Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Will History Be Kind to Bush? (4)

On Torture, ChrisB says,

Of course, Iraq and the “War on Terror” will bring up Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. I think history’s evaluation of these will be mixed. First, we have to confirm that people do bad things at times, and that the soldiers in Iraq are often the same age as frat boys. Given sufficient stress and peer pressure, 20-year-olds do stupid things. But I think time will provide the perspective to say that making a man wear a dog collar is not torture in the strictest sense of the word.

In Guantanamo, history will, I believe, acknowledge that the US faced an unusual situation – a war not against a nation but a diverse group with no uniforms and no rules. Though it may not judge that we acted properly in all of our treatment of the not-prisoners-of-war there, I think it will at least appreciate the struggle to determine what to do with combatants to whom no rules or precedents apply and who may hold knowledge vital to protecting American civilians and soldiers.

It is hard to know what the final verdict will be of the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “extraordinary renditions.” The administration claims that it has obtained actionable intelligence that has saved American lives. On the other hand many experts insist that coercion doesn’t work because the subject will say whatever he thinks the questioner wants to hear regardless of the truth. If it could be proved that torture worked, history will probably cut Bush some slack on this issue, but any records that might substantiate the administrations claims will no doubt be classified for years to come.

Historians will also have to weigh the benefits obtained from any accurate intellingence against the negative consequences of Bush’s torture policies. For example, information obtained by “enhanced techniques” was used to bolster Colin Powell’s U.N. speech that made the case for war. The cost in chasing down false leads will have to be considered. History will also judge the effect to which torture policies made our job more difficult. The pictures from Abu Graib and the stories of innocent citizens caught up with extraordinary rendition will prove to be a recruiting bonanza for jihadists for years to come.

I would also point out that there were in fact rules and precedents that applied to these combatants. They were known as the Geneva Conventions, which the Bush administration abandoned. The United States had led the world in the humane treatment of prisoners since George Washington refused to engage in torture during the Revolutionary War. America took the high road even when enemies like Japan and North Viet Nam engaged in abusive practices. Abu Ghraib was not simply the result of a few rogue soldiers. It was the result of inadequate planning for the occupation and rebuilding of Iraq as well as the vacuum created when the Bush administration abandoned America’s traditional standards for treating prisoners.


  1. The Geneva Conventions only apply to uniformed soldiers. During WWII, non-uniformed soldiers were shot on sight as spies.

  2. I am afraid you are wrong about the Geneva Conventions Chris. The Fourth Convention covers non-uniformed combatants including spies, saboteurs, and civilians engaged in hostile activities. It was enacted in 1949 to cover groups like the French Resistance. Such individuals do not get the same protections that uniformed soldiers do but they are still entitled to humane treatment.

    During the Vietnam War, the American military regulary had to deal with non-uniformed combatants and its policy was to do so without abandoning the Conventions despite the fact that the North Vietnamese insisted upon treating American fliers like John McCain as unlawful combatants. How ironic that the Bush administration decided to embrace that same logic.

  3. Vinny:

    In this case, I don't think it's quite as cut-and-dry as you state. I'm far from an expert on such matters, but my understanding is that unless the battle involves two states that have both ratified the conventions, the rules governing the treatment of detainees are strongly encouraged, but not required.

    Now, there's still an important difference between what's technically legal and what's right.

  4. TGirsch,

    I think you are correct about that, however, Afghanistan was a party to the Geneva Conventions so Taliban fighters fell within its provisions even though they did not fall within the provisions that applied to uniformed soldiers.