Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton: Victory in the War on Terror

It was a topographical map–the biggest map of Afghanistan Nelson had ever seen.  It measured maybe six feet long, creased and tattooed by pencil stub and slashes of ink, smudged with sweat and the ash of cookfires, and crawling with hundreds of arrows marking Taliban positions across the paper’s soiled grain[…]

Dostum scooped up a handful of pistachios and chewed busily, lost in thought, staring at the map.  He jabbed at the paper and started speaking rapidly.

The key to controlling the country, he explained, meant taking Kabul.  The key to Kabul was taking Mazar.

Nelson and Spencer nodded in agreement.

The key to Mazar, Dostum continued, was taking the Darya Suf River Valley.  And if they took Mazar, the north would fall.  All six provinces.  Without question.

Next would come Kabul.  And with the north in control, you could take Kandahar in the south.  In this way, you could capture the country.

And that was that:  War on Terror for all intents and purposes won – because if you could capture the country, you could control Southwest Asia.  If you could control Southwest Asia, you could control the Gulf.  If you controlled the Gulf, you could control the Middle East, and, if you controlled the Middle East, the main strategic threat to American global military dominance, and to homeland security, would be checked.

And all it took was 12 guys, a bunch of scruffy undernourished Afghans on horseback, and this:

View Larger Map

Okay – so there’s a little bit more to it all than that – more to it strategically, and more to what happened in the Fall of 2001, when, still reeling from 9/11 and still uncertain of the challenges we faced, we sent a mere handful or two of Special Forces and CIA operatives into Afghanistan looking for… anything… maybe some payback… maybe a miracle… maybe an experiment that few would ever know about.

Author Doug Stanton, working from extensive interviews with almost all of the leading figures in his story (the main exceptions being the ones who have not survived), excels at recalling that peculiar moment in time in all its as-lived uncertainty.  He shows us the first phase of the Conflict Formerly Known As The War On Terror, from the vantage point of far-flung operatives who knew virtually from the moment the second plane hit the second tower that they would be on the move, and more or less where to.  Yet, as he follows them for the succeeding weeks and months through the completion of the Afghan warlord’s initial campaign plan, the emphasis is on what they didn’t and couldn’t know, what they suffered and risked, and how close the whole thing came either to having never been attempted, or to having completely fallen apart.

General Tommy Franks, theater commander, once summed up the operation as “the Jetsons vs. the Flintstones,” and, though there’s an element of truth to the statement, it sanitizes what was taking place to the point almost of reverse obscenity.  Some of the military capacities being employed were, indeed, like something out of the science fiction of not too long ago, but the paucity of information and the after-images of Gulf War nose camera video may have led civilians to imagine something almost effortless – spic-and-span supersoldiers, James Bonds with newly grown beards, who might as well have beamed down from the Starship Enterprise, placed a cursor over an icon or two, and blasted however many thousand soldiers to Paradise on a moment’s notice.

Reality, as ever, was a lot dirtier, uglier, and harder, yet in other ways just as or more astonishing.  You don’t think of George Jetson huddled in a freezing cold helicopter being flown doubly blind – at night and through instrument-defeating fog of a sort never before encountered – through hundreds of miles at way-off-the-specs altitudes over the world’s highest mountains.  Cartoon characters don’t ride horses for days on end, chafed bloddy in their saddles, subsisting on starvation rations.  Nor can LiveLeak “war porn” reveal how difficult spotting a bomb onto a target in a combat situation is:  the verbal altercations with pilots demanding impossible proof that targeted hostiles really are hostile; the tricks of light, distance, terrain, weather, and timing that can send a precision-guided munition a useless or self-destructive few hundred feet off.  Eventually, the spotters and pilots developed tremendous effectiveness, but at first their efforts led to merely aesthetic improvements – bombs that, instead of precisely disturbing the middle of nowhere, precisely disturbed the nothing next door.

To dwell much more on logistics, tactics, and technology would give the wrong impression of a book that’s less reminiscent of an after-action report, or even of previous Afghanistan-based war narratives like Lone Survivor or Roberts Ridge, than of a character-driven suspense thriller in the vein of Gerald Seymour – the characters including John Walker Lindh, the pathetically weird American Taliban from Marin; the doomed, recently re-married CIA paramilitary Mike Spann, Lindh’s diametrical opposite, who was already there before it was anywhere to the rest of us; the gallery of endlessly self-ironic Special Forces heroes, everyday informal American dudes who kind of just happen to be the world’s most capable, highly trained and intellectually sophisticated warriors; the dutifully suffering wives desperately sharing tidbits from rare, self-censored phone calls; the variously stolid, visionary, and dim generals, politicians, and officials.  Among the Afghans – both allies and enemies, taunting each other by radio, as quirky as they are profoundly brave or, in some cases and sometimes the same ones, profoundly evil – the warlord Dostum stands out the most, both for his central role and also as a complex and colorful man.  I kept on picturing Jonathan Rhys-Davies from the Indiana Jones movies whenever he strode onto the page, but he comes across as far more than comic relief.

Though the focus always returns to America’s 21st Century cavalry to the rescue, Stanton also recalls the moment of strategic uncertainty at the highest levels.  Nowadays, it seems almost to go without saying that George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and much of the American military brass gained reputations for stubbornness and closed-mindedness during the occupation of Iraq, but the nowhere-predicted success of the early Afghan campaign wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t rejected off-the-shelf go-heavy war plans and demanded something quicker, faster, and, in the event, quite sufficiently deadly.

A range of immediate lessons, good and bad and contradictory, were drawn from the results.  The culmination of the war was, of course, marred by the escape of Al Qaeda’s #1 and #2 public enemies, and gave rise to the unprovable assertion that investing American divisions in the mountains around Tora Bora, if possible at all, might have led to better returns.  On the other hand, taking down a country “on the cheap” may have contributed to over-promising and under-planning of the Iraqi enterprise, even while increasing motivation in the regular army to get its own kind of war to prove itself. 

Yet the Mazar campaign’s deepest lesson, from Stanton’s perspective, seems to be on the need to work with and among indigenous forces, even to the point of looking the other way as yesterday’s blood enemy becomes today’s blood brother. I think it’s by now widely accepted that in Iraq this approach eventually proved more important than Jetsons technology, and the point is worth keeping in mind today before we react too impulsively to word of negotiations with “moderate” Taliban or of other political or cultural compromises, and even if we also recognize new support for the old wisdom that no war is ever completely won. 

There were Taliban who, it was said, would dismember a child to discourage acts of defiance, and a true Qaedist might be holding a ready grenade as he offered surrender, but, like the eventual Sons of Iraq or the tribal fighters of Pakistan, the rank and file of whatever jihadist army will almost always be made up of men (and boys) who possessed few options on the day they were inducted. Giving them other choices won’t be the primary basis for our extended intervention in their affairs – we have other aims – but in Stanton’s telling, the men in and beyond whatever fragmentary front lines, who can never be accused of squeamishness or cowardice, would be among the first to tell you that co-opting the bad guys, at least the not-too-bad ones, is the only way to destroy the enemy. 

Of course, it wouldn’t be war, and it especially wouldn’t be the War on Terror as we came to know it, if any happy conclusion stood unchallenged. Partnering with the locals, conscripting from the enemy’s ranks, sending the rest home is far from foolproof as a method. It can often mean, may inherently mean, that at the moment of victory you may be closer than ever to defeat. Stanton’s own narrative is structured around the widely known, little understood treacherous mass surrender to unprepared captors at Mazar-i-Sharif’s Qala-i-Janghi prison-fortress, the notorious “House of War.” The near-disaster of the ensuing rebellion, which took Mike Spann’s life and also led to the discovery of John Walker Lindh’s identity, is summed up from the perspective of Special Forces Major Mark Mitchell, surveying the carnage as the battle raged:

Mitchell lowered his binoculars. These guys just won’t die. He had no idea how any man could have withstood yesterday’s bombardment. As he looked down into the fortress, at the blood soaking the dirt floor, he saw hundreds of suicidal Taliban Al Qaeda fighters firing rifles, rockets, throwing grenades.

If these fighters escaped the fortress, if they broke through these walls and escaped into the scrum of Mazar-i-Sharif’s streets, it might take the entire winter to recapture the lost ground. If they escaped, Mitchell reasoned, it might be impossible to hold off the larger enemy force.

At this moment, as Mitchell and his comrades contemplate the prospect of being swept from Northern Afghanistan by an army that just days earlier seemed to be collapsing, Horse Soldiers becomes more than a tale of heroism and daring, just as the Mazar campaign comes to represent more than a set of technological, theoretical, and practical military breakthroughs – more even than a strategic keystone: It becomes the war itself in microcosm.

Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan
Doug Stanton
Hardcover: 416 pages
Publisher: Scribner (May 5, 2009)

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The Next 100 Years: Why the 21st Century Will Be an American Century

The first, last, and main thing to understand about the 21st Century as George Friedman, founder of the security consulting and forecasting firm STRATFOR, sees it unfolding is that the more things change, the more a few things not only stay the same, but become even more so.

Friedman’s approach is thoroughly geopolitical, and it’s almost tautological to observe that the most important geopolitical factor is geography – which in turn means that everybody trying to make a case for Sinophobia, Islamophobia, Russophobia, Indophobia, or any other conceivable -phobia (or -philia) attached to a nation, region, religion, or ideology will have to contend with facts of life that don’t change, at least in the human time-scale. In short, the global economy is critically and fundamentally dependent on oceangoing trade; North America, the North American economy, and specifically the U.S. Navy dominate the oceans; and this predominance, now firmly established, is self-reinforcing and extremely difficult to dislodge. It produces a series of relatively simple U.S. strategic objectives, as well as fairly straightforward means of achieving them affordably – and, in the final analysis, almost everything else is distraction.

In Friedman’s view, geography explains why America became rich and powerful.  You can attribute American success to democratic capitalism, but it was geography that made democratic capitalism of the American type possible. In this sense, geography is why we were in a position to win the 20th Century War of the World that finished Europe, and set up a finals match between ourselves and the Soviet Union; why the Soviet Union never really had much of a chance; and why the outlines were already visible to people like de Tocqueville and others when the United States was (or were) a small and fractious confederation as much as it was a nation, Russia was a backwater, and all of the action was emanating from Western Europe.

It’s also why, looking ahead, China and India are more likely to fragment and recede than to grow and lead; why Turkey is more important than Iran; why Islam is not an existential threat and why in fact the idea may be laughable; and why certain patterns of conflict, such as between the U.S. and Japan or between the U.S. and any power threatening to dominate the Eurasian landmass, are likely sooner or later to recur and to follow familiar paths – mainly to the benefit of the U.S.

It’s not fair, but don’t blame Friedman.  He wasn’t the one who created a rich, arable, relatively easily traversable, thinly populated but eminently inhabitable continent with multiple ports on both of the world’s most important oceans.

This unique position, or its results, explain further why we can afford to be sloppy, wasteful, and moody – oscillating between overconfidence and despair; why when we “lose” we so often win despite ourselves; why events that loom very large in the American public mind at one or another point in history can be all but forgotten a few years later; why citizens of less favored lands pay a much steeper price for our mistakes than we do; why we recover more quickly than anyone else can; and why no matter how much we’re envied, resisted, and hated, we’ll likely never be without friends, clients, and customers.

Unabashedly but not naively pro-American, Friedman also remains unperturbed by our recent national agonies in Southeast Asia and the Middle East: “These conflicts are merely isolated episodes in U.S. history, of little lasting importance – except to Vietnamese and Iraqis.” After explaining how our “barbarism” in such matters – a term Friedman uses descriptively, not judgmentally – works to our advantage, to the dismay of nations with much smaller “margins of error,” Friedman then sums up the “U.S.-jihadist war,” which he sees as “slither[-ing] to an end”:

An Islamic world in chaos, incapable of uniting, means the United States has achieved its strategic goal.  One thing the United States has indisputably done since 2001 is to create chaos in the Islamic world, generating animosity toward America – and perhaps terrorists who will attack it in the future.  But the regional earthquake is not coalescing into a regional superpower.  In fact, the region is more fragmented than ever, and this is likely to close the book on this era.  U.S. defeat or stalemate in Iraq and Afghanistan is the likely outcome, and both wars will appear to have ended badly for the United States. … But on a broader, more strategic level, that does not matter.  So long as the Muslims are fighting each other, the United States has won its war.

Sure, in addition to leading to loss of life and treasure, this kind of thing leaves people angry, but, as Friedman is quick to point out:  “Anger does not make history.  Power does.”

Finally, this same higher, virtually from-orbit perspective enables Friedman to handle our current economic troubles in a few sentences:

The U.S. economy has a net worth measured in hundreds of trillions of dollars.  Therefore, a debt crisis measuring a few trillion cannot destroy it.  The problem is, how can this country’s net worth be used to cover the bad loans, since that net worth is in hundreds of millions of private hands?  Only the government can do that, and it does it by guaranteeing the debts, using the state’s sovereign taxing power, and utilizing the Federal Reserve’s ability to print money to bail out the system.

“The crisis of 2008,” he continues,” is hardly a defining moment. Think of it as a straw in the wind, a sign of things to come.”

In other words, Friedman’s not quite Glenn Beck about our present difficulties, and is probably inclined to give Obama-Geithner-Bernanke more latitude than most conservatives will be, but he’s not a Polyanna either:  He thinks we’re heading for a demographically driven economic crisis truly worthy of the name, but expects it to arise in the 2030 time frame, not next year or 2016, and expects us to be, as ever, comparatively well-positioned to handle it – and, in good time, to move on. Though Obama in particular may not, from a geopolitical view, have or need as much freedom of movement as some may wish to believe, or as Obama himself has sometimes pretended, there’s also nothing in Friedman’s analysis that prevents us from criticizing Obama-Geithner-Bernanke for handling things less well than they could or should, or that prevents us from taking advantage of the next American mood swing to correct for Obama-era over-corrections.  Indeed, if Friedman’s right, it’s by no means too early to begin preparing for problems that may be much more challenging and transformative than the ’08 financial crisis and the Conflict Formerly Known As The War On Terror.

Whether you’re pleased, dismayed, surprised, or simply unpersuaded by Friedman’s depiction of a war in 2050 precipitated by a Turko-Japanese alliance, of an eventual showdown within North America itself, of nearer term hopeless maneuvers by Russia and China, or of the technological, economic, and social changes that will accompany, drive, or be driven by such events, his guesstimates and projections always combine ruthless logic and well-informed, relentlessly fact-based extrapolations.  The effect may shake your assumptions, or at least shake you out of habitual modes of thought, and it may be especially welcome to Americans who’ve lately been given to exaggerated fear, pessimism, and despair – or, in some quarters, to unrealistic expectations – about the state of our nation and the world.

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century
George Friedman
Hardcover: 272 pages
Doubleday (January 27, 2009)

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Why Miss Kali's Breasts Are So Darn Important

How telling that the exposure (the precise degree of exposure!) as well as the naturalness of a beauty pageant contestant’s breasts became central elements in the pseudo-debate over whether or not she deserved to keep her crown, and would be a suitable pro-marriage spokesperson.

Why are beauty pageant organizers so accepting of the aesthetic prejudice in favor of larger, more prominent breasts, to the point that those organizers would even help arrange and fund breast augmentation for a contestant who (as the controversial pictures make quite obvious) had already been  quite adequately endowed by mother nature in this regard?

The answer is obvious:  Because people are still generally attached to the notion that voluptuousness is to some degree more desirable in a young “marriageable” single woman.

Why is voluptuousness desirable?  Presumably because it implies greater suitability to the bearing of children – though partly also because on a deeper psychological, but not unrelated level, it recalls to the observer the primary relationship between mother and infant (the critical developmental period during which the mother’s breast connotes the infant’s comfort and sustenance).

In other words, beauty pageants are in very unsubtle ways fertility rites:  “Beauty” in a young woman is still presumptively tied to her ability to produce, nurse, and care for children.  Thus also, the shadow of what earlier eras referred to as “virtue,” including a symbolic virginity, in the proscription against having had overly “revealing” photos of oneself published.  How ironic indeed it is for a contestant to lose favor, even to be condemned, for speaking in favor of “opposite sex” (procreative) marriage in contrast to “same sex” (non-procreative) marriage!

It would be like disqualifying an athlete from MVP consideration for being good at the game.  It’s almost as absurd as the notion that same sex marriage and opposite sex marriage are the same thing or can or should be treated as the same thing.

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Down in the Dungeon with the Torture Trolls (warning: rated J for Japanese graphic violence)

saw_ver91To my knowledge, neither Andrew Sullivan nor Glenn Greenwald is a member of the HotAir community – though I suspect their requests for user-accounts would be granted.  Closed registration keeps out the garden variety trolls that infest more open sites.  Yet we do have a handful of left-of-right regulars to help us maintain contact with that interminable paranoid nightmare the Kossacks call “reality.”   I’m thinking of two regulars in particular who came to dominate discussion under two prior posts of mine on or referring to the so-called (and prejudicially) “torture” issue:  Their contributions exemplify why, inevitably, this topic is at once so fascinatingly painful, so dangerous and yet ineluctable for all concerned.

Many HotAir regulars know sesquipedalian and strangelet, and also know that, though they’ve been known to troll, or walk on the troll side, they’re not really trolls.  Troll is as troll does, and, once you get past their initial reflexes (something virtually impossible with a true troll), past their compulsively expressed disdain for “gun freaks, jesus freaks and pro-life nuts,” once you’ve fended off their rhetorical elbows and massaged your verbal shins, and as long as you keep one hand in jugular protection position and the other one within easy reach of your snickersnee, and didn’t forget your cup, and wore your steel-toed boots, and your helmet, and you vary your schedule and avoid all other routines, they turn out to be smart, articulate, thoughtful – even witty – well-meaning idealists capable of dialogue and seemingly even looking for it.

Yet, in my opinion, they remain controlled, where not consumed, by emotion on this topic – expressing fear, shame, and anger in varying counterproductive proportions, and determined to share – just like many of their allies, and just like the Troll-in-Chief.

sesqui’s opening salvo on my “Where We Agree with Obama…” post, which included the above-linked “nuts/freaks” excerpt, ends as follows:  “[Y]ou and your ilk brought shame to America.”  “You” in this case would be yours truly.  As for my ilk, if you don’t know whom he means, I understand that the DHS has published a highly informative report.  Anyway, after selected ilk had their say, sesqui came back with another broadside:

torture is disgusting. anyone promoting torture is despicable, no matter who the victim is. i don’t care about your rhetorical tricks trying to reconcile having jesus in your heart with actively advocating the systematic torture of human beings. face your shame

When I pointed out that no one except him, either in the top post or in subsequent posts had mentioned religion, he decided to play the patriot card:

it’s despicable, whether or not you’re a christian. it’s unpatriotic and against our values. shining city on the hill, say [expletive] goodbye to that. you keep telling yourself that they didn’t suffer, that it was just a little roughing’em up – it wasn’t. it was planned, systematic torture, as described above.

you believe former bush people that torture worked. so far, no evidence, only hearsay. you want to believe them, because you can’t face the truth. that we senselessly tortured people, and gained very little from it. we tortured people not just to stop a ticking bomb, but to gather the “mosaic” info, random data that may be useful one day. we tortured people for that.

Notice how many times the word “torture” or close variations is repeated in the above and prior excerpts:  sesqui has his hands on an implement that he expects will inflict pain, and so he pokes it in, and in, and in where he expects to find a nerve center.

At the same time, he helps ensure that the discussion is about torture, exploiting the pre-judgment of the issue briefly noted above, and seen everywhere these days in the phrase “torture memos.”  Torture per se is never precisely defined in these discussions – among other things because it can’t be (see below).  In most discourse from the left, it now appears to be peremptoritly equated with “what’s in the memos.”  Now as before, it’s circular:  We know the Bushies tortured because “what the Bushies did” is our definition of torture.

This approach works well for torture trolls for several reasons, prominently among them the fact that the Bush team was consciously struggling to develop effective interrogation procedures without “torturing.”  Regardless of whatever moral judgments you make – if you believe, say, along with some 60% of Americans who usually tell pollsters that torture should remain an option at least in “rare instances” – the US has aligned itself against torture, by treaty with force of law, as ratified under Ronald Reagan, as re-affirmed by Congress under Bill Clinton, and as re-affirmed again by and under George W Bush.  Here’s the United Nations Convention Against Torture, to which the US was a signatory as of 1988 – the full text having been helpfully provided to us by none other than sesquipedalian himself, with my emphases:

Article 1.
1. For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.
2. This article is without prejudice to any international instrument or national legislation which does or may contain provisions of wider application.

Article 2.
1. Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.
2. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.
3. An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.

In other words, US public officials and lawyers don’t have the option of freely indulging in thought experiments.  They can’t, just for the sake of discussion, say, “Well, under a broad definition of torture, waterboarding and humiliating KSM was torture, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t the right thing to do.”  If they say that, then they’re outlaw torturers for life in every warren, grotto, and cave of the internet, the mass media, and the Democratic Party – coming soon to congressional committee or federal court near you.  They can’t muse aloud about the history of torture, about cultures and whole civilizations, Christian and non-Christian, tribal and imperial, that viewed torture completely differently, and in ways that are arguably no more or less arbitrary than ours.  They can’t, in their official roles, come on HotAir and say, “Well, if you put it like that, yes, I’d go medieval on Abu Zubaydah’s a$$ if I thought it was the only way to save a city – or to save my own family.”  If they do give voice to such beliefs and sentiments – beliefs and sentiments shared by many, many of their fellow citizens, and by the vast majority of human beings ever to walk the planet (sociopaths being the main exceptions) – then they are putting themselves outside the law of the land, which has, in my view short-sightedly and dishonestly, spread-eagled us on a transnational table, and tied us down with all-encompassing ambiguity.

As Green Roomer coldwarrior asked, when confronted by sesquipedalian in an unusually calm colloquy, “What qualifies as severe pain and suffering?”  There can be no single answer:  We’re lost in the Derridean mirror-world in which definitions of words are merely other words, everything is everything, and the eye altering alters all.  And there is no shortage of volunteers ready to don the hood and go right after our eyes.

Why did we put ourselves into the hands of future transnational inquisitors?  It’s not just some international version of Stockholm Syndrome, where we’ve come to love our global captors.  In a series of conflicts going back to the colonial era, Americans have defined themselves, justified themselves in war and conquest, against a series of enemies depicted as torturers:  Native American “savages,” slavers, Imperial Japanese, Communists, Saddamists, terrorists.  The Revolutionary generation’s “self-evident” truths against the British Empire were broader, but inclusive on this theme:  A country founded with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness in mind, deeply protective of the individual against the state as throughout the Bill of Rights, is implicitly a country founded against torture.  What “shocks the conscience” – to use the oft-invoked American legal standard – isn’t just that torture is “disgusting” in the eye of whatever beholder, but that it inherently and immediately pre-empts and contradicts everything we stand for.

This is what, it seems, really gets to strangelet, and how could you not be sympathetic?  Now, when playing droll-troll, she’s the smart-alecky grrl who knows us and our interests better than we do.  One of her favorite tactics, when not l-ing ol at the conserva-rubes, is to cite some right- or middle-winger who appears to have broken ranks.  It’s the “your friends are betraying you” tactic that every interrogator uses.  Yet, strangelet is even less a good bad cop than she is a consistent troll.  In the end, like sesqui, she drops the accuser pose and joins the parade of witness/victims, unforgivably tortured by our willingness to torture, exhibiting her wounds for a jury:

Don’t you think that Sesqui and I (and other likeminded Americans) would have protested if we had known?
I dismissed Cole and Sully [app. Prof. Juan Cole and blogger Andrew Sullivan] because I simply could not believe my country would torture.
I did look away, I was in denial, but not in the way you assume.

That last sentence refers to an earlier exchange in which she had equated herself with Alexei “Alyosha” Karamazov, the “good” brother Karamazov.  Unlike us (Ivans, Dmitrys, Fyodors, Smerdyakovs all), she “could not do it,” could not, in her proferred example, harm the innocent child to save the nation.

In a somewhat similar vein, once drawn into expounding his own position (before lapsing back into attempts to shock and torment us with fragmentary narratives of “torture”), sesqui imagines some future regime under which heroic volunteers will protect him and us from terrorists, then willingly face the consequences:

in case of an impending attack, i’d of course hope that they would do whatever to stop it, but if they break the law, i’d see their punishment afterward as sad but proper. by torturing terrorists to stop an attack, they’d make themselves tragic heroes who compromised themselves for doing “the right thing,” that is, defending the country. immediately afterward, bizarre as it may sound, our priority becomes that they are brought to those extremely rare cases, if indeed it has ever even gotten close to that, there really is a bomb ticking somewhere, as a human being i’d expect them to go beyond the limit, but i’d consider it one of the great tragedies of life, when someone compromises himself to save something greater. he becomes corrupted by his act.

The dramatic recitation is also almost worthy of Dostoevsky, though alert readers may identify it instead as the predicament of warrior-saint Jack Bauer at the beginning of this season’s 24, willingly facing the music, undergoing crucifiction by congressional committee.  As for sesqui and strangelet specifically, you almost have to admire the courage it takes to confess such cowardice, and the honesty of the commitment to dishonesty, the open denial, even under internet pseudonyms.  In their America, the citizenry will be allowed to pretend innocence, beneficiaries of the actions of Bauer-like heroes, who, in order to preserve the former’s sense of inviolate moral sanctity, will then be subjected to the harshest possible retrospective judgment.

It’s ironic and telling in this context – and I don’t pretend to be the first to point this out – that our national self-torment regarding torture has played out during a period in which so-called “torture porn” has been one of the “hot” genres of popular art.

road_to_guantanamo_ver3The poster to the right looks like it’s for any old torture porn movie – and maybe that’s a fair description (I haven’t seen the film).   The imagery was intended to attract people to a documentary film detailing charges of severe mistreatment, what some would call torture, by the US military of Guantanamo inmates. The designer clearly understood that the elements that attract people to this topic include prurient interest, fear, sadomasochistic identification with both the torturers and the tortured, and other inchoate and complex emotional states and investments; many of the same things that draw people to movies like SAW or HOSTEL. Like rather similar poster images for the fictional torture porn films CAPTIVITY and SAW II, it was rejected for theatrical use by the Motion Picture Association of America.

This odd intersection of documentary and fictional torture film aesthetics is not purely a coincidence, in my opinion, just as it’s no coincidence that the torture trolls and others like to focus on childish and irrelevant SAW-like fantasy dilemmas:  Would you torture a child to save Manhattan?  Would you gouge out a suspect’s eyeball on a 50/50 chance of good intelligence?  There is undoubtedly somewhere some pierced and tattooed hate-boy whose favorite blogger is Andrew Sullivan, whose favorite director is Eli Roth, and who is convinced of his moral superiority to Dick Cheney, Jay Bybee, and you, and is desperate to tell you all about it.

We’re all KSM on this topic – undergoing a harsh interrogation completely beyond our control, unsure of where it could be heading, wondering whether our very political and moral lives are at stake.  We’re all Jay Bybee, too, asking ourselves the same questions, from the perspective of the master, not the slave, dreadfully responsible no matter what we do, morally endangered by our relative safety, in thrall to our very freedom to choose.  And there’s no way to know where this process will end:  In the shadow of another if very different “reign of terror,” the writings of the Marquis De Sade were said eventually to have reached every literate French citizen – and if they did any good, the corpses strewn from Paris to Egypt to Iberia to Moscow and back suggest that the effect remained long delayed, at best.

Or how’s this for torture porn?  In the Concentration Camp at Buchenwald, the same building used for interrogations in the daytime was used as an SS-run for-profit inmates’ movie theater in the evenings, the instruments of torture moved aside to make for projector, screen, and seats.  Over the course of that same war, on the good side, the US began with a posture that “area bombing” was inhumane and repugnant.  Gradually, we accepted that our less well-equipped, already area-bombed major ally would engage in the practice – the strategic aerial version of “rendition” to torturing regimes.  Finally, we began to do it as well, at first offering contingent justifications (we were attacking “communications” or “economic” centers),  until finally we were incinerating whole cities in an express effort to compel the enemy to surrender.

Maybe we should never have done it.  Maybe we should have been doing it from the beginning.  Maybe we’re doomed (or maybe we’re lucky) never to recall at the outset of hostilities where the logic of war can drive us by their end, and where the logic of peace tends to drive us back.

Finally, I’ll say first that I appreciate (most of) sesqui and strangelet’s challenges, and I’m prepared to try to understand anyone’s position on these most difficult issues, and to defend my own.  In brief, I support a policy that allows for the application of minimum necessary physical force (including drugs and other technical means) to obtain time-critical information from captive out-of-uniform combatants, subject to consultation with and review by all branches of government.  In practice, I think it would look like a combination of Alan Dershowitz’s “torture warrants” proposal and the ad hoc, consultative and precedent-controlled decisions of the Bush Office of Legal Counsel and associated intelligence and law enforcement personnel.

There’s much said about what “message” we send by what we’ve done or by what we choose to reveal about what we’ve done.  I’d like us to say – that is, to admit, to others and to ourselves – that we will take what measures we need to take in order to protect ourselves and our way of life, and the lives of innocents.  We will strive to do so with pragmatism, honesty, courage, and reason, not fear or shame or evasion or convenient fiction or ad hoc panic.

And if you don’t want to trust our judgment about what’s necessary to achieve our vital objectives, then don’t commit acts of terror against us or our allies.

UPDATE:  My estimate of 60% of Americans supporting torture in at least “rare” instances was based on scanning several polls conducted over the last few years (including some apparent outliers).  James Taranto, in today’s BEST OF THE WEB, cites current Pew Research’s opinion polling that puts the numbers consistently closer to 70-30 regarding “torture of suspected terrorists to gain information,” with nearly half of the respondents regularly falling into “sometimes/often” aggregated from among the four options:  “never,” “rarely,” “sometimes,” “often.”

Posted in Politics, The Exception, Torture Tagged with: ,

Noted & Quoted


Trump actually congratulated Erdogan on the outcome. Trump apparently thought it was a good thing that, despite all the flaws in the process, a bare majority of Turkey’s citizens voted to strengthen their populist leader. I don’t think any other post-Cold War president would have congratulated a democratic ally that held a flawed referendum leading to a less democratic outcome. This is not that far off from Trump congratulating Putin on a successful referendum result in Crimea if that event had been held in 2017 rather than 2014.

Public disquiet and behind-the-scenes pressure on key illiberal allies is an imperfect policy position. It is still a heck of a lot more consistent with America’s core interests than congratulating allies on moving in an illiberal direction. In congratulating Erdogan, Trump did the latter.

For all the talk about Trump’s moderation, for all the talk about an Axis of Adults, it’s time that American foreign policy-watchers craving normality acknowledge three brute facts:

  1. Donald Trump is the president of the United States;
  2. Trump has little comprehension of how foreign policy actually works;
  3. The few instincts that Trump applies to foreign policy are antithetical to American values.
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He sensed that the public wanted relief from the burdens of global leadership without losing the thrill of nationalist self-assertion. America could cut back its investment in world order with no whiff of retreat. It would still boss others around, even bend them to its will...

There was, to be sure, one other candidate in the 2016 field who also tried to have it both ways—more activism and more retrenchment at the same time. This was, oddly enough, Hillary Clinton... Yet merely to recall Clinton’s hybrid foreign-policy platform is to see how pallid it was next to Trump’s. While she quibbled about the TPP (which few seemed to believe she was really against), her opponent ferociously denounced all trade agreements—those still being negotiated, like the TPP, and those, like NAFTA and China’s WTO membership, that had long been on the books. “Disasters” one and all, he said. For anyone genuinely angry about globalization, it was hard to see Clinton as a stronger champion than Trump. She was at a similar disadvantage trying to compete with Trump on toughness. His anti-terrorism policy—keep Muslims out of the country and bomb isis back to the Stone Age—was wild talk, barely thought through. But for anyone who really cared about hurting America’s enemies, it gave Trump more credibility than Clinton’s vague, muddled talk of “safe zones” ever gave her.

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As they war with the right, though, Trump and Kushner would gain no quarter from Democrats—unless Democrats were allowed to set the all the terms. This is Bannon’s central point. Democrats have no incentive to prop up Trump’s presidency for half-loaf compromises that many will suspect are contaminated with seeds of Trumpism. Trump can adopt or co-opt the Democrats’ infrastructure platform outright if he likes, but he can’t easily entice them to compromise with him, and he can’t entice House Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to advance a trillion dollar direct-spending bill filled with environmental and labor protections that the GOP exists to oppose.

Which is just to say, Kushner wants Trump to chart a new course that leads to a substantive dead end for at least another 19 months. Bannon’s path, at least, preserves the hope of keeping his base consolidated through the legislative ebb. He can deregulate, scapegoat, and unburden law enforcement to turn his Herrenvolk fantasy into reality—all while keeping congressional investigators at bay.

There’s no real logical rebuttal to this, except to point to three months of chaos and humiliation as indicative of the futility of continuing to do things Bannon’s way. That is really an argument that Trump should get rid of both of his top advisers, but Trump is unlikely to grasp that in a contest between loyalists, both might deserve to lose. Family loyalty, and the beating his ego will take when the stories of his first 100 days are written, will pull him toward his son-in-law. And that’s when the real fun will begin.

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State of the Discussion

+ Wade, your last paragraph is crucial to your argument. Certainly it expresses economically the source of the weight of a country's foreign policy, and [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic
CK MacLeod
Comments this threadCommenter Archive
+ Not sure where you got the idea that I ever wrote “[President Trump] doesn’t know what he’s doing!!!!!!" - bob's idea for a possible rallying [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic
Wade McKenzie
Comments this threadCommenter Archive
+ The conversation that you and Bob were having at the time that I wrote my comment had everything to do with the recent missile strike [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic