How Did Torture Become a “Gray Area”?

For several hours, I have been puzzling over Ulf Kirchendorfer’s most recent post, “Why Torture Is So American!” Irony and satire are sometimes as difficult to understand and to respond to as they are engaging and provocative.

Ulf’s post is certainly very provocative in highlighting the ways in which “torture” may be said to have deep roots in American culture and the ways in which we have been conditioned to overlook the conditions under which many people live and work, which may be said to be tantamount to extended torture. But I ultimately think that Ulf may be conflating brutality and a lack of empathy with torture, when those are more precisely preconditions for being able to torture without conscience.

During World War II, my father served in the Marines and was in the first landings on Iwo Jima. There were 20,000 Japanese on that island honeycombed with tunnels and bunkers, and although the battle line slowly moved across the island, it was never as clear-cut as the lines in many other battles have been. Many Marines were killed or wounded by Japanese who reoccupied tunnels and bunkers that had ostensibly been cleared.

In response to the terrifying chaos of the battle, the Marines begin to rely more heavily on using grenades, satchels of explosives, and flamethrowers against the Japanese. Many of the Japanese were determined to fight to the death, but, at a certain point in the midst of all of that furious carnage, to be Japanese on that island became something tantamount to a death sentence. I believe that only about 200 of the 20,000 Japanese were taken prisoner.

My father spent the six weeks of the battle driving trucks full of ammunition and supplies around that island. More than miraculously, he somehow came through it all without a scratch on him, and he somehow seems also to have avoided any very evident symptoms of PTSD. But, for the rest of his life, he refused to buy anything for himself or for us that was stamped “Made in Japan.” (This at a time when as many toys were manufactured in Japan as have more recently been manufactured in China.)

Certainly, the Marines and soldiers on Iwo Jima engaged the enemy with great brutality and without much, if any, empathy, and in the context of such a horrific battle, such a state of mind may have been very necessary for survival, never mind for the selfless disregard for personal survival by which we define heroism.

In the end, however, one can have a lingering hatred for a fanatical enemy because of his ruthlessness in battle, but one cannot usually condemn him for it morally. On the other hand, what is ruthlessness in battle is sadism when the enemy has been rendered helpless. It may not even make much difference to the target whether he has been set afire with a flamethrower or tortured more slowly in a cell. But it should make a difference to us, to how we view ourselves and judge our actions. To have someone at one’s mercy and to torment him sadistically, regardless of the reason, seems to me to be much different than engaging an enemy in battle. Think of the recent films, The Railway Man and Unbroken, both of which focus on prisoners of war horrifically abused by the Japanese. There is no moral ambiguity in the mistreatment of prisoners that is dramatized in those films. In The Railway Man, the crux of the main character’s trauma, revealed during his return to the site of the camp in which he was held captive, was his extended subjection to “waterboarding” (though the term is a far more recent coinage). In watching even the relatively brief depictions of that mistreatment of him, which was ostensibly intended to extract information from him, it is very hard to see how it can be described as anything but torture.

The distinction between ruthlessness in combat and torture is the basic reason why so many Nazi political leaders were tried for war crimes after World War II but relatively few generals and admirals were brought to trial, even if they were ardent Nazis and instilled or inspired fanaticism in the troops under their command.

What seems to me to be the core problem with our torturing al Qaeda leaders and operatives is that it became institutionalized and routine, rather than, perhaps, a desperate option seized upon in some extreme circumstance. There is no moral precedent for accepting the torture of defenseless prisoners, and it is morally expedient, and not at all morally defensible, to try to redefine what torture is in order to escape the moral condemnation that has always been attached to torture. We cannot appease our consciences by saying that, unlike our enemies, we have simply stopped well short of beheading our prisoners.

I can understand why one might view Diane Feinstein’s announcement of the findings of the Senate investigation into torture as a kind of grandstanding. After all, we have been engaged in these practices for more than a decade, and it does seem that the report formally confirms, rather than shockingly reveals, the scope and the details of what we have been doing. So the report not only seems to be coming somewhat late but also to ignore the fact that almost the entire legislative branch, with just a very few exceptions, acceded to what the executive branch proposed and asked them to sanction. I even think that it is fair to criticize the timing of the release of the report–after the November election and before the GOP’s assumption of the leadership positions in the Senate in January—as politically expedient.

That said, I find former Vice President Cheney’s obdurate refusal to admit to any moral qualms whatsoever, as well as President Obama’s quiet acquiescence to and continuation of morally dubious Bush-era practices, much more troubling than any grandstanding that Senator Feinstein has been engaged in.

Moreover, although I agree that it is the luxury of the noncombatant to judge the behavior of combatants, I see a very disturbing inconsistency in our willingness to bring individual soldiers to trial for crimes committed against Iraqi civilians and our unwillingness to engage in any meaningful national debate over some very dubious exercises of American political and military power. Indeed, suggesting that there is much room and need for such a debate does not, to me, seem at all tantamount to asserting that all, or even most, exercises of American power are morally indefensible–though I am almost certain that someone will reflexively construe it in that way.


7 thoughts on “How Did Torture Become a “Gray Area”?

  1. As I was reading your very interesting take on this gray area of torture, I kept thinking of all those refugee children and families who come to our borders, and who are kept in tortuous conditions: frigid cold; bright halogen lights that shine brighter at nighttime; starved for days, and when food is given, it is awful to the taste, so much so that children end up throwing up when they finally get a decent meal in their stomachs…

    What wrong have they done, I ask?

    And then I keep looking at what you say people think: “There is no moral precedent for accepting the torture of defenseless prisoners, and it is morally expedient, and not at all morally defensible, to try to redefine what torture is in order to escape the moral condemnation that has always been attached to torture.”

    What would you call what the government is doing now at the border, opening up centers like Dilley and expanding Karnes City, so that we have what now seems just like those WWII Japanese internment camps in California? (

    I don’t think we have to go very far to look at torture cases at all, or search out combatants; we see torture daily, and it is being done to children right here. It is reprehensible what is happening, and everyone just looks on and says nothing.

    I am ashamed.

    Besos, not borders,
    Ana M. Fores Tamayo/Adjunct Justice

    • Ana:

      I agree that the conditions under which many of these children and adults are being held are appalling.

      I didn’t address this issue, however, because I was following up on Ulf’s post and so was largely focusing on what he had focused on.

      That said, the conditions under which they are being held probably fall, at least in terms of the moral issues involved, somewhere between Ulf’s point about the conditions under which many people live and work, which may be said to be tantamount to extended torture (to quote my own paraphrase of his point) and our overt torture of prisoners of war–whom we are typically calling terror suspects, even though we have largely abandoned any pretense of treating terrorism primarily as a legal rather than as a military matter.

      The hyperbolic concerns about undocumented immigrants have, of course, become very strangely synthesized with the hyperbolic concerns about all things Islamic. It is a sort of indiscriminate xenophobia that starts with the premise that even though very few Mexicans are Muslims, Muslims might easily pass themselves off as Mexicans–or, even more sinisterly, non-Muslim Mexicans might be anti-American enough to be susceptible to recruitment by Islamic terrorist groups. It is all theoretically possible, I suppose, but nonetheless almost uniformly preposterous.

      In an effort to give these concerns more substance, the Far Right press recently made a big deal about Muslim garments and materials supposedly found just inside the border. But no one explained why Muslim terrorists who were infiltrating the U.S. would wear such clothing and carry such items while crossing the border and then abandon them once they had successfully crossed. Likewise, no one bothered to explain why they would leave those things behind as a sort of calling card, as if to attract attention to their presence and thereby defeat the purpose of having surreptitiously crossed the border to begin with.

      I am guessing that those convinced of this supposed infiltration by faux-Mexicans would counter that all terrorists are not necessarily very intelligent or logical.

      One might just as easily and pointlessly ask why the legislatures in the Great Plains states have been in the forefront of passing laws prohibiting the adoption of Sharia Law. I know that before the region was settled by “Whites,” it was often referred to as the Great American Desert (when “desert” was a synonym for wilderness), but I don’t think that it has attracted any large numbers of Arab or other Islamic immigrants who have somehow equated it with the Arabian or Sahara Deserts.

      Your comment certainly “got me started.”

      • Dear Marty,

        I am sorry I went off topic, and I suppose I better read Ulf’s post; I apologize for not doing so, but these days I live and breathe everything having to do with undocumented students and, from them, the natural progression was refugees and… torture.

        I am glad I wrote you because I have learned a lot from you, especially about Muslim affairs and Sharia Law; I went to look these things up before writing you back. And though your description of xenophobia I should find utterly mind boggling, I actually do not.

        In April of this year, I went to give testimony in Austin, at a Senate Hearing on Border Security and immigration. Of course, I went to speak for adjunct faculty, saying what we needed was money for education, not money spent on more security at the border for militarization, of which we already had plenty.

        The funny thing was that while I was there, several people spoke about the “Muslims” and their infiltration of our borders. I had to contain my laughter, but I see from your comment that many people think this way; after all, these were folk at a Senate Hearing who were supposedly well versed.

        So I went to look this up too. On former US Representative Allen West’s page, it mentioned that Janet Napolitano had confirmed “terrorists” crossing the SW border, that between 2006 and 2011 there had been over 1900 apprehensions of “special interest aliens” at the SW border, and that now these terrorists had been given a special classification: OTMs (Other Than Mexicans).

        Of course, I cannot take this man seriously, but how many do?

        Did you know that all undocumented Central Americans are now called OTMs? (Talk about degrading on all sorts of levels!) I suppose that would include your faux Mexicans too, the infiltrating Arabs! It was the standard irony of the day, at the Senate Hearing, as I stood with Human Rights Advocates from RAICES, LUPE, and Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition, to have these people telling us how OTMs posed a threat to the American way of life.

        Makes you rethink torture, doesn’t it? And xenophobia? Yes.

        Besos, not borders,
        Ana M. Fores Tamayo, Adjunct Justice

  2. Martin, I have to quibble on a few points. On timing, the release was delayed in large part because of pushback by CIA and administration seeking either to stop the release or to prevent certain aspects of the report from being made public. This has resulted in some ridiculous blacking out, for example, of the names of the two psychologists even though that is a matter of public record when people at APA brought them up and wanted them censured by that professional association. Further, there have been Federal legislators complaining about what was being done, but not being able to talk about it because the classified information they have in their capacity as members of Intelligence Committees for example cannot be shared, even with other legislators who are not members of those committees.

    That said, I appreciate this post and have distributed it through my twitter and facebook accounts.

    I would add the following. We executed a Japanese general, Yamashita, because his troops did atrocities in the Philippines, albeit not under his orders or with his prior knowledge. We applied the doctrine of command responsibility. Among the atrocities committed is what we now call waterboarding. I will also note we courtmartialed US personnel who used that technique in the Filipino Insurrection after the Spanish American war.

    On that basis, one has to wonder why the likes of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfield, Gen. Miller, and lots more, are not being charged, particularly given that they signed off on techniques banned both by US law and by multiple international treaties that the US has signed and the US Senate has ratified.

    • Just to clarify, in responding to Ulf’s post in which he keeps coming back to Diane Feinstein, I am acknowledging that I can see how someone might question the timing of the report, for all of the reasons that I delineated. I am not saying that I myself am questioning it on all of those counts. I think that on a certain level the politics surrounding the report and the basic issues that the report addresses are separate matters: that is, I don’t see how the politics surrounding the report change the basic issues, even if they influence how we are now addressing those issues.

      I believe that the only high-ranking German military leaders who were executed were Jodl and Keitel, both of whom signed orders permitting the execution of captured Allied soldiers. Doentiz and Raeder were given prison terms for implementing unrestricted submarine warfare, but neither served a full sentence because the Allies basically waged the same sort of campaign against shipping in Axis-controlled waters, especially in the Pacific.

      I believe that the military’s dominance of the Japanese government throughout the war made it more difficult to distinguish ideological and military decisions. Also, I think that it is now generally accepted that, on both sides that there was a racial element to the Pacific war that extended to and influenced the outcomes of the war-crimes trials that followed the war.

      What I find extraordinary about our current situation is not that Cheney et al have not been charged with crimes: that would be so unprecedented as to be astonishing. What I find extraordinary is that simply questioning the use of torture–simply having the debate–is being characterized in many quarters as treasonous or anti-American. It does not seem to me that having such a debate is evidence of either a dangerous naivete or defeatism. Rather, it would seem to demonstrate that our values are still strong enough to endure through national upheaval.

  3. There is a website-related limit to replies to replies, but several points in Ana’s last comment warrant additional comment.

    Allen West is known for repeatedly confusing his ideological delusions with fact. He is especially not a reliable source on the threat of terrorist attacks. It is worth noting that his military career was cut short by an incident in which he tried to extract information from an Iraqi police officer by first beating him and then by staging his supposed execution.

    More broadly, the “evidence” of terrorists crossing the border that is so often cited is simply that those handling border security have had to admit that some people are inevitably succeeding in crossing the border undetected and, of course, that it is impossible to say what their motives are in doing so. I believe that this assertion about terrorist infiltration has been countered repeatedly to the effect that there has been no evidence, whether found at the border itself or through investigations, that any terrorists have crossed the border clandestinely. So, this is the homeland security equivalent of answering a fundamentally loaded question (such as How often do you beat your wife?).

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