The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Sunday, May 09, 2004


One of my favorite books is Michael Lewis' Moneyball, an examination of how the Oakland Athletics maintain a winning baseball team on a miniscule budget. And my favorite scene from that book is when the A's are planning their 2002 draft. General Manager Billy Beane and his staff replaced traditional scouting analysis (which focussed on a player's raw athletic ability, and how he looked when the scout saw him) with an evaluation of college players based on their hitting and pitching statistics. The scouts were not happy with this approach, and scouting director Erik Kubota made considerable efforts to placate them. He said that "Five years from now everyone might be doing it this way."

Assistant GM Paul DePodesta said "I hope not."

That is how I feel about the Abu Ghraib scandal, which is causing considerable anguish in Congress, in the editorial pages of newspapers, and in various weblogs. Many people act like soldiers' abuse of prisoners -- making them simulate various sex acts while naked -- will be among the worst crimes of the 21st century.

I hope so.

Here is Andrew Sullivan hyperventilating about Abu Ghraib:


I have to say my mind and heart are reeling from these images from the bowels of Abu Ghraib and the thought that worse are yet to come. The look on Lindsey Graham's face yesterday said it all: he was in a kind of panic. Yes, I know that the implications of this do not extend to our entire endeavor in Iraq; it is still a noble, important and worthwhile thing to accomplish. In fact, it is perhaps more essential that we get it right now and, by a successful end, remedy in part the unethical means of Abu Ghraib. But I cannot disguise that the moral core of the case for war has been badly damaged. It would be insane to abort our struggle there now because of these obscenities. But we will be changed even in victory. I believed the WMD rationale for this war and that still survives, though with greatly diminished credibility. But I believed in the war fundamentally on moral grounds. When doubts surfaced in my head before the conflict, I kept coming back to the inadequacy of the alternatives, i.e. keeping a crumbling Saddam in power, and to the moral need to replace a brutal dictatorship with freedom. By any objective standard, that rationale still holds. Iraq is a far better place today than it was as a police state, and its future immeasurably brighter. But what this Abu Ghraib nightmare has done is rob us of much of this moral high ground - and not just symbolically or in the eyes of others. But actually and in the eyes of ourselves. The political consequences of this - will Rumsfeld go? will Kerry become president? - strike me as less important than the crisis of national morale it provokes. I want us to get over this but I also don't want us to get over this. The betrayal of our ideals is too deep to be argued away. Images in this media-saturated, volatile world can have more impact than any words. But the impact will, I think, be deeper on Americans than on an Arab street where hatred for this country runs high in any case. And that is how it should be. For these pictures strike at the very core of what it means to be America. We must expose, atone for, and somehow purge ourselves of this stain, while fighting a war that still must be fought. And it will not be easy.


I call bullshit. If this is the worst thing to come out of the Iraqi War, then America has done very well indeed.

Because this is a war. Remember war? Where people are bombed and shot and bayonetted? At the end of the Gulf War, the Iraqi army fled Kuwait City still clutching to their loot. They were met at a road junction by American A-6's which dropped cluster bombs on them. P.J. O'Rourke described the scene:


The wreckage was still smoldering four days later. It didn't look like a battlefield. ... It looked like a bad holiday jam in the States except charred and blown-up, as if everybody in hell had tried to go to the Hamptons on the same weekend.

Allied burial details were moving through the wreckage, but some bodies were still lying there crispy and twisted in agony.


So if Abu Ghraib represents a "betrayal of our ideals," what about that kid who got his arms blown off at the start of the war? What about the people in the Fallujah mosque which was used as a shield by Baathists and was bombed by American forces? I don't know if Sullivan is overreacting, or if he's trying to impress us by trumpeting his nobility and sensitivity. In either case, he has pretty much turned his brain off for the duration and the result is gibberish. Just for writing drek like "these pictures strike at the very core of what it means to be America" Sullivan should, of his own volition, not pen anything for public consumption for a full year.

Sullivan is a supporter of the war, but he is participating in the same sort of dishonest passive-aggressive critique that so many war critics employ. They demand that everything be perfect. They score points off the American war effort when it stumbles, but don't feel the need to say what alternative action the United States should take.

This weekend the San Jose Mercury News published not one, not two, but three perfect examples of this inane sort of carping. Today's editorial was a fetid pile of insecure snivelling about how the world doesn't like us and we should stop being so uppity. The Merc writers complain about Iraq:


America is fighting an unprecedented war, not against a nation, but against a loosely knit alliance of terrorist groups that espouse a hateful ideology. In Iraq, young Americans are dying in growing numbers, and plans to stabilize that country are in disarray. Around the world, America faces a range of other serious challenges, from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to frayed ties with traditional allies.


What solution is espoused by the Mercury News? You could probably guess, having seen the moaning about "frayed ties with traditional allies". What we need is right there on your keyboard -- two keys in the middle of the first and third rows of letters:


In Iraq, only a dramatic shift can rescue a military and political mission that is deteriorating daily. There are no easy solutions. But the best prospects for success lie in putting the Iraq operation under the auspices of the United Nations. That would open the door to a substantial infusion of troops from NATO and moderate Muslim countries to help Americans secure the country. And it would diffuse the growing perception, in Iraq and much of the world, that America is there for its own gain.


The Mercury News doesn't feel obliged to explain why the UN should be given control of Iraq after it exploited aid to that country for the gain of its own employees and some of its member countries. Or why UN or NATO peacekeeping in Iraq would be any more successful than those organizations' previous efforts in Lebanon, Africa, and the Balkans. And what "moderate Muslim countries" is the Merc talking about? The only countries that are both Muslim and at least moderately free are Turkey and Indonesia. That's a good one; the US cannot be trusted not to exploit Iraq for its own benefit, so we'll hand over Iraq to a country on whose behalf terrorists murdered a US envoy in Baghdad, and to a country who is fighting an insurgency by an ethnic group that makes up a third of Iraq.

But the intellectually lazy people who write editorials for the Mercury News see no need to explain any of this. It's all another day's work of check-your-intellectual-curiosity-at-the-door-and-grind-out-750-words-and-I'm-having-Thai-for-dinner.

Another example of how the Mercury News has no interest in doing anything other than scoring points: Yesterday it published an editorial demanding that Donald Rumsfeld resign. Because, you know, everything isn't perfect.


Blinded by arrogance and ideology, Rumsfeld has marched America through one blunder after another in the post-9/11 world. He misjudged Iraqis' resentment of the occupation; he underestimated the number of troops needed to keep control. He crafted policies based on the rhetoric of war that made America not the world's liberator, but one of the world's jailers. He ridiculed allies whose help America needs; he was duped by a handful of exiled would-be Iraqi leaders who fed him lies about weapons of mass destruction.


Because, you know, every other war was fought with no mistakes at all. It isn't enough that the Pentagon conquered Iraq in three weeks with practically no casualties on either side. Why, the Mercury News editorial writers could have done that in fifteen minutes! Rumsfeld did not forsee every potential problem, so he has to be fired.

The most vile slander against Rumsfeld is that he has made America one of the world's jailers. Here is a country that really is one of the world's jailer's: North Korea, because the whole country is a prison. If the Merc is going to complain about treatment of Arab prisoners by American soldiers, why does it not complain about the far worse treatment by other Arab countries?

Let us say that we do not wish Americans to be judged by the actions of barbaric dictatorships, but by the standards of the civilized world. The Mercury News abbreviates "civilized world" as "UN"; witness their calls in the other editorial for Iraq to be occupied by that body. Why then does the Merc not complain about the proclivities of UN functionaries to engage in underage prostitution and sex slavery in Kosovo:


The presence of peacekeepers in Kosovo is fuelling the sexual exploitation of women and encouraging trafficking, according to Amnesty International.

...

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said:

"Women and girls as young as 11 are being sold into sexual slavery in Kosovo and international peacekeepers are not only failing to stop it they are actively fuelling this despicable trade by themselves paying for sex from trafficked women.

"It is time for countries to stop treating trafficking as a form of 'illegal migration' and see it as a particularly vicious form of human rights abuse."

One woman told Amnesty International: "I was forced by the boss to serve international soldiers and police officers... I never had a chance of running away and leaving that miserable life, because I was observed every moment by a woman."


or in Africa:


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has sent a team of investigators into refugee camps in west Africa following the revelation that large numbers of children have been sexually exploited by aid workers there.


The Mercury News has not called upon Kofi Annan to resign because of these scandals. Nor have they called for his resignation due to the oil-for-food scandal. In fact, a search for "iraq AND oil AND food AND scandal" returns no results from past Mercury News articles.

So let me get this straight: Annan has done nothing about the oil for food scandal except to impede the progress of the investigation by telling key figures not to participate in questioning. Meanwhile Donald Rumsfeld has come clean, jailers at Abu Ghabi will be courtmartialed soon -- the first on May 19th -- and President Bush has apologized.

And it is Rumsfeld who needs to resign?

Normally I complain about the Merc's silliness in a lighthearted tone. But this really depresses me. We are at war with people who reject all the progress that the Western world has made in the past five hundred years. Featured prominently on that list are freedom of speech, sexual freedom, and most of all, the right not to have someone's religion imposed on you. These are all values that the Mercury News claims to support.

Yet the Merc editorial writers are not willing to move their gaze beyond the very narrow range of opinion that separates American liberals from American conservatives. The Merc is willing to criticize American law enforcement when they investigate what suspected terrorists read in libraries, but what are we to do about people who would lock the librarians and patrons in the library and burn it down? The Merc isn't interesed in anything more difficult than acquiring a cheap halo by knocking Republicans, so it has no answer.

Daniel Sneider, the Merc's foreign affairs correspondent, published a piece today that examined the background behind Abu Ghraib:


There were apologies and genuine dismay from Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon top brass before Congress on Friday. They acknowledged the huge damage done to America's image and the war on terror from the disturbing photos of abuse at Abu Ghurayb prison, with hints of much worse to come.

But the real message was that these were the acts of an aberrant few. They were done in violation of the commands of their superiors, who responded swiftly and without hesitation when evidence of those abuses emerged.

Unfortunately, even the most cursory look at the U.S. Army's own investigative report, along with other documents now surfacing, makes it clear that this is all untrue.

What happened at Abu Ghurayb was the product of deliberate national policy that must have been set at the highest levels. It was the application of ``dirty war'' techniques of interrogation aimed at yielding information to pursue the counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq. These ``stress and duress'' techniques, which at their best border on torture, have been going on behind closed doors. Now they are graphically out in the open.

This policy began with the decision to detain those captured in the Afghanistan war at Cuba's Guantanamo Bay without the protections accorded to POWs under the Geneva Convention. That applied not only to suspected Al-Qaida members but also Afghan Taliban fighters.

Former CIA counter-terror director Cofer Black told a congressional committee in late 2002 that after Sept. 11, ``the gloves came off.'' A March, 2003 New York Times report on Guantanamo cited officials saying that the techniques of interrogation there were ``not quite torture, but as close as you can get.''

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has access to the facility, described the camp as mainly a center for interrogation rather than detention. There are reports, which now have much greater credibility, that prisoners were softened up for questioning by isolating, stripping, binding and leaving them standing for extended periods of time.

Those techniques were exported back to Afghanistan. According to reports that began to emerge more than a year ago, detainees there were made to stand naked for hours at a time, with hoods over their heads, arms chained to the ceiling. Bound male prisoners were kicked and humiliated by female prison guards. Two detainees died under interrogation, ruled homicides by medical officials.

...

The guards told investigators that military intelligence and CIA interrogators told them to ``loosen this guy up for us,'' or to ``make sure he gets the treatment,'' all intended ``to get them to talk.'' This role for MPs is in direct violation of standing procedure.


Now it is a bad thing when police abuse prisoners. When a suspect is picked up for shoplifting or drunk driving, he should not be abused or humiliated. But ... that suspect is not a member of a conspiracy whose aim is to eject American forces from occupied countries. He is not going to try to murder Westerners.

The Al Qaeda detainees are fellow soldiers of those nineteen terrorists who piloted planes into buildings -- presumably with a bone-chilling view as the Pentagon or World Trade Center approached the cockpit. Isn't it reasonable to fear such people, and to demand that they strip, that they are isolated, that they be tied up?

Sneider has no interest in examining the moral questions that are raised by America's war with Al Qaeda and Baathists. He quotes the Red Cross and then packs up his briefcase to go home. But the previous history of the US military's treatment of prisoners is not necessarily applicable. The Germans that America fought in World War I were ordinary folk who marched into war thinking that it would be a glorious parade, only to find that it was an abbatoir. The next generation of Germans that Americans captured were more or less civilized people whose country had gone temporarily insane. The Koreans and Chinese that we fought fifty years ago were brainwashed cannon fodder who were probably more scared of their leaders than they were of us. None of these people were jihadis.

The best historical analogy to our current enemies that can be gleaned from past wars is that of the Waffen SS and the Japanese Army. Both organizations were full of zealots willing to commit atrocities to further their ideology. I certainly wouldn't lose any sleep if while in captivity such a person were made to stand while naked.


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