Yes, the premise of the article I just read is as bad as you think from the title of this post. It’s that bad.
What the difficulties of boot camp do to justify torturing Iraqis and other “suspected terrorists” — and let’s remember that in America now, a feminist T-shirt is enough to place you under enough suspicion to block you from attending a Presidential speech — is beyond me.
Yet this is, well, at least for a little while, the thrust of Max Boot’s “opinion” piece in the L.A. Times, titled “Hate torture? Consider boot camp”. Oh, wait, there’s also the fact that Hussein’s forms of torture were much “worse” than America’s, and the repeated claim that torture was never “authorized”. Uh, why is it that the Bush administration also has been very protective of late, of the absence of laws forbidding torture performed by Americans abroad? Why is it that they need to even pass a law like McCain’s to forbid torture?
Boot claims that the offenses at Abu Ghraib were “inexcusable” but also justifies them, implicitly, by claiming they were “not as severe” as Saddam’s torture methods. The center of the complaint by Boot is that, yes, these are torture methods, but are somehow nicer, not so bad, as far as torture methods go, and after all, they work: they’re “said to have yielded valuable intelligence”; so why in the world would Congress ban such treatment of prisoners just because it’s, you know, “cruel, inhumane or degrading”.
Oh, here’s where the anomaly comes in: Boot’s worried that America will treat its foreign prisoners better than its own soldiers.
But soldiers signed up with the army, or at least, to date the draft hasn’t really been reinstated. Soldiers are not in a foreign territory. They’re not living in a secret, hidden facility with little or not communication with anyone from their homeland for several years at a time.
They’re soldiers, by the way. Soldiers, meaning military personnel, are afforded a certain degree of hardship by international conventions governing war. Soldiers, for example, may be shot and killed by soldiers in the opposing army with impunity; this is how war works.
Likewise, since 1929, there have been provisions for the treatment of prisoners of war (in the third Geneva Convention); and it’s not as if the notions in the Geneva Conventions were just invented by some idealistic twit who’d had no experience of war. Rather, it was after prolonged, awful experiences of war that these conventions were hammered out, and this explains why so many nations ratified them.
The crucial point Boot (implicitly) relies upon is that this “War on Terror” is a different kind of war altogether from those fought in the past. This is true: it’s not like any of the organized wars of history, the Civil War, the Hundred Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars, World Wars One and Two, The Korean War, and the Vietnam War, for example. Those wars, to whatever degree anything I’ve read is correct — with possibly the exception of the Vietnam war — were generally fought by soldiers against soldiers, and national production rate against national production rate, and intelligence against intelligence. In other words, it was not completely a case of random quasi-civilians ordering destructive attacks on civilians. (The exceptions being Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which definitely were “terror”-ist acts in the debased sense in which we now seem to use the word.)
But yes, the rules of war are changing. To whatever degree Iraq even has anything to do with the War on Terror — despite his claim that the choice he made to take America to Iraq was a good one, Bush has admitted the intelligence was wrong, and that there were major errors underlying the decision — the rules of this “war” do not infringe on the Rights of Man. Intelligence gathering? I think that American Intelligence has bigger problems than the loss of cruel, inhumane or degrading forms of torture; these are the people Bush claims convinced him that there were Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. These are the people who went along with the claim that there were, even if it was Bush telling them to do so. In all of this, the notion of human rights seems to be off-limits, but it is human rights that are central to this discussion.
This is the crucial point that Boot misses: that human rights, declared as absolute truths, do not change with circumstances or convenience. They cannot, by definition. Ought people captured by soldiers for any reason to be subjected to psychological or physical torture? Or, more simply: is torture right, or wrong? To those who think this simplistic, who think of this in a case-by-case scenario, imagine your father, or sister, or child, being “waterboarded”. Imagine this relative of yours standing naked in a cold cell for ten hours straight, or having his or her sleep cycle adjusted in order to depress him or her. Imagine all of this being done on a mere suspicion. Imagine her or him being detained for months at a time, with no chance of communication with you, in a foreign country. Does this sound like “fair” treatment for a prisoner, on the grounds of a mere suspicion? If not, then we can say it is absolutely wrong; what’s good for your sibling is good for all; what is bad for your sibling is a general moral evil. This is the answer that was arrived at long ago, and formulated into the Third Geneva Convention. It’s as simple as that.
In our time, we tend to be cynics. Republican scholars and thinkers — Francis Fukuyama for one — tend to celebrate the end of utopian or idealistic thinking, and yet in a culture where utopianism and cynicism used to balance one another to produce a kind of hopeful pragmatism, now we have cynicism waxing and utopianism almost nowhere to be found. We have a President lying to his people, then admitting it was all false, and still not being impeached; we have civilians suggesting that laws against torture — the very same laws that would have been called upon to protect them, if their nation had been invaded — are malleable, aren’t so important, that they ought to be poo-pooed for the benefit of intelligence gathering.
Well, the Framers of the American Constitution were not starry-eyed idealists, which is to say they had a very strongly pragmatic streak to them, but they were not, at the same time, strangers to idealis. Ideals underlie the American Constitution in many places. Ideals are what gave America, in its early days, a kind of hope and source of pride which citizens of other nations rightfully envied and flocked toward. However, it seems that era is over; the Greatness of America as a nation of ideas, a nation that affirms the dignity of humans and the fact that right and wrong do indeed exist, that Greatness has passed away into the night. Or, worse, that Greatness has been strangled by the American Right, by the politicians and the profiteers whom the civilians have allowed to hijack the nation.