Sunday, February 11, 2007

the old fraud

Eric Fair, a former civilian interrogator in Iraq, belatedly displays courage in a Washington Post op-ed (via Andrew Sullivan):

A man with no face stares at me from the corner of a room. He pleads for help, but I'm afraid to move. He begins to cry. It is a pitiful sound, and it sickens me. He screams, but as I awaken, I realize the screams are mine.

That dream, along with a host of other nightmares, has plagued me since my return from Iraq in the summer of 2004. Though the man in this particular nightmare has no face, I know who he is. I assisted in his interrogation at a detention facility in Fallujah. I was one of two civilian interrogators assigned to the division interrogation facility (DIF) of the 82nd Airborne Division. The man, whose name I've long since forgotten, was a suspected associate of Khamis Sirhan al-Muhammad, the Baath Party leader in Anbar province who had been captured two months earlier.

The lead interrogator at the DIF had given me specific instructions: I was to deprive the detainee of sleep during my 12-hour shift by opening his cell every hour, forcing him to stand in a corner and stripping him of his clothes. Three years later the tables have turned. It is rare that I sleep through the night without a visit from this man. His memory harasses me as I once harassed him.

Despite my best efforts, I cannot ignore the mistakes I made at the interrogation facility in Fallujah. I failed to disobey a meritless order, I failed to protect a prisoner in my custody, and I failed to uphold the standards of human decency. Instead, I intimidated, degraded and humiliated a man who could not defend himself. I compromised my values. I will never forgive myself.

Atrios reacts:

Aside from the obvious moral evil which led us to this place, it's also important to remember the thinking which brought us there. The people "running" this war were never capable of distinguishing between the vision of the war they were selling to the country for propaganda purposes and the reality of what was happening. Even if torturing people to get "intelligence" was something which actually worked, the premise that such "intelligence" would actually help to solve the situation was based on the fantasy vision of what that problem was. They really believed that there were some evil masterminds with evil lairs - first former Baathists and then various "foreign fighters" - and if only they could find them and kill them then the problems would go away. There was an "enemy" which could somehow be vanquished, and once we did that the ponies would arrive.

This was a cartoon version of the war they tried to sell to the American public, but it was also what was driving their truly barbaric behavior.

I’ll interject that these strategies weren’t simply a product of the benighted fantasies of right-wing wackos in power at the time, they reflect a logical extension of some fundamental premises about the U.S. and its place in the world held by most Americans. More on this below.

Ezra Klein ponders the impact of the war on American exceptionalism:

What America is going through isn't, I think, a revulsion at the physical horrors of war. Nor is it a precise analogue to the Vietnam Syndrome, wherein we question our own power. Our power is massive, our ability to salve ancient ethnic conflicts is less so, but that's a different issue. What no longer looks certain, though, is the righteousness of our cause, the morality of our mission. American exceptionalism is what's taking a beating, even among Americans. We're shocked at the moral transgression of this invasion, and the blithe ease with which the country accepted a tragic conflict which will leave, when all is said and done, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, dead. It is the ease with which we have taken those lives, and the realization that we were capable of doing so immorally and irrationally, that will be most unsettling to the American psyche.

This is probably an accurate description of what is going on in the minds of some people. But I doubt that the capacity to accept responsibility for something most Americans supported at the time extends quite as far as Ezra would like to believe.

First of all, I don’t quite understand the idea of American exceptionalism. Yes, I’d had it drilled into me almost since birth, like everyone else. It goes something like: The U.S. has never lost a war. The U.S. can do no wrong, it spreads democracy and goodness around the world and fights the forces of evil, like a nation-size version of Superman. Without the U.S., the world would be plunged into a Hobbesian nightmare of godless chaos and death.

Then I learned that many people in other countries feel more or less the same way about their own homelands. They may recognize that their nations don’t have the same power to act abroad as the U.S., but that same feeling that their country is smarter, truer, better than all the others, is certainly there. There is a nearly universal tendency, when your nation is in a conflict with another nation, to support your countrymen without question. And this is judged in most cases by most people to be the morally correct thing to do. This seems almost too obvious to waste time pointing out.

I also learned that some leaders in the past had put the love of country in the service of heinous ends. Most famously, Hitler used the supposed need to protect the Fatherland against foreign attack to justify the slaughter and displacement of millions. But he was certainly not the only one; leaders in many times and places have appealed to the sense of national pride in time of conflict to justify the use of violence against outsiders. Most importantly, we were taught, nothing Hitler, Stalin, or Mao ever did in the name of national pride should ever cause us to think twice about the patriotic feelings welling up inside every American heart upon hearing the pledge of allegiance or the national anthem.

So then I thought, what makes our version of national pride more justifiable than all the others? Why is our version of nationalism—sorry, I understand that “patriotism” is the preferred term—better than the others; why are we the One True Nation, and all the others false, or at least lacking something crucial? If there were another major war and the draft were reinstated and I were called up to active duty, how could I justify picking up a rifle and shooting another person for no better reason than that he was born in country X and I was born in country Y? Arguments like “that’s what I was ordered to do” or “that’s what has always been done” or “it’s what everyone else was doing” would not be worth much in a situation like that. The argument “shoot him or he will shoot you first” is a more convincing one, but doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Would he really have broken into my apartment in the middle of the night and shot me in my bed? Probably not. The circumstances under which he and I would have ended up at the same location with guns aimed at each other would probably have less to do with actual threats to safety than with perceived or manufactured ones.

So why should I be willing to kill and be killed in service of this, the One True Nation? Not just willing, but duty bound? Why was I taught in Sunday School to thank the Lord I was born in the land of the free and home of the brave? What makes the U.S. that much better that I should actually consider that I’m doing people in another country a favor by picking up a gun and unloading it into them? Is it because of our democratic beginnings and our 200+ years of uninterrupted republican rule? Is it because we were on the winning side of both world wars? Is it because we have a unique sense of empathy and compassion for the downtrodden of the world? Is it because, as the most powerful country in the world, we have a duty to regulate and police the actions of others for the benefit of all? Is it because we have a special obligation to promote the ideals of the free market and democratic government that will better the lives of people mired in poverty and degradation?

Back to Ezra again:

We're shocked at the moral transgression of this invasion, and the blithe ease with which the country accepted a tragic conflict which will leave, when all is said and done, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, dead. It is the ease with which we have taken those lives, and the realization that we were capable of doing so immorally and irrationally, that will be most unsettling to the American psyche.

Those words would have been even more appropriate if said about the Vietnam War. But now, having been misled into a war in a region most of us knew little about, we find ourselves in a similar situation 35 years later. Granted, we’ve done less of the actual killing ourselves this time around. But the premises that led us into Vietnam have not changed much since then.

Premises such as:

1. The U.S. when it acts abroad does so in the general interest, not simply in its specific national interest.

2. However, and this should in no way be viewed as a contradiction of Premise 1 (!), the U.S. when sending troops into harm’s way only does so to promote a specific national interest. (Any potential contradiction is resolved by assuming that the U.S. national interest and the amorphous collective best interests of the other nations of the world are the same. If any specific national interest of another country conflicts with the U.S. national interest, then the U.S. national interest trumps the other national interest with the understanding that what is good for the U.S. is good for the world, in the long run, after history has ended, at judgment day.)

3. The U.S. is the world’s oldest democracy, and since democratic countries only engage in violence when they must, and the U.S. is a very powerful and enlightened democracy, when the U.S. engages in violence, it will always and everywhere have the effect of promoting democracy.

4. Wha?

I certainly hope that Ezra is right, and that the Iraq War will lead to a widescale reevaluation of our assumptions about our country and how we interact with the rest of the world. But based on the national discourse on the war I’ve witnessed thus far, I’m not optimistic.

Here’s a stab at some new premises to work toward:

1. Each human life has equal worth.

2. Thou shalt not kill.

3. The anarchic international state system has not always existed and may not always exist. It is neither more nor less natural or inevitable than the international political systems which preceded or may follow it.

4. Nobody not a citizen of the U.S. gets any say in how the U.S. conducts its foreign policy. Therefore, the U.S. may or may not act in the interests of non-U.S. citizens, no matter how much it claims that its actions are always taken in the interests of others. It is up to each person to define his or her interests and to decide what actions promote or hinder those interests. These things are not decided by the consensus opinion of Washington punditry.

5. In the (currently) anarchic international arena, where the government of the U.S. is not democratically accountable to anyone not a citizen of the U.S., the U.S. is not a priori morally superior to any other nation-state. Being democratic or powerful does not insulate it from moral judgment. It should be (and, outside the U.S., is) judged by its actions as any other state would be. For instance, the Iranian government may be morally blameworthy because it hangs its citizens for being gay and generally oppresses women. However, on the “invading other countries for no good reason” metric, Iran is in far better standing than either Iraq or the U.S.

If there’s one good thing that could come from this war, it would be to put a dagger through the heart of that old fraud “American exceptionalism.”

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