Friday, May 18, 2007

On torture and Republican applause lines

I'm with Kevin Drum. Discussions of when torture should be acceptable make me sick. Such a discussion is essentially someone asking demanding that we prescribe for them them in advance when it becomes acceptable to destroy the village in order to save it. The person making the demand should understand that what he is demanding is itself unacceptable.

Not only do the Republican candidates for the Presidential nomination fail to see how very unacceptable, even unAmerican, their demands are, they are feeding the torture demands to their core believers as an applause line. Kevin also quotes from a Washington Post article by By Charles C. Krulak and Joseph P. Hoar. [*]
Fear can be a strong motivator. It led Franklin Roosevelt to intern tens of thousands of innocent U.S. citizens during World War II; it led to Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt, which ruined the lives of hundreds of Americans. And it led the United States to adopt a policy at the highest levels that condoned and even authorized torture of prisoners in our custody.

Fear is the justification offered for this policy by former CIA director George Tenet as he promotes his new book. Tenet oversaw the secret CIA interrogation program in which torture techniques euphemistically called "waterboarding," "sensory deprivation," "sleep deprivation" and "stress positions" -- conduct we used to call war crimes -- were used. In defending these abuses, Tenet revealed: "Everybody forgets one central context of what we lived through: the palpable fear that we felt on the basis of the fact that there was so much we did not know."

We have served in combat; we understand the reality of fear and the havoc it can wreak if left unchecked or fostered. Fear breeds panic, and it can lead people and nations to act in ways inconsistent with their character.

The American people are understandably fearful about another attack like the one we sustained on Sept. 11, 2001. But it is the duty of the commander in chief to lead the country away from the grip of fear, not into its grasp. Regrettably, at Tuesday night's presidential debate in South Carolina, several Republican candidates revealed a stunning failure to understand this most basic obligation. Indeed, among the candidates, only John McCain demonstrated that he understands the close connection between our security and our values as a nation. [Snip]

As has happened with every other nation that has tried to engage in a little bit of torture -- only for the toughest cases, only when nothing else works -- the abuse spread like wildfire, and every captured prisoner became the key to defusing a potential ticking time bomb. Our soldiers in Iraq confront real "ticking time bomb" situations every day, in the form of improvised explosive devices, and any degree of "flexibility" about torture at the top drops down the chain of command like a stone -- the rare exception fast becoming the rule.

To understand the impact this has had on the ground, look at the military's mental health assessment report released earlier this month. The study shows a disturbing level of tolerance for abuse of prisoners in some situations. This underscores what we know as military professionals: Complex situational ethics cannot be applied during the stress of combat. The rules must be firm and absolute; if torture is broached as a possibility, it will become a reality.

This has had disastrous consequences. Revelations of abuse feed what the Army's new counterinsurgency manual, which was drafted under the command of Gen. David Petraeus, calls the "recuperative power" of the terrorist enemy.

Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld once wondered aloud whether we were creating more terrorists than we were killing. In counterinsurgency doctrine, that is precisely the right question. Victory in this kind of war comes when the enemy loses legitimacy in the society from which it seeks recruits and thus loses its "recuperative power."
This article makes several key points that I want to emphasize.
  1. Politicians can use fear to draw attention to themselves and gain power, but that fear the politicians feed also destroys much of what has made America a shining example of good civilization.
  2. Torture supposedly has worked to provide short-term needed information, but that can't be proven. If torture has ever worked, the cases are classified and the people who have used it don't want to be associated with the use of what are actually war crimes.
  3. Torture is supposedly to be used only in very extreme and very rare cases. But when American sends soldiers into combat that is automatically sending them into very extreme and hopefully rare situations. Thinking gets you killed. Instead of thinking a soldier must rapidly react as trained and follow orders if he is to survive. That combat soldier must not be placed in the position of having to practice "situational ethics." He can't do it an live. If the commander permits something, that soldier will do it.
  4. The indiscriminate use of torture destroys the legitimacy of the government. Since the purpose of insurgency is to destroy the legitimacy of the government, the indiscriminate use of torture becomes a tactic that allows the insurgents to win.
  5. Since there is (and cannot be) any solid evidence that the use of torture really works, the use of torture has no up side. It cannot be shown to be a winning tactic.
  6. Put all the above together:
    • A frightened soldier cannot use good judgement. He must quickly react as trained. Thus the use of torture cannot be controlled by an organization.
    • If permitted to torture, he will do so, and his judgement of when to use torture or not cannot be good judgement.
    • But the use of indiscriminate torture creates more enemies than it protects America from. In a counterinsurgency situation, this is a self-defeating tactic.
  7. In short, torture cannot be shown to be winning tactic, especially since its use cannot be controlled. However, the use of torture can easily be shown to be a losing tactic. That's why it's use has been forbidden in the past.
This is the case against any military organization using torture in rare cases as a tactic of gathering Intelligence. It can't work, and it is self-defeating. This does not address the issue of what being a torturer does to the individual who conducts the torture himself. The repeated description of people who practice torture is that they come to consider the torture the purpose of what they do, not gathering information. As bad as this is for the individual, the organization loses control of the attempt to use torture to gather Intelligence. The organization that attempts to use torture to gather information ends up without the information and with people whose usefulness has been lost.

But, Hey! The Republican candidates for the nomination as President can use approval of torture as an applause line with their audiences! It can't be ALL bad, can it?

[Yes. It CAN be all bad and it is.]

[*] Charles C. Krulak was commandant of the Marine Corps from 1995 to 1999. Joseph P. Hoar was commander in chief of U.S. Central Command from 1991 to 1994.

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