Friday, February 17, 2006

Dear Forum,

I never thought I'd link to Powerline, but hey, there's a first time for everything.

Meyer instead attributes the defects he perceives in the administration to a general decline in the way that large organizations function in our society. He finds that, like Bill Clinton, Bush runs his administration like a permanent campaign. Moreover, "in campaigns, the standards of truthfulness and honesty are very low. They resemble the standards we've stooped to in corporate life, just as the techniques of campaigns imitate corporate ones."

I don't find Meyer's critique very persuasive. For one thing, it ignores the extent to which this president does make decisions based on conviction. The bold and controversial measures he has proposed in areas like immigration and social security and, indeed, foreign policy are not those of a man who governs in campaign mode. And Bush's conscious effort to shut down his campaign-style machinery in much of 2005, and take a pummeling from the MSM essentially without responding, was a huge mistake.

Nonetheless, if an administration were as flawed as Meyer and other critics contend Bush's is, its defects would more likely be the product of broad societal trends than demonic qualities of the president.
On one hand, here again we see the crucial argument: it's all Clinton's fault! On the other, James Carville never had an office in the White House, while Karl Rove has been there for 5 years, so the critique of Bush isn't entirely persuasive, but neither is the rejection of that critique.

And yet there is something sound here, and that is the recognition that Bush reflects, rather than shapes, society. Granted, the under-side of the Powerline argument is that Bush is a Fascist, because if he doesn't reflect society then he is the strong leader who is single-handedly guiding us out of the morass of misguided corporate life into the brave new world that only a strong leader can provide.

But I'm sure that's unintentional. Or perhaps not. At any rate, it would bring despair to Jon Stewart to even hint at a similarity between Bush and Hitler, or Bush and Stalin (also a "strong" leader who built a cult of personality around his power), so let's let Powerline go there all alone.

Why quote Powerline at all? Because that insight, although tacitly rejected, is valid. Ultimately, we are at fault; it is our own failings that have brought this Administration on us. Not a very popular attitude for a political blog to express (and note Powerline doesn't express it, except as it presumes to stand apart from the common rabble and, like Ayn Rand, see what only strong and independent individuals can see. Which makes me think of Stalin, "Steel," in Russian. "Stalin" was not his name, it was the public alter ego he gave himself. But I digress again.), certainly not the attitude a blog up for a Koufax for best writing ought to espouse. So maybe I'm just feeling contrarian this morning.

Or maybe I'm simply disgusted.

I finished an article in the newest Harper's ("Judgment Days: Lessons from the Abu Ghraib courts-martial," by JoAnn Wypijewski, Harper's Magazine, February 2006, Vol. 312, No. 1869, pp. 39-50; not available on-line until next month. All of the quotes below, unless otherwise noted, are from tha article), about the Lynndie England trial. All of the Abu Ghraib photos currently circulating or being discussed were presented at that trial. There is nothing new in them, not in terms of what has not already been known, not in terms of human depravity or military conduct. Abu Ghraib was a hell-hole alright, but a hell-hole of our making. Literally; in almost every sense of the word.

A 280-acre area surrounded by twenty-foot walls, strung with four kilometers of razor wire, and overseen by twenty-four guard towers, Abu Ghraib ("Father of the Raven") was designed in 1959 by a civil-engineering firm from Mineola, New York. Shortly before the U.S. invasion, it was emptied by Saddam Hussein. The Americans maintained its looted shell briefly as a monument to vanquished terror but soon rehabilitated it as the Baghdad Correctional Facility, leaving a good deal of rubble and filth but replacing Saddam's portrait with the slogan "America Is a Friend of All Iraqi People."
I almost want to say something about "Arbeit Macht Frei," but somehow I feel history will do that, some day.

To aid the transition, the U.S. hired an American private-prison executive, Lane McCotter, the former director of the Utah Department of Corrections, who had resigned in 1997 after a schizophrenic inmate died while shackled naked to a chair for sixteen hours. By the time England and the others arrived there, mass arrests that U.S. ground forces had begun making a few months before, plus rampant crime amid the anarchy, had populated Abu Ghraib. At trial it was estimated that the prisoner-to-guard ratio climbed from 75:1 to 150:1. Soldiers were assigned twelve-hour shifts with no days off. Sometimes they worked longer. They slept in cells, and early on most got sick with vomiting or diarrhea.

Although an MP unit, the 372nd had no experience guarding prisoners. Its military specialty was combat support, escorting convoys, providing security along supply routes. "We were never trained to be police officers," the company commander, Capt. Donald Reese, a home-supplies salesman from Pittsburgh, testified. Before coming to Abu Ghraib, the reserve unit had had some training in riot control, cell extraction, and the use of non-lethal force, he said, but nothing on the Geneva Conventions or the Law of Land Warfare with respect to detainees. It had received a generalized briefing in the States in early 2003 prior to deployment, but "they rushed over evervthing." Once at the prison, he testified, the unit received no policy letters or written guidance from higher-ups on the treatment of detainees, and, with four missions to run simultaneously in and around Abu Ghraib, he never managed to hold training days with his soldiers.
Just providing for the care and feeding of prisoners proved overwhelming. The prison barely had water. The food was foul, and sometimes all that prisoners and soldiers had was a boiled egg, a piece of cheese, or an Army-issue Meal-Ready-to-Eat. As everywhere in Iraq, electrical generators would go out, and with them the lights. The Porta-John contractor often wouldn't show up, so toilets overflowed. Sgt. Hydrue Joyner, in charge of the day shift on Tier 1 Alpha, described the heat at times "like ten hair dryers blowing in your face all day long." Maj. David DiNenna, who was in charge of logistics at the batallion level, struggled for words to describe the stench. He testified that his requests for permanent generators and handheld communication radios were denied....Medical care and blankets were in short supply. MPs were in short supply. Detainees staged uprisings, weapons inside the prison were plentiful, and the prison was under constant external attack...."We were abandoned," Joyner said.
That was Abu Ghraib: a situation of our own making in every way, a disaster that caught up with us with the brutal inevitability of cause and effect. Suffice to say the pictures only tell part of the story. It's easier to understand the casual horror of the photographs when you realize the soldiers in the prison were in isolation themselves; that "Stockholm syndrome" is a two-way street, and usually the conditions of the prison dehumanize the guards long before the captives start to identify with their captors. Stockholm syndrome, in fact, starts to look like a way to isolate ourselves from the conditions we create: Look! The prisoners start to like us! We can't be all that bad, then, can we?

This is, by the way, all from testimony at the military trials. This is uncontradicted, unopposed, accepted-as-true, evidence of conditions at the prison in 2003. This is your government at war.

The real horror of Abu Ghraib is how well isolation works: not just for prisoners subjected to sleep deprivation:

Old soldiers with long memories argue that during the Korean War it was exactly this tactic used by the Chinese, causing American POWs to suffer psychotic breaks, that fed theories of the ruthless Oriental mind. Elements of the U.S. military, intelligence, and prison establishments have studied and employed sensory deprivation ever since, and witnesses acknowledged it as a normal occurrence at Abu Ghraib. It became part of Graner's job, which he defined in court as "terrorizing prisoners."

Say, he explained, "you're in isolation for seventy-two hours and you have a restricted sleep regimen. You're allowed to have four hours of sleep within that period. . . . Sometimes there are written plans. The prisoner eats at this time; he can sleep at this time." The plans, intended to scramble a person's sense of day and night, time and place, were drawn up by an interrogator and given each night to MPs
to execute. TPe prisoner was kept alone without light or ventilation, without water or clothes, in a cell either very hot or very cold, with music or screaming all around at different times.
As the author notes:

Graner had been charged with acts of cruelty in addition to those documented in the now infamous photographs, but none involved interrogation. The substance of his testimony here, outlining the tag-team relationship between physical and psychological brutality, was never disputed in court.
But clearly, the conditions prisoners were subjected to, were the condtions the entire prison was subjected to; the question of intent doesn't really affect the result. It may change the moral calculus; but here, especially, that distinction seems needlessly technical, and ultimately pointless.

But it was the end of this article that really arrested me, that brought me up short and made me think about this all over again:

If the Abu Ghraib trials are reducible to a single motto, it is: We don't torture for fun, and certainly not for pornography; we torture for information and control. The Army sent that message with its choice of indictments, but it would be cheap to lay the burden solely at the Army's door. Like the actions of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib, war, scandals of war, and the institutions that must manage them develop within a context of human society. Those soldiers have taken to marking themselves with a tattoo of a bad apple, a stylized worm in the fruit, claiming their place in the story. Americans at large have yet to claim theirs. Because punishment of "bad apples" seems not to satisfy the full demands of justice, we look to bigger apples. We are moved by arguments to assign responsibility up the chain of command; to reaffirm the Geneva Conventions and the Law of Land Warfare; to establish clear rules in Congress limiting the CIA, foreclosing "black" operations, stipulating the rights and treatment of prisoners; to shut down Guantanamo and the global gulag; to drive Bush and Cheney and their cohort from office; in other words, to set America right again, on course as it was after the Vietnam War, a chastened empire still wielding a fearsome arsenal but with liberal intentions. We have not yet learned to pull up the orchard, to forsake the poisoned ground.
"We are moved by arguments to assign responsibility up the chain of command...." Custer died for your sins, the American Indian Movement used to say. The mockery of Christianity was pointed, and obvious. It was also true. Who is dying for our sins now?

This is not a matter of "We have met the enemy, and he is us." Pogo is too gentle for this situation. Dick Cheney has ruined that excuse for us now. We are not ultimately the ones who pulled the trigger. We are the trigger. We are the finger, we are the gun, we are the bullets. We own this, lock, stock and barrel. We did this. We chose this path, we accepted this solution, we took charge of this answer. Anyone who thought war was a valid option, that invading Afghanistan was a good response to 9/11, that violence solves problems, proves resolve, establishes our place among the nations; anyone who simply lives in this democracy, this government of the people and by the people and for the people; anyone of us. We are responsible. We did this. We established the conditions that led to death and abandonment in New Orleans. Cities are not natural conditions, like rivers and mountains. Economic and social systems are not pre-existing conditions like gulf streams and jet streams. Wars are not thunderstorms. We establish them, and we establish the conditions of them, and none of us gets to stand apart from the consequences of our corporate actions and say "J'accuse! You did this!" We can no more abstract ourselves from societal actions than we can abstract ourselves from our own actions. We are not "ultimately the one[s] who pulled the trigger...." We pulled the trigger. We shot the sheriff. We perforated our acquaintance. It turns out we are not intimates of justice; we just know it when we finally see it.

And how we treat it, is not a thing to be proud of.

We chose this. Because we did not choose another path. We chose this. This is our doing. Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Iraq. Afghanistan. NSA. The PATRIOT ACT. Our choices. Our doing.

Too great a burden to bear? Then what are we going to do about it? That's part of the reason Mahatma Ghandi rejected violence as a response to violence. That's part of the reason Martin Luther King, Jr. led marches for civil rights, spoke out against the war, died fighting for economic justice. Because the burden of violence was too great a burden. Lay down that burden, and take up another one: responsibility. Not for violence; responsibility for peace. Responsibility for justice. Responsibility for your brother and your sister. Responsibility for the guest.

"Some who were there at the time told him about the Galileans, about how Pilate had mixed their blood with their sacrifices. He answered them, 'Do you suppose that these Galileans were the worse sinners in Galilee, because they suffered this? Hardly. However, let me tell you, if you don't have a change of heart, you'll all meet your doom in the same way. Or how about those eighteen in Siloam, who were killed when the tower fell on them--do you suppose that they were any guiltier than the whole population of Jerusalem? Hardly. However, let me tell you, if you don't have a change of heart, all of you will meet your doom in a similar fashion.' " Luke 13:1-5, SV)

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