Tuesday, June 13, 2006
Last week came word that the Defense Department was planning to eliminate some parts of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions from its instructions to soldiers regarding the treatment of prisoners. It doesn't like the prohibition on "cruel or degrading" punishment, feeling that cruelty and degradation should be part of the tool kit for every American solider. The State Department is opposing that idea, and it's not clear what the result of that tussle will be -- although how many times has State beaten Defense in a head-to-head death match?
This is not the first time the Bush administration has tried to weasel its way out of agreements signed by previous administrations. It has already backed out of some parts of the United Nations Convention Against Torture (signed during the Reagan administration) on the same basic grounds -- the United States wants to be able to do anything short of killing a prisoner in order to extract information. Always assuming that the prisoner has information to extract, and our record on that is not encouraging.
I have heard the arguments in favor of increased prisoner abuse. This is a new kind of war with an enemy that kills civilians without mercy. This enemy has bombed the World Trade Center; it bombed nightclubs in Indonesia when the discos were crowded; it bombed subways in London at rush hour. It has bombed busy intersections and markets and even mosques all over Iraq. Its own record of prisoner abuse is horrible; it even kills its own people if they fail some ethnic or religious litmus test.
All true. I do not think we should be fighting the war in Iraq; I'm not sure there would even be a war if we had not declared it; still, I loathe the tactics of the militant extremists. I loathe the tactics of the militant extremists so much I want to make sure my side, the one supported by my money and representing my country, does not fall into the same pit of barbarism.
Torture -- and let's call it by its right name, because that's what the Defense Department wants: the freedom to torture -- does not just harm the tortured; it injures the torturer as well. If you listen to interviews with the men and women who were at Abu Ghraib, they were stunned by what they had done. They felt at though they had been reduced to beasts. They thought they must be exceptionally cruel and morally vacant, although human behavior studies have shown that's not true -- under certain conditions, most people are capable of appalling acts.
So the comfortable generals at the Pentagon want to send young (usually poor, usually undereducated) men and women to torture other human beings. They are willing to accept the human damage, not just to the enemy but to their own troops.
Let us cast our minds back to 1941, when the United States entered into war with another enemy. Nazi Germany also butchered civilians. It didn't just bomb a few London subway lines; it bombed England almost every night for nine months. It killed the residents of entire towns in Belgium and Russia and Holland and Poland. It killed its own people who failed some ethnic or religious litmus test; killed at least 10 million Jews and gypsies and gays and ethnic Russians.
Did the American Army win that war? Yes it did. Did it torture prisoners along the way? Maybe a few, but not many and not in any systematic or official way. We spent a lot of money to keep Germans in prison camps, and a lot more rebuilding the nation after the war. We were restrained and we were generous.
Restraint and generosity do not seem to be hallmarks of this administration. Already, after unrestrained bombing in the early days of the war in Afghanistan, we were pulling troops out and reneging on our promises to rebuild Afghanistan so it no longer has to rely on the opium trade. We've decided, heck, let 'em grow it; we'll handle the problem later when the refined product gets to our borders. Yeah, that's worked.
Oh, wait, there's another difference between then and now. During World War II, war profiteers were frowned on. It was not considered cool to make billions off misery and death. Today, war profiteers run the country. One might make the case that this administration is so busy figuring out how to reward its friends and campaign contributors with pieces of the war pie, it hasn't spent all that much time coming up with innovative plans for fighting a war of attrition in a desert half a world away.
Which we'll lose, because we can't even agree on what winning looks like.