06/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

War is Torture

One of the most obscene aspects of the current debate about torture is this discussion about whether it "worked." If it "worked," then perhaps it should be utilized. I can imagine a parallel discussion we might have: is rape effective as an instrument of war? If it is effective, let's write in statutes which declare the appropriate time and place to implement mass rape.

I would like to balance this crazy talk about whether torture is good policy with a counter-balancing, air-clearing, broad assertion: war is torture. After all, in torture you are in a room and slowly apply horrendous pain to the human body. In war you expend great effort and treasury to fling bits of metal into the soft tissue of other human beings. Apparently most Americans can agree with that. But torture. . . . the jury of public opinion is still out.

W.H. Auden wrote that, "war is simple like a monument" and that "we can watch a thousand faces made active by one lie." The one lie in this case is the Bush administration's weapons of mass destruction ploy, masking a desire to conquer and westernize the Middle East.

The truth is, war is torture. Especially imperial war, one set out for conquest, to dominate weaker nations in order to extract tribute. It is always based on violence, humiliation, and rape. It dehumanizes and depends on a brutalizing of the soldiers who carry it out. It is no aberration that the Israel Defense Forces bursting into Gaza sported t-shirts such as the one reported in Israel's Haaretz newspaper of March 20, 2009, showing a pregnant Palestinian woman with a bull's-eye superimposed on her belly, with the slogan, in English, "1 shot, 2 kills."

This official torture was not only about flailing bodies up to the point of death, as over 100 prisoners died in US custody under suspicious conditions, at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and countless hidden CIA prisons. The particular reason the current torture scandal is challenging for our society is that for the first time a policy which the US has promulgated for decades through proxies has come home to roost - has been tied to actual justifications and official approval.

Make no mistake about it, Americans have been committing torture, and training others in its techniques, long before Iraq. US forces committed torture in Vietnam at such places as Paulo Condor prison and oversaw South Vietnamese troops carrying out torture interrogations - some of which is caught on film. Cuban exiles working for the CIA have testified that they were trained in torture techniques for anti-communist missions in Latin America. Military forces of Uruguay, Chile, Guatemala and elsewhere have been famous for their torture activities, often under direct CIA supervision, sometimes as a result of training at the Pentagon-operated School of the Americas. The French did it in Algeria. The apartheid regime did it in South Africa. And torture is no secret in US police forces: beatings and officially sanctioned male rape are routine parts of American prison life; Chicago police commander Jon Burge was only recently arrested for decades of torture-induced confessions in the Brighton Park precinct.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham blithely remarked the other day that we should not get so worked up about torture. After all, he said, "Let's have both sides of the story here. I mean, one of the reasons these techniques have survived for about 500 years is apparently they work." Apparently so, Senator Graham. They did wonders for the Inquisition. But, as with the Inquisition, they were not used to extract information but to slice, burn, terrorize, and break people who disagreed with those in power. And, just perhaps, they provided some kind of perverse thrill to the torturers - many report a kind of libidinous drive on those who really get into it.

Is torture, violence, and lynching effective? Actually, Senator Graham, it sometimes is - for awhile. Look at the way white power held sway in South Carolina in the 70 or so years after Reconstruction. Terrorism against the black community, perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan as well as the official police, apparently worked. But, in the end, senator, it leads to resistance, revolution. People don't countenance torture indefinitely.

Today we see the military trying to clean up its occupation project, to create an Obama-era occupation narrative. An example of a kinder, gentler, war story is the one told by Marine Captain Donovan Campbell in his memoir Joker One. Campbell tells the story of a humane Marine Corps, simply trying to protect children from the bad guys in Ramadi. He goes on NPR and gets all weepy telling about the heroic restraint of his troops, knowing they had to do the honorable thing and never harm an innocent.

Impossible. War is torture, imperial war is torture and rape, and no amount of image burnishing will help it. It is hell for the victims of the occupation. And it takes a terrible toll on the psyche of the occupiers, as Frantz Fanon demonstrated in his studies of French soldiers in Algeria who suffered from the stress of combat and of torturing the Algerians. Even then, the French used psychiatrists to help deal with the stress of war. And these days the Americans are engaged in a new discussion of the problems of stress after Army Sgt. John Russell - serving his third deployment and suffering a breakdown - killed five American soldiers.

But we should be discussing how the use of psychiatrists to "deal with" trauma of war in such unnatural, dehumanizing projects is questionable. Soldiers have stress. Psychiatrists are supposed to talk them through it, help them rationalize war, perhaps even give them mood drugs. Imagine an army of soldiers properly medicated and happily carrying on - what a brave new world. Pat Barker's 1991 novel of World War I, Regeneration, deals with precisely this. It imagines the ethical dilemmas of the real life Dr. W.H.R. Rivers who worked at Craiglockhart Hospital - helping soldiers who had what they called then "shell shock." His question: so should I patch them up, get them healthy, so they can plunge back in to the stupid, wrong, murderous war? Should I make them one more of the thousand faces made active by one lie?

Someone should be asking these, the fundamental, questions.

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