Abu Ghraib and the American Devolution

When I was a kid, I liked the musical band Devo, whose name was derived from their concept that man was devolving. It was funny at the time, but 30 years later I feel compelled to write why torture is wrong, so maybe Devo was right. I wrote about apparent torture at the U.S. naval base in Cuba last December, long before the publication of torture photos from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. There had been dozens of press reports about officially sanctioned abuse of prisoners by U.S. troops, so it was bound to get worse until action was taken.

Much blame falls upon Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who dismissed questions about abuse as a joke, claiming those prisoners were horrible people. This caused severe damage with America’s law abiding allies, and most of these horrible abused prisoners were released this year after the U.S. Army concluded they were innocent. Mankind has been fighting wars for thousands of years; this is not a new issue. The world thought the torture question had been resolved decades ago through the Geneva Conventions. The United States lost 400,000 dead during World War II, but never tortured prisoners to “save lives.” Nevertheless, many devolved Americans have begun to question the ban on torture. Here are four reasons why torture is wrong:

1. Torture may save lives, but is likely to backfire and cause more American deaths in the long term.

There is a debate on whether torture is more effective than bribes, tricks, wiretaps, and informants. Let us assume it is effective and may prevent an attack. The problem is that reports of torture by Americans cause anger toward the U.S. and spawn more terror attacks. One of the reasons that most Iraqis now hate American occupiers is because of the widespread and officially sanctioned torture in Iraq. After the routine torture at Abu Ghraib prison was exposed, the U.S. Army dispatched investigators who determined that 80% of the arrested Iraqis had committed no crime. Whenever there was an explosion in Iraq, American forces arrived and rounded up suspects for interrogation, most were bystanders. These innocent Iraqis have thousands of friends and relatives who now hate American soldiers. This wasn’t a “few bad apples” as some claim. Although the truly nasty photos have not been released, those published show a dozen or more soldiers openly abusing prisoners in the middle of a cell block for everyone to see.

Whenever former CIA Director William Webster was briefed on a proposed covert operation, he would always ask how it will look when it becomes public. Webster knew that most secret operations eventually became public, and the fallout from such disclosures was sometimes more damaging than whatever the operation might accomplish.

If senior leaders in the Pentagon had evaluated the damage to American credibility that would occur WHEN news of torture became public, they would have turned down the idea. In an era of e-mail and digital cameras, any wrongdoing can be exposed worldwide within hours. The senior military man in Iraq, General Ricardo Sanchez, approved the torture and a U.S. Army captain has stated Sanchez was there during torture sessions. This is why Sanchez has been quietly retired, and why a major cover-up is underway. In the end, they’ll lock up a few mid-level officers. See the great movie Breaker Morant for an example of how generals evade blame for war crimes.

2. If the USA ignores the Geneva Conventions, other nations and groups will ignore it.

U.S. troops taken prisoner now face the prospect of torture, not just for information, but as payback. Even the Nazis during World War II generally adhered to the Geneva Conventions. At that time, allied planes were bombing German cities to rubble killing thousands of civilians weekly. Perhaps torturing downed Allied pilots might have provided information to save German lives, but the German military treated allied POWs well. As the French fought to retain their colony in Vietnam during the 1950s, they routinely abused and tortured prisoners. So it was no surprise that the North Vietnamese abused American POWs two decades later in the same Hanoi prison used by the French.

There was outrage in the U.S. during the 1991 Gulf War and the recent invasion of Iraq about the treatment of American POWs. Some Americans were roughed up a bit, but nothing serious. Given the war conditions, the Iraqi medical treatment of Private Jessica Lynch was outstanding. In contrast, an Iraqi general died while being tortured by U.S. Army officers from the 3rd ACR, but the Army was reluctant to press charges. A year before that, two Afghanis died from beatings by American soldiers. An Army doctor listed the cause of death as homicide, yet no charges were ever filed.

Some argue that only POWs are protected by the Geneva Conventions, so anyone labeled as an “enemy combatant” or “terrorist” is not covered. That is false. POWs cannot be charged with crimes committed while fighting. However, all civilians must be treated humanely; no torture. They can be tried and convicted of crimes, and even executed, but not tortured.

3. There are never “ticking time bombs” where torture is justified.

The most common argument for torture is that if a terrorist (or a “commando,” if he is on your side) is caught and brags that a big bomb will explode and kill hundreds of people, he should be tortured to save lives. In such cases, a high-level court or authority could issue a “torture warrant.” This idea is advocated by Alan Dershowitz, who traveled the nation last year promoting it. Unfortunately, the values of most Americans have sunk so low that few were outraged, and Harvard didn’t even fire this “Professor of Law.” If Dershowitz had referred to terror suspects as “niggers,” the nation would be aghast. Indignant idiots would exclaim: “I can’t believe he used the ‘N’ word,” but saying they should be tortured attracted little attention.

The problem with this idea is that no suspect will brag if it will result in torture, or alert his captors to look for and disarm his bomb. In rare cases in which something is about to happen, the information is needed within minutes, and arranging a court hearing or permission from a VIP during that time is near impossible. In addition, “ticking time bombs” are only in movies. A terrorist uses a fuse that explodes a few minutes after he is safely away, or he just blows himself up. Finally, while terror groups may cooperate, they are smart enough to limit the details of an attack to only those who will carry it out. If one member of the group is arrested or is missing, they will abort the attack anyway.

Another issue is that senior government leaders do not want to openly violate international law, lest they find themselves unwelcome at embassy dinner parties and have unkind things said about them in the media. So if they have authority to allow torture in rare and urgent cases, they will delegate that authority down the chain-of-command. However, mid-level officials know to evade blame, too, so the authority is pushed downward verbally until hillbillies from the West Virginia National Guard in Iraq hear vague orders from unknown officers and decide to rough up everyone. They are left unsupervised since officers don’t want to be held accountable. After a few weeks, the situation devolves into anarchy as women and teenage boys are raped, prisoners die from beatings, while children of prisoners are abused to get their fathers to talk. Yes, all this happened in Iraq; read the news.

4. Civilized people don’t torture people.

In the great movie The Bounty, Captain Bligh, played by Anthony Hopkins, and a dozen of his men are set adrift in the South Pacific on a small boat. They are soon starving, and one of the weaker seamen suggests to Bligh that once he dies, the others eat his corpse to survive. Captain Bligh rejects that idea by stating: “No, Sir! We were born as civilized men and we shall die as civilized men.” That statement rings true in regards to torture. There is more to life than staying alive. A society must have standards and laws, and once those are dropped, man will devolve and the society collapse. So if a young soldier or high-level politician suggests they torture a prisoner in hope of getting information which may save lives, the man in charge must know to say: We are civilized and don’t torture people. If we die, then we die as civilized people.

Author: Will Van Wagenen

Will Van Wagenen has a Bachelors Degree in German from Brigham Young University, and a Master's degree in Theology from Harvard University. Will spent seven months in Iraq doing human rights work in 2005-2006. He is a regular contributor to the Mormon Worker.