Andrew Sullivan Doth Protest Too Much About Torture

Andrew Sullivan is once again horrified by reports of widespread American torture, this time from Amnesty International.

Whatever else this administration has done, whatever other mistakes it has made, this abandonment of long-standing American honor and decency in the military is an unforgivable offense. It is an attack on the meaning of America by its own president. It must be forever attached to his name and to that of his vice-president. The stain is deep. And it has stained us all.

Sullivan has been dedicated on this issue, but I’ve always found his tone here to be overwrought and legalistic. A big supporter of the invasion of Iraq, as essential to our national security, Sullivan seems to be saying, If only this war could have been fought more cleanly, on moral and military grounds. Once he wrote that he wanted to cry over the abuses. He doth protest too much.

War is horrifying, and torture/abuse is inevitable, to one degree or another. Some of that torture is surely practical and tacitly approved, the movie version: You have caught an insurgent who you believe knows where a live IED is set to go off; what do you do? But that is a small part of it. If you are brutalized, as so many of our troops are, and always will be by war on this scale, there is going to be torture. Sullivan writes fatuously of “long-standing American honor and decency.” Read Charles Lindbergh’s memoirs on the Pacific war in ’43 (The Wartimes Journals). Such a just war, yes—but Lindbergh was angered by what other pilots and soldiers (under General MacArthur, a rectitudinous commander if ever there was one) were doing to Japanese captives, and implored them not to abuse or kill these men. He didn’t have much effect. Those pilots were inflamed by reports of what the Japanese had done to American pilots they had captured. Starvation, medical experiments. And water tortures of the sort we now see in Iraq. Round and round the circle of violence we go. War selects for Lynndie England types. If intellectuals have a role to play in war, so do the desperate people who so often distinguish themselves at the front. Again to refer to New Guinea (the only war I’ve closely studied), when the Japanese poured down through the Pacific after Pearl Harbor, the first thing the Aussies did was empty the New Guinea prisons—and arm the felons.

I am not trying to justify this; these are observations. But it seems to me naive not to recognize that this is an inevitable aspect of the larger violence, of which Sullivan approved. As for that larger violence, I suppose he looks on the collateral damage to innocents of an airstrike or a not-so-smartbomb as somehow necessary. And so he cries for the Iraqi general suffocated by an abusive interrogator, but not for the innocent family incinerated mistakenly/rashly by our forces at a roadblock. I’m not so sure that the Iraqi families who are crying in a different way over these deaths would see the distinction in our actions. This war has been a brutal thing, as we on the left said it would be. It has churned innocents like ants, and not-so-innocent prisoners too. Look at the horrifying photographs on Juan Cole’s website. Cole says 200,000 civilians have died. Lately in Syria, I met two of the tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees who had fled to Syria, at a bar. “Iraq is a coffin,” one said to me. Then he added, with rage, that American soldiers fire indiscriminately into homes after insurgent attacks. (Collective punishment. Ala Israel’s occupiers). There are many things going on in Iraq that would make a person cry.

I’m no pacifist. I supported the war in Afghanistan. But war is an extreme measure, something the utopian planners and cheerleaders for this war deluded themseves about. (And still do; it would have gone perfectly if we’d only had half a million troops…) None of them had to go there. Few of them seem to know war. The older ones had declined an education in the matter during the Vietnam War, for instance by getting a political appointment to the Texas Air National Guard.

Sullivan is right when he assails the Administration’s policy of countenancing torture. But he is off when he wrings his hands and imagines a clean war, edges trimmed legally. I imagine that he feels guilty about that larger horror, and has displaced it on to this issue, and so has come to fetishize a tidy legal cutout to put his guilt down on, amid the nightmare. If you need a code, why not try the one that those other savior/interveners have—doctors: First, do no harm.