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May 17, 2004

Monsters On A Leash

Seymour Hersch lobs a certain accusation at the US this weekend that a lot of people are paying exceptional attention. In this is his final closing bomb.

“In an odd way,” Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said, “the sexual abuses at Abu Ghraib have become a diversion for the prisoner abuse and the violation of the Geneva Conventions that is authorized.” Since September 11th, Roth added, the military has systematically used third-degree techniques around the world on detainees. “Some jags hate this and are horrified that the tolerance of mistreatment will come back and haunt us in the next war,” Roth told me. “We’re giving the world a ready-made excuse to ignore the Geneva Conventions. Rumsfeld has lowered the bar.”

First, let me point out the obvious which is that the defense of the nation requires no international sanction. While it is quite possible that the Geneva Conventions have hit upon a universal standard of behavior which has been and always will be broadly acceptable, the chances are more likely that it could use a review in light of the kinds of conflict with which we are engaged. It is just as likely that our Armed Forces may be completely unsuitable for this kind of conflict. Again, both were conceived with the kind of national defense required for a clash of modern nations. I am willing to stipulate both require update in terms of their dealing with the cellular nature of distributed guerilla terrorism.

The 'bar' is not 'lowered'. It is illusory. It is a bourgie convention designed to make citizens of liberal democracies sleep better with the idea that gallantry is the order of modern warfare.

With regard to the humanitarian treatment of prisoners of war, the Geneva Conventions are presumeably that thing which separates us from the savages. Or more appropriately, the Conventions separate the civilized warring nations from the rogue states. I think it is beyond question with regard to the perfidity of the jihadist irregulars that we are dealing with rogues. But we're all capable of savagery. In that regard, there is no difference between 'us' and 'them'. We all retain the essence of our humanity which allows us to kill at all. No one suggests that we not kill the enemy. The difference lies in what our systems are constructed to do and how they perform when called into duty. The difference lies in the quality of the cage in which our monsters reside during the off season. The difference lies in the willingness to look, to see, to judge and to act when monstrous subjects are at hand. These are not differences made real by the existence of a Geneva Convention, but differences made real by the structure and behavior of the US military and its civilian oversight. The Army is built with a purpose in mind, it is to defend us as a nation from our enemies. When orders flow from generals to lieutenants to grunts, it is our own military code which establishs boundaries within which professionals operate for the satisfaction of the citizenry. When there are honors and medals and certificates of merit to be handed out, then accredited professionals can parade past the reviewing stand in front of the gathered cameras. But this does not define the whole of our military capability.

I am perfectly willing to go out on a limb for the sake of argument and suggest that what is being done in the name of America in the spaces of Abu Ghraib are exactly what went on under Saddam Hussein. I know that is not the case, as do most reasonable people. But even if it were the case, there remains something we have that our enemy does not which gives us the moral high ground. Our monsters are on a short leash. There are few of them and their operation is limited to a short period of time.

So understand what I am saying. I'm not saying that we are worse or better because of who Americans are and who Arabs are or what our cultures sustain. For the sake of argument, in this conflict we have put our monsters out against their monsters. And there needn't be made any argument about whose monsters are worse. That leash on our monsters is not the Geneva Convention, it is the American system, the American press, the American courts, the American people.

Anyone suffering under the delusion that we wouldn't and couldn't have torturers and assassins working somewhere on our side is incompetent to judge. If we need to give this power a proxy then let us name Cambone. Let those nameable be fodder for our political satisfaction, but the capacity will never be dismantled so long as humans war. It cannot as it is inherent in the nature of humans. We fight, and sometimes we fight dirty. But dirty fighting is not what we are all about, what this war is about, nor what the occupation is about. If GWBush loses the next election, it both confirms the fact that we bourgie civilians are in control and that our monsters are under our jurisdiction.

Our monsters are, by definition, cruel and unusual. Rumsfeld approved 200. We know. They are back in the bottle. Don't be surprised.

I grew up in the shadow of the nuclear bomb. When I was an adolescent, Planet of the Apes was my nightmare. Charlton Heston crying at the destroyed Statue of Liberty defined despair. So I, and many like me are conditioned to terms of defeat and resignation which are orders of magnitude more monstrous than what we bear witness to today in Iraq. In a war and occupation where our troops suffer less than one thousand deaths, we suffer the death of a thousand bleating cuts at the hands of those for whom sneering disgust is their only public expression. It's naive, cowardly and dishonest and I am weary of it.

Posted by mbowen at May 17, 2004 10:47 PM

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you are tired of it because you can go to your room kick your feet up turn on the tele. watch cnn get your fill turn it off so easily get up the next day and go about your life. you make the decision not to think about it or deal with it. some are called to a higher calling you are an observer, not a perticipant, you are a fan sitting in the stands, voicing your opinion never playing the game. it comes down to this, to watch middle eastern and african chidren being killed on a daily bases or to experiance it up close, the rules are grey, but we play by those rules for your childrens sake. tonight when your children are tucked in and asleep in there rooms, slip in and watch, see how at peace they are, and how much you would sacrifice to insure they slept like that every night, better to sacrifice a few morals than to have the blood of your children on my hands.

Posted by: skurka at September 30, 2004 03:23 AM

As a voting citizen of the Empire, it is my moral responsibility to watch and know the people killed for my sake. I understand perfectly well that it is done for my sake, and that is a reason I support it.

If I had it my way, there would be a War Channel and reporters who were brave enough to be on the ground all the time. But I've also made the calculation, which anyone who deals with it must, that lives can be sacrificed. It's the age old problem. You must accept that some lives will be lost such that more lives can be spared - or even that some must die so that a few can live in comfort. Peace and security are not free, they cost treasure and life.

One thing that strikes me about your note is that it reminds me of the fight about racism here in the US. Some people are dedicated and in the fight and understand all the details, and others are only vaguely aware that there is a fight at all, others still are completely oblivious. What matters in the end is that the good guys win. The ignorant can be forgiven. Such is the nature of responsibility. Fighters fight because they can see things plainly, they are compelled and they are capable. It really doesn't matter that they have an audience - their minds are already made up. Secondly, it doesn't matter who you are as an observer. You will end up following and living with the consequence of the outcome no matter what your opinion or who won.

So you are right. The opinions of observers do not change the conditions on the battlefield.

Posted by: Cobb at September 30, 2004 08:56 AM