I was
squeamish about Dershowitz's work when he made a movie boasting about the
time he helped free a millionaire, who was probably guilty, from a murder
charge, but I would have expected him to read the non-fiction material on
the history of torture. Had he bothered to do so, he would have found that
generally torture has not been a reliable way of extracting useful
information from people. The vast majority of the time, the person being
tortured tells the torturer what he or she wants to hear. Psycho-sexual
torture, designed to humiliate, probably is even less effective as a way of
getting information. Torture is used by tyrants to intimidate, not to get

When the pictures from the Iraq prison broke, Rumsfeld made statements in
which he indicates he is most sorry the information got out and then tried
to distance himself from any real consequences of these actions by saying
it was the work of a few isolated soldiers. No, it wasn't. It was systemic
(which is why so many prisoners were wearing burlap sacks, requisitioned by
someone, with only one viable purpose), it was part of a policy he
announced, and it is the single action most likely to place American
military and civilians at risk. Capture is almost certain to mean tit for

Before we consider whether torture should ever be used, we should
acknowledge that the U.S. military concedes that a high percentage of those
arrested and subjected to abuse were released because they were innocent.
There are people, we are now seeing, in the U.S. government, its
administration, and in the courts (and on Fox) who have no problem
torturing innocent people. The hot-button question, which has not
apparently happened in a real-life situation in the War on Terror: if you
had a prisoner who you had reason to believe had knowledge of an eminent
plot to bomb and kill large numbers of innocent people, are you justified
using torture to get the information to save their lives? This sounds like
one of those college ethics questions, but OK, let's take it seriously.
First, no matter whether it's right or wrong, someone would make the
decision to use it. It might, or it might not, save lives. Probably won't.
People who are patriotic, or simply dedicated, claim to be willing to
sacrifice for their country, and here's a good place to do it. A person who
uses torture should know there are consequences - penalties - which could
and should include criminal indictments, civil liabilities, disgrace,
dismissal forever from government service. If you are certain enough that
torture has to be done, then you are willing to pay whatever the price is.
If not, don't do it.

And you and I know that if someone tortured someone and got the information
and prevented the bombing, no jury would send them to jail, or award their
victim, or anything like that. But if the torturer is wrong, they should
pay a price. It's the kind of decision that demands it. People won't go
around torturing other people very much if they think there will be
consequences. The soldiers at Abu Ghraib did not think there would be
penalties nor did their superiors. In addition, we are about to hear more
about the mercenaries who make big bucks at taxpayer expense and who do a
lot of the dirty work, including torture. They, some think, are beyond the
reach of U.S. law. The Bush administration learned nothing from the Vietnam
War, and they learned nothing from the Philippines War either.