Collateral damage

August 25, 2006

In ignoring its own wrongdoings in pursuing war on terror, the US imperils its much-vaunted values and its moral authority, argues Alex Danchev.

Antonio Taguba was not merely offended by what he saw of Abu Ghraib: he was shamed.So is the United States.

So are we all.

As Walt Whitman knew,the damage is indivisible: 'Whoever degrades anotherdegrades me, and whateveris done or said returns at last to me'

America is at war," the President reminded everyone the other day, when the latest plot against America was revealed. The state of war is codified in the National Security Strategy of the United States, issued from the White House, not to mention the National Defence Strategy of the United States, issued from the Pentagon. George W. Bush is the self-styled war president and self-willed commander-in-chief. As those who have hitched themselves to his chariot have found ("Yo, Blair"), what he says goes: "I'm the commander, see, I don't need to explain - I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the President."

In an era when wars are commonly supposed to be undeclared - when "war" itself is a word that dare not speak its name - the "Global War on Terror" suffers, if anything, from a surfeit of declaration. It suffers also from a surplus of participants. The GWOT, although it carries a US trademark, functions internationally as an umbrella under which all manner of government policy is justified. Thus the Israeli assault on Lebanon is all part of the GWOT. Plucky little Israel is doing its bit against the common threat. The "axis of evil" (© G. W. Bush) is fuelling the flames; the "arc of extremism" (© T. Blair) is on the march. Desperate times call for desperate measures. When it comes to the targeting of civilians, not to mention humanitarians, we will look the other way. War crimes are not part of the script.

The GWOT is among other things a war of words and acronyms, a war of characterisation and mischaracterisation. Some of these words are new ("PUC", person under control, an alternative to POW), or combined in gruesome neologism ("extraordinary rendition"); some are shop-soiled ("values"); some are deliberately anodyne ("detainee"); some are hyperbolic yet curiously reversible ("civilisation", "barbarian"); some are almost unpronounceable ("torture").

The National Security Strategy characterises the conflict as both a war of arms and a war of ideas. That seems a serviceable enough distinction, but it has the effect of underwriting a propensity to elevate the former and relegate the latter, at least when it comes to priorities for action and resource allocation. Ideas are conceded to be fundamental; but ideas need time to take hold (and to think up). Time is with the terrorist - more plots hatched, more martyrs enlisted.

Waiting for the barbarians is not conducive to public safety. Convincing them of the error of their ways or their analysis - their woeful failure to appreciate the benign character of American power and purpose - is a tall order, beyond even the mighty Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, a man whose musings have contributed so much to the corpus of Western thought, most notably his celebrated taxonomy of known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns (the ones we don't know we don't know).

Concerning the barbarians, the unknown unknown was just how little we knew about them - who they were, where they were, how they operated, what they believed. The known known was simplicity itself: barbarians are impervious to argument. There has been a tendency to typecast, to put it mildly.

An academic acquaintance of the editor of the literary magazine Granta , a Middle East specialist, was asked by a US intelligence agency if he would write a paper that would explain "Why Arabs lie". "You have to understand the Arab mind," explained an infantry company commander in Iraq. "The only thing they understand is force - force, pride and saving face."

Manifestly, they are not like us. The enemy is the Other. The enemy in this war is irremediably Other: fiendish and fanatical, almost bestial. Iraqis grasped this attitude of mind only too well. In the debris of Fallujah, a teenager came up to the leader of a US Army patrol. Gesturing to a pile of rubbish that filled a space where a building had been, he asked loudly:

"Why don't you Americans clean up the garbage?" Sighing, the patrol leader replied: "Why don't you clean it up yourselves?" "Oh, because we're not like you Americans," the boy said theatrically. "We are a savage and primitive people."

Savage and primitive people seem to have the knack of strategic surprise. Thus, the battle of arms must be joined before it is too late. The need for action - military action - is transparent and urgent, at once comprehensible and sellable; the need to do something, and to be seen to be doing something, is a powerful goad. It is in part a strategic imperative, if not a psychological need. More than that, it is a political requirement.

A democracy cannot wage a seven-year war, said General George C. Marshall, meaning that it cannot go on indefinitely, mobilised and immobilised, at war and at bay, bristling with arms and bereft of ideas. It must fight, and win, or it must find alternative modes of engagement. (So much for "the long war", newspeak for the GWOT. Marshall's dictum applies. Given that the enemy is virtually indestructible, or perpetually renewable, the long war is almost certainly unwinnable in these terms, as Hezbollah even now serves to demonstrate.)

Political mandates are crucially dependent on successful military operations or on operations that can plausibly be represented as successful - remember how Bush declared "mission accomplished" - however hollow the claim may appear in retrospect. Even mature democracies have a kind of pain threshold for the body politic. For the US, the pain of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 was surely hard to bear. The shock was intense. The sanctuary had been violated. A crime against humanity had been committed. America had been wounded. The great city had been scarred. The great nation had been humiliated. The threshold had been crossed. And yet, dimly perceived amid the smoking ruins, there were limits; 9/11 was an atrocity, not an existential threat. It counselled restraint; renunciation was out of the question. The War on Terror is a war of choice and a war of necessity. At root, it is a war of the heart and the soul, a war of humiliation, more instinctual and less cerebral than the warriors might care to admit.

Elements of it may have been premeditated on the wilder shores of neoconservative wish fulfilment or the millenary fantasy of the Project for the New American Century, but it was not preordained. The "warfare model" prevailed against conceivable alternatives. "There was consensus that we had to move from retribution and punishment to pre-emption and prevention," a White House lawyer recalled of the mood after 9/11. "Only a warfare model allows that approach."

War-war is better than law-law, according to the Bush Administration. The Other, that elusive prey, was defined as an enemy combatant rather than a criminal defendant. The appointed destination for the terrorist suspect was not the court but the camp. Hence Amnesty's "gulag of our times" - a misrepresentation, perhaps, but a public relations disaster (in the idiom of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy) and a gift to the enemy. The netherworld of dark prisons and black sites is uncomfortably reminiscent of Kafka's penal colony, where the guiding principle is devastatingly simple: guilt is never to be doubted.

In the camp, the political theorist Hannah Arendt once remarked, everything is possible. In the camp, bare life begins. Human beings dwindle to the status of dogs. At Abu Ghraib, the cringing detainee on a leash held by the grinning Lynndie England was known to the night shift as Gus. Gus and his companions - Taxi Driver, Gilligan, the Iranian, Shitboy - and nameless others were made to perform "dog tricks" to improve discipline and show worth; heap naked in "dog piles", ostensibly to maintain control; and do "doggy dances" for general entertainment, while military dog handlers competed to see who could make them defecate or urinate on themselves. It is but a short step from typecasting to degrading.

Such practices have been presented as some sort of aberration. It would be more accurate to speak of normalisation. Abusing detainees was all part of a day's work, filmed by the perpetrators themselves who posed happy-snappy for the camera. An official investigation by Major General Antonio Taguba found that "numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees".

The journalist Seymour Hersh believes that Taguba was offended by what he saw. It is now known that the "extremely graphic photographic evidence" to which he refers in his report far exceeds the sample disclosed in 2004 - dogs, hoods, electrodes and all - amounting to well over 1,000 images and nearly 100 video files of suspected ill-treatment. Courageously, Taguba went further. "This systemic and illegal abuse was intentionally perpetrated," he averred, confronting the weasel arguments offered by apologists: that the abuse was confined to rogue elements ("a few bad apples"), that it was not a heinous crime (" Animal House on the night shift"), and that the aim was not to cause harm but to extract information (the lawyerly exculpation of "specific intent"). The Taguba report will have none of this.

Information, of course, is vital. It is the lifeblood of any counterterrorist activity. The prosecution of this war has been stymied from the outset by a chronic lack of information, or intelligence, and by a lack of the expertise required to make sense of what has been unearthed. A generation ago, Daniel Ellsberg, a former company commander in the US Marines who became an analyst and worked for the Pentagon and the State Department, leaked documents about the conduct of the Vietnam War. He wrote: "There has never been an official of Deputy Assistant Secretary rank or higher (including myself) who could have passed in office a mid-term exam in modern Vietnamese history." Could his successors have done any better in Iraqi history, or culture, or customs?

When the reporter George Packer visited temporary proconsul Paul Bremer in his Baghdad lair, deep in the fastness of the Green Zone, he found the bookshelves almost empty: "Rudolph Giuliani's Leadership stood on one shelf and a book about the management of financial crises on another, near a box of Raisin Bran." Bremer had barely two weeks to prepare himself to run Iraq. He was a walking example of unknown unknowns in action. He was not alone.

Crude notions about Arab fear of dogs and Muslim sense of shame seem to mark the limits of cultural understanding. The GWOT is a war of mutual incomprehension, a war of tribes, with something of the primitive about it. As the captors strip the captives of their dignity, insult their mothers and profane their religious books, the captives mock the captors in terms the latter cannot begin to understand - women with men's haircuts, men without beards. "In the American Army, I could not see a real man," said an Afghan returned to his homeland, no longer an enemy combatant, after three years in Guantanamo. "And they talk rudely about homosexuals, which is very shameful to us."

The GWOT has been advertised as a new kind of war against a new kind of enemy - a new kind of evil, as the President said in September 2001 - although he is also keen to stake a claim to "the great tradition of American foreign policy", citing predecessors as diverse as Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan. In fact, the salient features of the GWOT as waged are depressingly familiar. The military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, where shock and awe soon gave way to battles of attrition, where the campaigning has to be done over and over again every year, where rubblisation outpaces reconstruction; and their corollaries, the sweep, the round-up, the arbitrary detentions, the creative forms of interrogation: such methods are certainly traditional, not to say old-fashioned.

Reliance on them has caused the US no end of trouble. The source of that trouble is not the undertrained and overwhelmed reservists of the 320th Military Police Battalion at Abu Ghraib - ordinary men and women indeed - but the strongholds of certainty, inviolability and "inherent power" at the heart of the Administration: the Office of the Vice-President, the Office of the Secretary of Defence and the Office of Legal Counsel. The occupants of these offices have done their level best to give the President free rein in the conduct of this war, at home and abroad. In so doing, they have shown a fine contempt for international law, including the fusty old Geneva Conventions and basic instruments such as the Convention against Torture; and in memorandum after memorandum they have sought to circumvent it. Embedded in the National Defence Strategy is a revealing example of the mindset. A list of "our vulnerabilities" includes the following item: "Our strength as a nation-state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes and terrorism."

There are also the constitutional questions. Electorally, it may be that the issues have not yet detonated; but they are explosive. At home, warrantless wiretapping and monitoring of banking transactions; illegal military tribunals; contentious use of presidential "signing statements". Abroad, rendition and torture. The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr, who defined the "imperial presidency" in the Nixon era, has said of the Bush Administration's legal defence of torture: "No position taken has done more damage to the American reputation in the world - ever."

If the warfare model is underpinned by what might be called a with-us-or-against-us model. The evidence from international opinion surveys conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project is that the world is against. Moreover, the trend is adverse. The Dutch cosmopolitan thinker Rem Koolhaas notes that "the attraction of America is quickly getting less all around the world, which allows each of us to define our identities a little more strongly". We are all Americans now, Le Monde declared after 9/11. No longer.

In one sense, those who believe that the antics at Abu Ghraib have been overplayed have a point. Abu Ghraib is a metonym for the moral failings of this factitious war, but it by no means exhausts them. Nearly 100 detainees have died at the hands of US officials in the GWOT. According to the military's own classification, 34 of these cases are suspected or confirmed homicides; the human rights advocacy group Human Rights First has identified 11 others in which the facts suggest death as a result of physical abuse or harsh detention conditions. Eight people in US custody have been tortured to death. The steepest sentence given to anyone involved in a torture-related death is five months in jail. Only 12 detainee deaths have resulted in punishment of any kind for any US official.

To echo Schlesinger, no action has more severely compromised the US in its prosecution of the War on Terror than its inaction when faced with irrefutable evidence of US wrongdoing: the conspicuous failure to trace responsibility to its source and to hold commanders and policymakers to account.

The leitmotiv of the original National Security Strategy of 2002 was "the non-negotiable demands of human dignity". In 2005, US military personnel in Iraq were issued with cue cards, "talking points", such as: "We are a values-based, people-focused team that strives to uphold the dignity and respect of all." The GWOT has always aspired to be more than a war - a cause, a crusade, though that particular word was quickly banished from the vocabulary. Causes and crusades are projects with a moral purpose, perhaps even a mission. Snatches of that theme are audible in the President's obiter dicta . It is thumpingly present in the speeches of his cheerleader-in-chief, Blair, whose hyperarticulate apologetics fairly pulsate with values-talk and a rhetorical emphasis on good and evil.

In other words, the GWOT bids to be a good war; but such things are few and far between. It is doubtless no accident that the template is the Second World War. The President and his confederates often invoke Winston Churchill as an example of a politician who was punished in the polls but rewarded by history for rejecting appeasement. In one of the more implausible characterisations or identifications of his career, Bush has said that Churchill "knew what he believed, and he really kind of went after it in a way that seemed like a Texan to me".

The GWOT may or may not be a war for civilisation, but it is inescapably a war for posterity. For Bush, as for Blair, the posterity project is in deep trouble, caught on the pincers of the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Iraq War has become the cynosure of the War on Terror. It foreshadows a choice any President half-conscious of history must be desperate to avoid: debacle or quagmire.

For the values-based, the erosion of moral authority is a particular hardship. It is perhaps a pardonable exaggeration to say that the US War on Terror is a struggle of good guys against bad, right against wrong, or it is nothing. The goodness, however, has been spoiled. The non-negotiable demands of human dignity have been found to be negotiable after all. The Administration's efforts to reconcile the excusable and the inexcusable in the conduct of the war have failed, as they were bound to fail. Taguba was not merely offended by what he saw of Abu Ghraib: he was shamed. So is the US. So are we all. As Walt Whitman knew, the damage is indivisible: "Whoever degrades another degrades me, and whatever is done or said returns at last to me."

Shame is enduring. In the Muslim world, the story of the shame will be told, Scheherazade-like, for years to come. In the US and its satrapies, awareness will sink in, slowly, painfully, like dripping water on the Western conscience. Has the alliance of values yet taken the measure of the consequences of its actions?

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations at Nottingham University. His latest books are The Iraq War and Democratic Politics , an edited collection, and Georges Braque , a biography.

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