Some Thoughts on Torture and a Letter from Iraq

by Michael I. Niman,

ArtVoice July 1, 2004


Evidence trickling out of the Bush administration documents what US military personnel have been alleging since the Abu Ghraib scandal broke – that orders to torture came from above. What most people couldn’t imagine was just how high up the orders were coming from. Now we know. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld either condoned or outright ordered torture in American run military prisons around the world. The difference is more or less semantic. He either thought up the torture protocol, or just thought it was a cool thing to do.


Shame on Us


The ultimate responsibility, however, doesn’t lie with Rumsfeld or even George W. Bush. It lies with us. As citizens in a democratic country, we must bear the responsibility for the actions of our government. True, we didn’t elect this band of felons, but neither did we adequately express our outrage against them despite having, at least for the moment, the right to do so. Shame on us.


Near the end of World War II, when allied forces liberated Hitler’s death camps, they were shocked at two things. The first was obvious – the camps. The second shocker came when they visited normal quiet picturesque villages and towns situated in the shadows of the human soot plumes bellowing out of the cremation ovens. There, residents plead ignorance to what went on in the camps, carrying on life with a surrealistic normalcy. They claimed they never thought about the cattle cars that went in day after day full of people, only to come out empty.


Allied troops responded by forcing villagers to march through the camps and face the horror they shielded from their thoughts. The message of collective responsibility was later echoed at Nuremberg. Ignorance wasn’t a justifiable defense for acquiescing to genocide.


Granted, the US is not currently engaged in overt genocide. But around the world today, horrors are being carried out in our names none-the-less. Our first response is to insert our heads ostrich-like into the sand, covering our eyes and ears so that we hear no evil and see no evil. Life is easier on the conscience this way, especially when burdened with a value system. Hey, this war ain’t over the fuel in our greenhouse gas belching petrol-guzzling SUVs. And no, Americans don’t rape and torture prisoners. And no, our government doesn’t run huge gulags almost entirely filled with innocent people. No.


Tearing Down History


But, despite a heaping dose of cognitive dissonance, we now know all of this is all too true. Our collective response has been as horrific as the crimes, with recent polls showing that over one third of Americans think torture is ok, assuming I would guess, that they weren’t the unfortunate recipients of a few penis wires, splintery broomsticks or German Shepard’s gnashing their teeth inches away from their naked bodies.


The Bush administration’s response has been to argue for legalizing torture and to tear down the Abu Ghraib torture center. Legalizing torture makes sense to a criminal who wants to legalize his chosen genre of crime. And the destruction of Abu Ghraib is necessary to cleanse history of its physical reference points – in this case the place where torture was associated with outrage. Think about this. How would we feel if Germany wanted to tear down Auschwitz? Let’s forget about it all and move on. Or maybe it’s time to pave Gettysburg and build a shopping mall. Destroying Abu Ghraib is the same kind of move. It assaults history by preventing the creation of what naturally would be a museum – not just to commemorate the outrages of the American occupation, but to memorialize the countless Iraqis who were killed in Abu Ghraib under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Like it or not, Abu Ghraib is important to Iraqis and central to their history from the time the US backed Saddam’s first attempted coup to the present.


The Bush people don’t want to erase the history of torture per se. Instead, they want to institutionalize it. What they want to eradicate is any memory of the global outrage and the humiliation they suffered when their most notorious spanking factory was busted.


The Protocols of Torture


Abu Ghraib is important because of what it represents – but let’s not be fooled into thinking it’s an abortion. The horrors at Guantanamo where faceless people have vanished into oblivion are by most accounts worse than Abu Ghraib. Recent Human Rights Watch reports paint an even worse picture in Afghanistan at the Bagram Air Force base, the Gardez prison and 18 other detention facilities scattered around that country.


On February 7 th of 2002 George W. Bush issued a bizarre executive order declaring that he could ignore US law and international treaties – in particular he mentioned his right to “suspend” the Geneva Conventions, the international laws regulating the treatment of POWs. This order seems to have set the tenor for the lawlessness that followed.


In August of 2002, former Assistant US Attorney General Jay Bybee wrote a memo justifying torture and summary execution without trial of “terror war” prisoners. Rather than repudiate Bybee, the Ashcroft Justice Department appointed him to the federal bench as a 9 th District Circuit Court Judge.


On November 27 th of 2002, none other than Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld himself ordered that US forces violate the Geneva protocols. Rumsfeld ordered interrogators to strip prisoners, shave their heads in violation of Islamic law, interrogate them for 20 hours at a stretch and make them wear hoods. He also allowed them to use dogs during interrogation.


Warmongering Draft-Dodging Punks


In all likelihood, we’ll be seeing more graphic evidence of torture (including rape) and murder carried out by US forces. And we’ll hear more pronouncements of outrage and disgust from the very men who created a culture that condoned such outrages and the men who outright ordered this torture. Their argument will be that while a few wayward troops abused prisoners, the larger system works, and the miscreants will be brought to justice. What they won’t address is why the same bizarre torture techniques seem to have simultaneously replicated themselves at US detention facilities around the world.


I don’t buy the argument put forth by the warmongering draft dodgers in the Bush administration that US military personnel are inherently bad and are alone to fault for the horrors we are now seeing. True, they have a legal and ethical obligation to disobey immoral and illegal orders. But with a president who claims the right to nullify the Geneva Conventions and a Defense Secretary who orders such tortures, refusing such orders may require a bit more heroism than the average grunt is ready to ante up.


If we really want to support American troops stuck fighting Bush’s Iraq War, we need to help rescue them from immoral incompetent criminal leadership. This was made painfully clear to me when I read the following letter sent to a close friend of mine by a buddy of his who is in the US military currently serving in Iraq. I received permission to reprint the letter with names omitted. I’ll end my column this week by turning the last few inches over for a plea from a US military officer serving in Iraq:


The Letter from Iraq


Dear (names of friends omitted),

As you know, I will be deploying soon to Iraq.

Many of you have written me saying you will support me with anything I
need while I'm in Iraq. I'm very grateful for your consideration, and in light of that, I do have a tremendous favor to ask you all. This letter goes only to my friends who are not soldiers, as this favor can only be fulfilled by citizens who are not in uniform.

As you all know, there is a growing scandal regarding the use of
torture in US military prisons. Recently it came to light that a legal
memorandum was drafted which would legally authorize the Commander in
Chief to approve torture as a means of interrogation. I'm sure you are all as horrified by this as I am.

As a soldier, my ability to speak out against this outrage is severely limited. But yours is not. So I ask you, soldier to citizen, to please stand up against this criminal administration and their immoral and illegal acts. What they have done, and what they intend to do, are severe transgressions against our sacred Constitution and all moral boundaries of humane behavior. If we allow our nation to continue down this path, we lose our Republic, our integrity, and our honor. It must not happen. It cannot be allowed to happen.

When I go to the war, there is no possible greater comfort I can have
than to know that good citizens at home are standing up for what is
right. Please do what we soldiers cannot. I wrote to many of you about
my colleague (name removed), who will be deployed for (number removed) months. Understand that (name removed) will be serving at military prisons for
the duration of (gendered possessive pronoun removed) tour. I am horrified at the prospect of (name removed), whom I know to be an honest and upright person, receiving orders to authorize torture of a prisoner. If you care for us in the
military at all, please act to protect (name removed) from this terrible possibility. If you love your country, please rise up peacefully to protect it. This is the greatest favor I can ask of you.

Yours in service,

(name omitted on request)


ęCopyright 2004

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