I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Our Iraqi dogs

Fresh off his lofty Weekly Standard essay calling for state-sanctioned torture, vocal war proponent Charles Krauthammer is now railing against what he considers to be our worst mistake in Iraq thus far -- giving Saddam Hussein a trial rather than summarily executing him:

Of all the mistakes that the Bush administration has committed in Iraq, none is as gratuitous and self-inflicted as the bungling of the trial of Saddam Hussein.

Although Hussein deserves to be shot like a dog -- or, same thing, like the Ceausescus -- we nonetheless decided to give him a trial.

This charming passage highlights the core inconsistency at the crux of our effort in Iraq, the real reason we are failing there. It is because our rhetoric about why we are in Iraq and what we are trying to accomplish is squarely and transparently contradicted by our actions, and just about everyone -- including those in the Middle East -- realizes this.

Pro-war advocates now tout as the primary justification for the war the fact that we are liberating Iraqis and importing to that country and to the Middle East high-minded American values and respect for human rights which will change the region for the better.

But these same advocates stridently urge the U.S. to engage in tactics which are the very antithesis of the elevated and civilized values which they claim we are importing to Iraq. They want more torture, secret detentions, death squads, summary executions, and, now, an embrace of the "principle" that certain human beings have relinquished their status as human and are to be treated as something less -- in Krauthammer's formulation, "like a dog."

Krauthammer is not the first to urge that we treat Iraqis like "dogs." Pro-war advocates love to piously dismiss the grotesque abuses of Abu Grahib as some sort of isolated aberration, the work of some psychotic lone wolf grunts who one day woke up and decided to put naked prisoners on leashes for fun. But the incredibly self-destructive abuses there were motivated by the precise depravity underlying Krauthammer's column -- the view that it's time we stopped treating human beings as humans and started treating them like dogs:

Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the former commander of military police at Abu Ghraib prison, says she was told by a higher-ranking military intelligence commander that Iraqi prisoners should be treated "like dogs." In an interview with the BBC, Karpinski said Major General Geoffrey Miller -- who ran the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and is now in charge of prisons in Iraq -- told her, "they are like dogs, and if you allow them to believe at any point they are more than a dog then you've lost control of them."

Policies expressly mandating that people be treated like dogs, pro-war advocates urging that individuals be summarily shot like dogs, naked Iraqis crawling around on the floor with a leash. This canine view of Iraqis has become our Iraq strategy, and if pro-war cretins like the ostensibly respectable Krauthammer have their way, the kennel will only grow and the dog-care standards will worsen.

There is a quite reasonable argument to make that behaviors which are otherwise unacceptable become acceptable in order to win a war. "All's fair in love and war," and all of that. But what we are doing in Iraq is not supposed to be like other wars, according to the people who are responsible for its being waged. The aim of this war is not conquest or even direct self-defense; it is about effectuating a transformation of values in the Middle East.

For too long, the Middle East has been plagued, we are told, by soul-smothering dictators who oppressed their populations through their use of authoritarian tactics such as torture, secret detentions, summary executions, and a complete disregard of even basic precepts of human rights. They are evil, so this reasoning goes, because they have treated their citizens not as human beings, but as dogs. We need to rid the region of those tactics, and to do so, we need to start using the same tactics ourselves. To describe this approach is to illustrate its core corruption -- not just its moral and intellectual corruption, but its practical stupidity.

Even if one wants to adopt some sort of cartoonish macho posture by waiving off moral concerns about U.S. values as being the province of effete, whiny subversives, it is the height of self-destruction to adopt that posture for a war which is supposedly devoted to the teaching and spreading of exactly those values.

A war which is waged in order to establish civilized values and human rights but which is waged in direct contradiction to those values is, by definition, a war that is doomed, indeed is a war that is designed, to fail.

When Robert McNamara, Defense Secretary from 1960-1968, released his mea culpa Vietnam book in 1995, a panel was convened at Harvard to hear him speak (h/t commenter Hypatia). One of the panelists was Tom Vallely, a Silver Star-winning Marine who served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970. This is what he said about why the U.S. lost:

I, like many veterans, and I'm sure there are some here tonight, went to Vietnam as young men because we wanted to be like the generation before us who joined the American military to fight wars that did good.

The Second World War stopped fascism and ended imperialism of Japan and Asia, and it was assumed that when America went to war, it went to do good. But, if you use all the technology that was at my fingertips as a radio operator in Vietnam, and if you were brought up a Catholic, as I was, and learned when the state was wrong you should resist and speak out, whether it be in Poland or in the United States, and if you bombed villages with children in them, you burn their houses, see prisoners given over to the South Vietnamese to be killed for fun, values were the problem. Our intentions were good. Our values became confused, lost and that's why they won.

But, ironically Vietnam has helped us learn for the first time that we can do wrong, and sometimes even evil when our intentions were good. Our true understanding of this can make us a stronger country, and help us limit future mistakes.

All the retrospectives about Vietnam don't seem to have accomplished much. Here we are in the middle of a war ostensibly devoted to the "winning the hearts and minds" platutide, and what we hear most loudly are reports of growing government-sponsored Shiite death squards, and calls from pro-war advocates for more torture, summary executions and treating Iraqis like dogs. Are there any mistakes that we made in Vietnam which we are not making in Iraq?

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