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.