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Thursday, June 02, 2005 | Hardly a day goes by that does not produce a new story about U.S. torture practices in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. George W. Bush’s “war on terror” is unique in many ways, but the involvement of U.S. officials and soldiers in widespread torture techniques already distinguishes it from previous American wars.
Many Americans don’t follow developments in Iraq any longer. This is not a war where regular troops move in formations, and fronts shift with the rhythms of combat. We can’t follow this war as we followed the U.S advance into Europe or across the Pacific or as the North Koreans pushed us nearly into the Korean Straits and in turn were pushed back almost into China. We cannot follow this war as we followed Vietnam, with huge body counts after massive offensives by both sides.
Bush’s war is stagnant. Insurgent bombs kill some 20 Iraqis each day, and an average two Americans die daily along with them – most of it not making the front pages. This war isn’t affecting Americans at home as previous wars did. It’s being fought on the cheap and the sly – without raising taxes, without a draft, with the caskets off-loaded where no one can see. Bush doesn’t attend funerals, which would remind us of war.
The one story that won’t go away is torture. Each day we learn more about the techniques being used by U.S. forces to extract information from prisoners, techniques that, try as they may, the interrogators can’t keep secret. As much as guards might believe they can maim and kill prisoners with impunity, information leaks and we soon see the photos and read the stories.
Then come the trials – trials of the little fish, the Private Englands and the Specialist Graners. The big fish are still swimming free, fatter than ever.
Alberto Gonzales, who asked the Justice Department for the ruling that allowed Americans to ignore the Geneva Conventions against torture and prisoner abuse, was promoted to Attorney General. The Justice Department’s Jay S. Bybee, who provided the opinion Gonzales sought, was promoted to judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (our circuit). Donald Rumsfeld, who extended the techniques used at Guantanamo (on prisoners who have not been accorded prisoner-of-war status) to prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib (on prisoners who do have such status), answers to no one.
Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the Guantanamo commander who personally took those torture (enhanced interrogation) techniques to Abu Ghraib, still serves in the military, as does Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander in Iraq who approved the Guantanamo techniques for Iraq. In all, 14 officers have been investigated so far and all cleared, except one, a single scapegoat, Gen. Janis Karpinski, who, conveniently, is a reserve officer.
Contrary to the post World War II trials at Nuremberg – trials conducted largely by Americans to bring leading German war criminals to justice (trials which later led to the writing of the Geneva Conventions against torture and human rights abuses) – the lesson of the Iraq torture trials is that only the little fish are responsible. It dishonors the nation that no one in a command position has been held responsible for these crimes.
This generation of Americans is destroying our nation’s good name as no other generation has ever done. I don’t think it’s because this generation is more morally corrupt than previous generations. It is the nature of Bush’s war.
It is an unnatural war, one contrary to the laws of nature and just war theory. Historically, American wars have been legitimate, gaining legitimacy through their sense of purpose and justice, elements lacking in the Iraq war. We should not be surprised that Bush’s war has brought out the beast in us. It is a sadistic war.
Several developments bring me to these ruminations.
To begin with, there is the daily dose of torture stories – the trials, the leaks, the devastating stories from Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. These stories, individually and cumulatively, undermine whatever strategic goals Bush sought in Afghanistan and Iraq. A front-page New York Times story from Afghanistan last week began:
“Even as the young Afghan man was dying before them, his American jailers continued to torment him.”
That is not the kind of story one expects about the U.S. military. When the young man, who had done nothing, finally died, the case was hushed up, only coming to light through leaks to the press.
Last week Amnesty International, which along with Human Rights Watch and the Red Cross first alerted us to the abuses of Abu Ghraib, accused the Bush administration of running “gulags,” a word forever associated with Stalin’s slave labor camps. We are guilty, said Amnesty of “atrocious” human rights violations.
The White House called the charges “ridiculous.” Unfortunately, the White House is wrong. The evidence is there for anyone who reads those human rights reports, or reads those of Gens. Tabuga and Fay, who investigated the charges for the military.
The war in Iraq is effacing the grand acts of courage and conscience carried out by this nation throughout most of the past century. Americans are no longer regarded as givers of international law and defenders of the weak and defenseless. Under Bush, we have become a law unto ourselves and predators on the weak and defenseless.
Last week, a senior U.S. officer in Baghdad was quoted as saying “I think that this could still fail,” by which he meant the whole U.S. enterprise in Iraq.
This officer has apparently begun to see the symptoms of failure that were inherent in Bush’s war from the beginning. What has lifted the scale from his eyes, I suspect, is that he sees that the methods we are using against these peoples have turned them against us.
It’s time Americans came to grips with this fundamental question: Can Bush’s war be reconciled with what our nation historically has stood for? The public may conveniently forget Bush’s war fought on the cheap and the sly. History will not.
James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune, and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Most recently, he was a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.