2014-12-17 / Opinion

American strength, American justice

The enemies of the United States have long underestimated the resolve and the ferocity of Americans who have been attacked en masse.

Our response to them traditionally has not been political, but cultural, social, moral and righteous.

In that triumphant righteousness, perhaps — more than in any weapon or battle strategy — lies our greatest strength. We have exercised it not simply by triumphing in war, but by subsequently triumphing in peace and its related strategies: civility, relative generosity, tolerance and even some empathy for enemies we have been, and remain, justified in loathing.

Just or not, however, war is hell, as Civil War Gen. William T. Sherman once said. And war on the ground is famously known to bring out the best and the worst in Americans — or anybody else who champions it or becomes victimized by it.

In World War II, for example, while Marines in the Pacific fought vicious battles in which “uncommon valor was a common virtue,” as Admiral Chester Nimitz described what he saw at Iwo Jima, they also behaved in ways we don’t run up the flagpole of remembrance and pride.

In a documentary about the fighting on Peleliu, for example, one veteran remembered a fellow Marine spotting gold teeth in the mouth of a wounded and conscious Japanese soldier. That Marine pulled out ht his knife, approached the man, and began to cut the teeth out of his head. The Marine recallingr that moment noted wh that he had walked over and shot the prisoner, to end his suffering.

But such torture, whether to gain gold teeth or intelligence gold, was not the standard, nor was it ever the policy of American leaders who were in or out of the field of battle.

On the whole, Americans did not torture the Germans they captured, or the Japanese. That policy dated from the beginning of the war and was established by the president, by federal elected officials, by high-ranking military officers, and by commanders in the field, historians report.

In part the American policy was a moral position and in part it was a strategic gambit — if we didn’t torture them, maybe they wouldn’t torture us, Roosevelt and others figured.

In the Pacific, we didn’t take many prisoners until late in the war. The racism of our own troops may have played a role along with the Japanese themselves, who were famously trained not to surrender. They expected to be killed, and when they weren’t, they sometimes talked.

In the European theater, we learned that torture didn’t work, according to U.S. Army personnel of German-Jewish extraction who were trained to interrogate German prisoners. Instead, Americans used both kindness and threats — the threat of turning over Germans to the Russians, who had no such compunction about torture, anymore than the Japanese, the Germans or the Chinese had.

All of them committed countless grotesque and inhumane acts against their prisoners.

But we did not, apparently, both as a matter of policy and, usually, as a matter of practice.

To be able to make that claim now is not only nearly unprecedented among nations of power and global sweep, but it remains a sterling emblem of a nation’s extraordinary character — or has until recently.

Even in Korea and Vietnam where atrocities occurred, torture was never condoned by American leaders.

But now an exhaustive Senate report created by both Democrats and Republicans shows unequivocally that a former president, vice president, Washington staffers, and heads of the Central Intelligence Agency systematically ordered and condoned the torture of prisoners captured by Americans after Sept. 11, 2001.

For the first time since before Abraham Lincoln served as president beginning in 1861, American leaders have not only admitted it, but they’re aggressively defending their actions (waterboarding, raping with rectal tubes, and so on) in a public media campaign designed to convince you and me that they did the right thing.

A few things need to be said about this right off the bat.

First, these are facts based on CIA records. The facts are not in dispute. We systematically tortured prisoners.

Second, these prisoners were or are heinous men — some of them. Others were wrongly held. But whether the torture worked in gaining intelligence, and no matter how evil the prisoners, is irrelevant (the facts show that the torture did not work in any key or significant way).

And third, the American leaders who did this and condoned it after first lying about it have not only broken our laws, but they’ve deeply undermined our greatest strength as Americans: that we are not like our enemies. We will kill them if they come after us, but we will not behave like they behave. Ever.

There’s unprecedented power in that insistence. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and others betrayed that power. There’s unequalled righteousness in that insistence. They’ve surrendered that righteousness in our names.

When people post Facebook photos of bodies falling from the twin towers on 9/11 and write, “This is why I don’t care how we get our information” — in other words, by torture — I’m deeply sympathetic. But I also recognize that they’ve misunderstood our character, our greatest weapon, and our innate toughness and grace.

So I’m humiliated to have to write this column — and to point out two Florida residents who not only are now defending this betrayal, but feting it: retired Air Force psychologist James Mitchell, who paddled up the Myakka River near his home recently with an investigative reporter from Vice News to talk about his post-9/11 contract with the CIA (he designed the torture program, records show); and retired former U.S. Rep. and CIA head Porter Goss, who let the agency do its dirty work along with his predecessor, George Tenet, and the man who followed him, retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden.

If we want to set a better example of American righteousness than the one we have now surrendered to our enemies, we will prosecute these individuals — evenly, fairly, and in a very public court of law. ¦

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