Sunday, January 27, 2013

The World's Big Problems

Last week in class I found myself eavesdropping on a conversation taking place two desks over. The subject was political, meaning that it immediately caught my interest, and between an older student -- i.e., a real adult -- and someone about my age. Both of them had assumed a rather serious demeanor, speaking with a rat-a-tat precision and earnestness that conveyed the gravity of the weighty matters they were discussing.

While the conversation reached its apogee the students' began to speak even faster, disgorging their thoughts as though they would never be offered a chance to speak again. As if right on queue, the older student jabbed the air with his index finger, declaring that all of the world's ills pale in comparison to the "problem" of unfettered population growth in a world of increasing scarcity. The others nodded gravely, immediately affirming the seriousness of this gloomy prognostication.

I recall this conversation because, to me at least, it exhibits several problems common to contemporary political discourse. All of the students involved are bright and have a good noggin on their shoulders, yet all of them fell prey to a tendency that pervades the op-ed pages, radio broadcasts, and neglected corners of deservedly-maligned textbooks alike -- the larger-than-life doom and gloom forecast.

Hot-button issues like global warming, gun control, and population growth, to name a few, are all too often presented in larger-than-life language that infuses the problems with a sense of inevitably while leaving the reader with a burdensome feeling of  resignation. Not only are such portrayals unhelpful but, more often than not, they are just plain silly. Evoking the specter of human society's imminent collapse because of any of these issues is, one, misleading since the issue is normally not one problem but symptomatic of a series of smaller related problems; and, two, dangerous because it paints the issue as ineluctable, implying that it impossible to solve and consequently there is no point in trying.

To be sure, global warming, gun control, and world population are important or, more appropriately, indicative of important issues, but none are inevitable or foregone conclusions.

Saying that a growing world population will eventually trigger Malthusian chaos of global proportions is like saying that the sky is going to fall. Both invoke a problem of unfathomable scale in a way that does not encourage the formation of intelligent solutions but, rather, makes the problem appear insoluble.

It is not as if the world is one big popcorn-maker, every corner of the globe being uniformly swamped by puffy corn kernels. That is to say, the world is not one template with population issues experienced uniformly across its face. What encourages rapid population growth in one area of the world is not necessarily the same set of factors that encourages growth in another. And, indeed, there are many areas of the world whose birthrates are rapidly declining or fairly constant. Perhaps more importantly, the effects of unfettered population growth and the stress it exerts on an area's resources, or lack thereof, varies just as much from place to place.

Consequently, the "problem" of population growth is a dubious one, seeing as it lumps matters of scarcity, environmental degradation, and other population-based issues into one nightmarish basket. What it omits, however, is also glaring, namely the specific initiatives that are occurring at regional levels -- or that could be pursued -- to address what are essentially local issues which can only be solved within their specific contexts.

What is intriguing, and most certainly disconcerting, is that portraying these "problems" in larger-than-life terms can serve a certain political purpose. By framing issues under the larger-than-life monikers of global warming or gun control those who benefit from the problems that underlie these issues continue to profit from their persistence, steering attention away from particular problems that lie beneath the surface by pointing at the decoy propped-up on top.

The issue of global warming is a fairly obvious case: oil barons and car manufacturers claim that the problem either does not exist or is a complex amalgam of mercurial forces beyond our control. Placing the blame on undefined forces -- when such "interests" acknowledge there is a problem at all -- misdirects public attention from the fact that global warming is the result of simple problems that can easily, and must be, addressed at the local level. More efficient public transportation, less energy wastage, and the pursuit of cleaner technologies are all practical measures that can be pursued immediately by willing people and local governments. In fact, if the government were to do its job and begin to seriously undertake these endeavors a lot of jobs would be created, boosting that much desired "demand" needed for hoisting the economy out of its present economic doldrums.

Gun control is a much less discernible case of political maneuvering, probably because it functions as such on multiples levels. 

After Newtown, the media has covered the topic with indefatigable zeal but, in doing so, has to some extent formalized the parameters within which the topic is debated. Attention has been drawn to the power of the NRA and even, at times, the role of that antediluvian giant known as the military-industrial complex, which has swallowed most of the country's money over the past century for the purpose of manufacturing death (and making a few people very rich).

Though these facets are apposite and important, several related facets of the gun control issue have not been addressed with proportional weight, if at all.

Whether self-modeled disciples of the Second Amendment and its misinterpretation -- aka, those who believe it affords them the right to hoard weapons for self-defense -- believe it or not, they are being had. For, above all, they are vociferously defending their own exploitation. Simply put, guns are a powerful means of enabling crony capitalism to thrive. By defending the "right" of Americans to arm themselves like pirates, elites garner the support of credulous Americans who are concurrently suffering from their austerity measures, dying in their wars, and underwriting their lavish lifestyles.

The economically beleaguered and socially marginalized citizen is made to believe that in spite of their deprivation they are doing just fine -- at least they have the right to protect themselves don't they? Thus the very same people who are responsible for the wars and 2008 collapse are sanitized, gussied up, and self-modeled as the guarantors of "inalienable" rights for the average American. The right to affordable healthcare, education, and work is unAmerican (it's "socialism") we are told; but these same elites tell us that they will, by golly, be sure to stand up for our "right to bear arms". What results is unqualified support for the very elites who have done to most to dis-empower them.

The gun is a convenient distraction, a soothing albeit lethal device that allows the average citizen to feel as if his or her life is in their own hands. What they do not realize is that they have not been given the means to enrich their lives spiritually, intellectually, or materially but, rather, have simply been allowed a means to end it. How ironic, the powerful elites who most insistently advocate gutting the programs most needed by the average person, like Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid, are portrayed as the mantleholders of their best interests by allowing them an instrument that cannot build but only destroy. Of course, even this small concession is of no concern for these elites since the state still monopolizes the most destructive means of violence, and doubtless much of the arms sales proceeds shall wind their way into at least some of their pockets.

There are a few more straightforward problems with the argumentation used by the Gun Lobby in opposition to gun control measures. One is the patently idiotic rebuttal that regulating guns would not have stopped Newtown and cannot stop all episodes of gun violence. This is an excellent example to how interest groups paint the "problem" in larger-than-life terms, subsuming the relevant details in a swath of all-encompassing strokes. The answer to this intellectual drip is, one, we cannot tell if the legislation would have made a difference because it did not exist at that time; and, second, even if it did not stop these incidents the reason for such legislation is to prevent those incidents that are within our ability to do so.

School shootings are only a small part of gun violence in the U.S. Limiting access to guns may not have prevented Newtown, as the Gun Lobby so crassly thunders, but it undoubtedly would prevent future incidents involving children accessing their parents' guns, accidental shootings by gun-owners, and a litany of other less sensational gun-related tragedies that number in the 1000s each year, but which fail to make the headlines.

It is ironic and revealing that many of those who tout the Gun Lobby line, or that more regulations cannot solve the problem effectively because it is so large, in the same breath suggest that, instead, the government should stop gun violence by taking on the two unfathomably more open-ended issues of -- and no, I am not joking -- mental health in America and at the upbringing of at-risk youth! Not only are these issues vastly more complicated and, consequently, difficult to address but they would necessarily entail vastly more invasive measures. These suggestions seem bizarre when one remembers that those who are advocating them are self-same gun enthusiasts who rail about the alleged evils of "big government." (Do not tell me that I have to fill out some paperwork before I purchase my gun, but feel free to monitor how I raise my children, sheesh!)

The world is a complicated place with a lot of problems. It is misleading and counterproductive, however, to allow one's self to be pushed into a place of silent resignation by larger-than-life specters. These problems are generally misleading since they are composed of myriad convergent issues that, in truth, are not only soluble but would greatly benefit from your help. Entrenched interest groups, lobbyists, and Washington power-brokers have much to gain if we continue to buy their mumbo-jumbo, particularly their most effectively marketed commodity: fear. These observations lead us to the transcendent truth that what we really have to fear is apathy, and "fear itself" -- to quote Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Think for yourself, act upon your convictions and, above all, be willing to do something. For daring to live with purpose is not only a profound act, but inherently subversive.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The 'National Interest': Dissecting Lies Embedded in Undiscerned Folly

Before participating in a political discussion, there are a few views -- let's say educated prejudices -- that one simply must first adopt if they are not to be gawked at by their cultured peers. Among these idées fixes, for example, is the superstition that America's national debt is worse than the pox, the notion that there is a significant difference between both political parties and, of course, the ironclad conviction that all times the government should pursue that elusive goal known as the 'national interest.' 

This last assumption is particularly intriguing, seeing as it entails the 'sophisticated' observation that the country's 'interests' differ from those of other states while failing to carry this observation to its logical conclusion. That is to say, if people believe that the 'interests' of states conflict with each other then how do these same people reconcile the contradictory assumption that all the members of a large and staggeringly diverse society like the U.S. somehow share a monolithic 'national interest?'  

During the past century this notoriously ambiguous, and shall we say illusory ideal, has been referenced repeated by politicians, pundits, and the otherwise powerful, each pronouncing it decisively with an appropriately knit eye-brow and stony certitude. When we are lucky, they add to the theatrics with an emphatic Clinton-fist gesture or firmly-planted pound the table for good measure. Credulous journalists and a preoccupied public either gobble up this manufactured mush or let it slip in one ear and out the other. In any case, the contradictory and, quite frankly, dangerous ideas embedded in the term remain uncontested. 

In dissecting the assumptions and, most tellingly, the motives behind this promiscuously used term, however, it becomes ever apparent that the concept of 'national interest' is not only wrong, but perversely so. 

For starters, the term is most often cited as a reason to go to war or pursue some other hawkish and invariably reckless policy. Right now the hot topic is China, with febrile strategists in Washington clamoring for belligerent measures that involve heightening America's influence in SE Asia and elsewhere in order to contain the Chinese juggernaut for, well, the 'national interest.' 

This is patently silly. Moves to reopen military bases in the Philippines, to cite one concrete step made in recent years, are not only counterproductive but potentially dangerous. The not-so-subtle message is that the U.S. is willing to use its 'big stick' if needed to maintain America's economic and military dominance on the world stage. 

Incidentally, the U.S. made similar moves in the past again the USSR and China (PRC), calling this the Cold War. I suppose that installing nuclear missiles pointed at the USSR from Turkey was also a saavy move necessary for protecting our 'national interests.' The problem with this juvenile posturing eventually manifested itself in the specter of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a gratuitous and mind-bogglingly reckless confrontation based on the same logic employed today at the Pentagon and White House -- and which almost resulted in nuclear Holocaust. 

Declassified documents now show that JFK knew that the USSR was chagrined, to put it mildly, by the presence of American nuclear weapons in Turkey and saw the missile installations at Cuba as an equalizing factor -- you know, that 'sophisticated' strategy called mutual deterrence. What makes this brinkmanship all the more unforgivable was the fact that JFK's administration knowingly engaged in nuclear chicken, literally gambling with the human race, for what they themselves referred to as political reasons. 

Robert McNamara, Kennedy's Secretary of Defense, later admitted that "right from the beginning, it was President Kennedy who said that it was politically unacceptable for us to leave those missile sites alone. He didn’t say militarily, he said politically.” Fortunately for the human race, Khrushchev had the good sense to back down, literally allowing Americans to continue their lives and JFK -- fornicator, narcissist, and gambler par excellence -- to later become lionized as one of the great statesmen of our time.

 Besides acting as a veil for self-aggrandizing political aims, the 'national interest' is equally used as a curtain behind which narrow and generally antisocial economic interests are pursued. 

The latest wheeling and dealing in Congress has made this eminently clear. It is telling that in the midst of a grueling economic crisis Congress has chosen to cut key social programs -- the programs that those who have been most adversely affected by the crisis rely on most -- while only cosmetically altering the tax burden on the nation's super-rich. Without a hint of irony politicians pontificate about the need to decrease the country's debt while stoically refusing to raise the funds to do so from those who can actually afford it. 

Instead, starving ordinary people of affordable health care, education, and yes, food, is considered necessary, or as Obama calls it "shared sacrifice." Of course, the "sacrifice" of a single mother attempting to pay her bills with a dead-end job and the "sacrifice" of someone who is well off enough that they shall, in all likelihood, not experience in any change in their comfortable lifestyle, is not really "shared sacrifice." 

One wonders why if this "shared sacrifice" entails immiseration for one and fortifies the resplendent living of the other, the "sacrifice" can be referred to as "shared"? Even better, why does it have to be "shared" at all? The 'national interest' and 'shared sacrifice' are at heart tasteless euphemisms for the exploitation of the most vulnerable in order to entrench the power of the well-to-do. In other words, the 'national interest' is soothing piece of Newspeak meant to conceal powerful class interests, covering up what would otherwise be blatantly antisocial behavior.

I will admit that to say there is a 'national interest' is true. But it is the same interest as that of Chinese, Palestinians, Iranians and everyone else: the good of the human race is the real 'national interest'. At present, the 'national interest' is used to cover up what are perceived by elites to be their interests. Yet, more often than not these 'interests' amount to nothing more than short term gains that are deleterious for all in the long run. 

Oil barons can sermonize about the 'national interest' inherent in increasing America's exploitation of unclean energy at home but green paper will not help them when there is no oil left or the world is too pockmarked, spoiled, or hot to live in anymore.War may make a coterie of profiteers very rich but in the end their lives will be debased by their greed, their spiritual health soiled by their avarice. Violent posturing in Pakistan or the Philippines might make Americans feel safer but the use of  violence that accompanies such posturing will only result in more deaths and bitterness towards an unfeeling Pax Americana. And safeguarding the profits of multinational corporations may raise GDP but this means nothing for most Americans when most of the dough finds its way into the pockets of those at the top -- a legalized and, indeed, revered form of embezzlement.

While the 'national interest' is a comforting figment for those who are, in fact, chasing after their own short-sighted conceptions of 'interests', it is both hollow and dangerous. And while there is, in truth, no 'national interest' in the popular sense of the phrase, there is a 'human interest,' one that harnesses beauty instead of prostituting it; one that uses creative energy to heal instead of destroy.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Torturing the Victims of Abu Ghraib after Abu Ghraib

Do you hear it? No, not the cries of the children or their mothers, both imprisoned for being in the "wrong place, [at the] wrong time." Neither are they the screams of the men, hooded and naked within the irrepressible hell of their sweat-soaked cells, succumbing to a featureless landscape devoid of time and space. And neither is it the din of their families' cries, the gnawing at the souls of those left behind waiting in anxious expectation; a perpetual burning sensation whose silent terror is only surpassed by its unrequited, unsentimental dissolution.

No, the sound is that of the silence that reigns supreme, penetrating our ears and impaling our hearts like a fist-sized chunk of shrapnel.

In case you have not heard, a private contractor whose employees tortured Iraqis held at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison has wheedled its way out of that inconvenient detail -- a glitch really -- in which powerful corporations occasionally find themselves publicly entangled: the law. 

Engility Holdings Inc. has settled "allegations" of torture and abuse by employees at the most notorious prison for, well, torture and abuse by chucking some its pocket change at its ungrateful victims. (You miserable "hajjis" and "sand niggers," don't you know how valuable our time is and how expensive our services?) To cover up the cries of 71 former Iraqi inmates Engility has tossed a payment of $5.28 million to the victims, a pittance sum that might be considered sufficient if the victim was a single white person in the United States. The unavoidable implication is that Iraqi life is cheap -- expendable really. After all, we did destroy their entire country in order to make sure that our own security is assured; what's 71 more lives?

The cold hard truth is that talk of "allegations" and "settlements" has covered up the complete lack of justice and accountability when it comes to the legacy of U.S. torture during the Iraq War. Evidence is not an issue. The Red Cross, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the U.S. Senate, the U.S. military, and God knows who else has documented ad nauseum these terrible crimes. (These reports are in the public record so feel free to look them up. If you can't find them then contact me and I'll send them to you.) 

Not a single one of these private interrogators has been prosecuted. In fact, the courts are still trying to figure out if the private torturers, oops, ahem, I mean interrogators are immune to such proceedings. This shameless barrier to achieving even a modicum of public dialogue and judicial rectification of these crimes is no doubt one of the main reasons that 71 Iraqis are forced to divy amongst themselves the misery sum of $5.28 million. 

Aren't you just proud to be an American? I guess this is one of the benefits of using the private sector and relying on those elusive free markets Bush kept telling us about.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The "Victors" and "Losers" of History

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the power of language, something you may have noticed if you have been keeping track of my posts. Whether we realize it or not, the words we think and speak become assimilated the recesses of our being, powerfully affecting the way we view and interact with the world. 

More specifically, since starting my history studies this week I have been thinking a great deal about the truism that history is written by the "victors," meaning that those with power enjoy the privilege of recording and, more often than not, distorting what gets passed down to the next generation as "truth." While the saying's essence is true, I think that it is in many ways misleading -- evenly nefariously so. Using the phrase "victors" implies that there is a competition or legitimate contest between two groups when, in reality, the majority of conflicts by which the "victor" emerges in recorded history are lop-sided impositions of power by the strong on the weak.

Accordingly, even though the notion that the "victors" pen history is instructive, the wording, even when ironic, can be unhelpful when the stakes are so high and the "victors" so eager to distort the words of those whose views clash with their cookie-cutter narratives. After all, if they are the ones who are fabricating history then what is to stop them from perverting the sayings of a few well-intended critics in the process?

The fact of the matter is that the phrase "victors" is a euphemism for the criminals, bullies, and bad-guys that get away with messing up everybody else; a bleak reality that is too important to intellectualize or water-down in cheeky aphorisms.

This self-evident fact would not need to be reiterated if it were not for the fact that the saying is perverted and shamelessly. I could go on and on about the America and its litany of one-sided wars, but this would be redundant in light of the several articles that I have already posted. 

More apposite to American society is the way in which the financiers and economic elite who drove the U.S. into its current state of economic malaise continue to reside in the halls of power.What is most disturbing, however, is the fact that society continues to cardinalize the money-changers who gambled the savings of millions of Americans away and has, indeed, reimbursed them for their chicanery. 

The recent fall of Hostess, the iconic snack foods manufacturer, exposes this truth in grim detail. After reneging on contractual agreements with the workers and misappropriating assets which were supposed to be deposited in employees' pension funds, the executives at Hostess drove the company into the ground. Instead of engaging in sound business practices, the heads had been padding their own salaries and (illegally) gambling with company dollars through the past decade. Eventually, the inevitable -- though totally avoidable -- caught up with them and the company crashed, destroying the jobs of the 1000s of employees who had been manufacturing and marketing Hostess' many iconic products for years (you know, actually working).

Instead of presenting the company's demise as what it was -- the result illegal maneuvers made by an irresponsible and antisocial executive elite -- the fall of Hostess was pinned on the obstinancy of an unthinking antediluvian monster, found in the convenient guise of -- oh, God helps us! -- the workers' union. To put it another way, the executives who had siphoned off the company's cash to pad their own bank accounts were depicted as a beleaguered set of technocrats who simply were not able to bend to the unreasonable wishes of the dirty, unthinking masses (aka longstanding contractual obligations between the employers and workers) .

The "victors" successfully kept the time-honored fiction afloat that somehow the super-rich are being victimized by, well, the people who made them rich. Those who lost their lives jobs, savings, and sense of security are not victims but merely "losers." They tried their best and failed, so what is the big deal? It is not like they did not have a chance, right?

The problem is, of course, that such people, the "losers" rarely (if ever) have a chance to "win." Even so, those who stripped them of their lives work are sympathetically handled by a cruel and unthinking media, treated as if they were not simple thieves but, we are assured, great thinkers whose sensible ideas (brilliant in fact) could not be digested by the grazing multitudes.

While Hostess' carpetbaggers can sleep tight knowing that they successfully carried out the ultimate heist in the house of Hostess, many of the workers cannot. If they do not find a job soon then the rest of their world will come crashing down on them.

And so it goes.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Psychosis of Torture: Afterthoughts on the War in Iraq

“I think the biggest problem we've got in the country is people don't study history anymore.”

                 – Donald Rumsfeld[1]

“Americans need to begin by disabusing themselves of the notion that the harsh techniques seen at Abu Ghraib are part of the past.”

                 – Alfred C. McCoy[2]

         If there was one quality of the Bush administration that enabled it to sell the Iraq War to the American public, it was its sense of total self-conviction. The conflict was painted in broad strokes as a mono-dimensional struggle between a sanctified United States on “crusade” against the dark, implacable evil of international “terrorism.”[3] Americans were assured that Saddam was an irrepressible madman while warned of the danger that resided in waiting for the oft referenced “smoking gun” to materialize in the pall of a “mushroom cloud.”[4]

        While caricature-like portrayals of the “enemy” fit nicely with many Americans’ sense of national identity, especially after the maelstrom of 9/11, the truth turned out to be very different and, to many, maliciously so. The descent of Americans into the abyss was the final and most disturbing realization of this freefall towards reality. Just as the prefabricated lies given to justify the war were dashed to pieces once in Iraq, so was the United States’ facade of moral rectitude that the Bush administration had assiduously cultivated – and in which so many Americans professed their faith – shattered during revelations of Abu Ghraib.

        The torture and abuse of Iraqis by Americans, however, should not simply be seen as a betrayal of values. Rather, it reveals in gruesome detail the shallowness and, indeed, danger of nationally conceived claims to such values. It also raises several eerie parallels to past historical trends involving the use of torture. These parallels are instructive, beckoning humankind to abstain from drawing this poisonous weapon that not only savages the victims trapped in its steely maw but blights the societies which attempt to wield it.


        Neither the Bush administration nor most Americans who engaged in torture or abuse would have envisaged, not to mention, countenanced parallels between their crimes and those committed by the Soviet state security apparatus. Yet the parallels are striking. Using Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s chronicles of the Soviet labor camp system, this essay puts the United States’ use of torture as an instrument of intelligence collection in a larger timeframe to illustrate that its use in the Iraq War was neither novel, nor unprecedented. More specifically, by comparing American torture with Soviet excesses of a more distant past the inherently corrupting effects of torture are made clearer, as well as the farcical-nature of arguments used to buttress its use – arguments which have not changed appreciably over the past century.

        From the initiation of the so-called Global War on Terror (GWAT), the Bush administration made it clear that it considered 9/11 an appropriate impetus for broadening the mandate of the country’s intelligence services and covert operations. A few days after 9/11, Vice President Cheney explained to Tim Russert of NBC’s Meet the Press that although conventional military options were on the table, “We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful…it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.”[5] What ultimately resulted was the expansion of the government’s extraordinary rendition program, the erection of a detention center at Guantanamo Bay, and a series of painfully argued legal opinions drafted by the White House’s Office of Legal Counsel.[6] These opinions aimed to not only justify the use of torture but absolve top officials from their involvement in this dirty business, an indispensable part of the so-called “dark side.”

         This murky expansion of executive power and covert operations was not without precedent in modern history, nor were its toxic effects. In The Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn writes that the Soviet secret police “combined in one set of hands investigation, arrest, interrogation, prosecution, trial, and execution of the verdict,” an appalling condensation of legal functions that inhabitants of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo (still) would have immediately recognized.[7] The U.S. governments’ farcical interpretation of these distinctions was made clear during the Combatant Status Review Tribunals established in 2004 to assess the criminality of those warehoused at Guantanamo Bay. Abdul Salam Zaeef’s account of the tribunals evokes the lunacy of this pseudo-legal charade: “The tribunal was made up of our interrogators. One would be judge, another the defender, and the third the prosecutor. All worked for the CIA, FBI and other intelligence agencies. All were trained interrogators; none of them had studied law, or understood it.”[8] Zaeef’s statement is also significant because it alludes to the fact that the CIA, FBI and the military were all collaborating, blurring the boundaries between their work, strictures, and mandates – an incestuous intermingling of powers that made a mockery of the principle, ‘separation of powers’. Incidentally, such collaboration also occurred at Abu Ghraib prison and, as has been noted earlier, throughout Iraq.[9] The cumulative effect of these illegalities was a system of law whose purpose was to circumvent it, fostering illegal activities by making their very limits ambiguous.

         The same victims of America’s “crusade” would also be the first to agree with Solzhenitsyn’s assertion that “The principle of…interrogation consists further in depriving the accused of even a knowledge of the law.”[10] This ignorance itself was a profound source of anxiety for thousands of Iraqis who were incarcerated and bloodied for weeks, months or even years without ever having learned the reason for their arrest. And when they did learn the “reason” this was generally not a cause for relief but increased despair. Gary Deland, one of the architects of the Iraqi penal system adopted after the invasion, has stated that not only were most Iraqis whom the U.S. incarcerated innocent, but oftentimes their “only charge might be ‘wrong place, wrong time,’ literally written on their arrest sheet.”[11] When Moazzam Begg, a prisoner incarcerated at multiple American detention centers, was interrogated or told the reasons for his arrest he felt as if he was in “cloud-cuckoo-land,” seeing as “Logic and reason…seemed to have got lost under an avalanche of assumptions.”[12] Like the victims of gulag, those unfortunate souls damned to America’s own clandestine human warehouses found themselves negotiating a system built upon logic incompatible with reason and, at all times, combating a pall of despair.

        The role of popular culture and societal complicity in allowing torture to thrive is also duly noted by Solzhenitsyn. In The Gulag Archipelago he laments the dissembling effects of “Novels, plays, films” which portray Soviet interrogators as “guardians of truth and humanitarianism.”[13] As for such fiction-makers, he suggests that they “should themselves be forced to drink the cup of Gulag to the bottom!”[14] When Corporal Charles Graner, one of the most visible MPs of the Abu Ghraib scandal, was introduced to the illegal methods used at the prison, he was reminded of the primetime television series 24, initially dismissing it as “all TV stuff”[15] While images of benevolent Soviet interrogators clash with current images of brawny Jack Bauer-like figures who temporarily transgress the law in order save it, the overall effect of these ideas is much the same. One whitewashes torture’s violent reality while the other glorifies it; both have the purpose of winning society’s support for the indefensible. The fundamental difference, however, is that in the case of American abuse, “TV stuff” had an instrumental role in influencing which techniques were used – techniques literally adopted from the silver screen. In other words, whereas Soviet society was fed a crude, comical, but ultimately innocuous picture of Soviet interrogation, American society was fed a fantastically violent ideal of the practice and chose not only to valorize it, but bring it to life.

        Most resonant to the context of Iraq, however, was the use of “so-called light [torture] methods” by Soviet interrogators that so incensed Solzhenitsyn and which coalesced in Iraq under the eerily similar moniker of “torture lite.”[16] The systematic application of sensory deprivation and so-called self-inflicted punishment – the two pillars of American torture regimens in Iraq – are noted in The Gulag Archipelago as “psychological methods”, and later alluded to as “Light effects” and “Sound effects.”[17] Stress positions, the supposedly humane and novel innovation used so promiscuously by American forces in Iraq, also appeared in gulag: “The accused could be compelled to stand on his knees – not in some figurative sense, but literally.”[18] His rebuttal to those who belittle the terror of these techniques is blunt but eloquent, having been borne of personal experience: “Is that all? Yes, that’s all. Just try it yourself!”[19] Debunking the mind-matter dichotomy, he asserts what neuroscientists have by now repeatedly affirmed, that “Just as there is no classification in nature with rigid boundaries, it is impossible rigidly to separate psychological methods from physical ones.”[20]

         The fact that out of all the torture techniques used Solzhenitsyn expends the majority of his ink and indignation on the “psychological” ones should give present-day proponents of “torture lite” ample reason to pause and reevaluate their assumptions. For as Solzhenitsyn was eminently aware, it is all too easy – and all too dangerous – to delude one’s self with manufactured arguments that have the effect of justifying the unjustifiable; when it comes to both brutal methods and their apologetics, “What won’t idle, well-fed, unfeeling people invent?”[21]

        While the unreliability and indelible trauma of psychological techniques used in Iraq is noted at length in the first essay their pervasiveness, as well as the staggering amount of support that they received from the American public, makes a second look at these techniques worthwhile. More specifically, the arguments presented in favor of psychological torture by Mark Bowden, one of its most articulate and widely-read advocates, merit attention. Bowden’s article “The Dark Art of Interrogation” became something of a cause célèbre amongst interrogators and was even cited by our friend Tony Lagouranis in Fear Up Harsh as a source of attraction to these techniques. For our purposes, the article is valuable because it typifies the assumptions and forms of argumentation used to buttress the institution of psychological torture.

         Bowden begins his article speculating over the types of interrogation techniques used on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a top member of al-Qaeda, after his capture by U.S. and Pakistani forces in March 2003.[22] The methods he describes are quintessentially psychological: sleep deprivation, light and noise manipulation, and stress positions among others. Like most advocates of “torture lite,” he glibly avers that “Although excruciating for the victim, these tactics generally leave no permanent marks and do no lasting physical harm.”[23] This assumption, blandly stated as fact, already flies in the face of decades medical science – and the CIA’s own findings. Physicians for Human Rights’ 2005 report on the use of psychological torture by U.S. forces states that such treatment “can have extremely destructive health consequences for detainees,” even quoting a 1983 CIA manual which notes that the use of such techniques can lead to “a psychological condition involving impairment of brain function.”[24] So much for “no lasting physical harm.”

        The article goes on to cite the experiences of Israeli interrogators as justification for the selective application of “torture lite,” an especially dubious source of affirmation considering Israel’s atrocious human rights record.[25] (And one can only imagine the average Iraqis’ response to learning that Americans were looking to Israel for guidance on interrogation matters.) What makes this line of argumentation particularly specious, however, is the fact that Bowden himself goes on to admit that Israel eventually moved to outlaw the use of all coercive techniques becauseIt was estimated that more than two thirds of the Palestinians taken into custody were subjected to them.”[26] In other words, while proposing the selective use of psychological torture he inadvertently admits that using it selectively is virtually impossible – and this by way of his sole practical example.[27] Bowden remains unmoved, however, confidently asserting that, “The Bush Administration has adopted exactly the right posture on the matter…Torture is a crime against humanity, but coercion is an issue that is rightly handled with a wink, or even a touch of hypocrisy; it should be banned but also quietly practiced.”[28]

        Claiming that psychological torture “should be banned but also quietly practiced” is, indeed, an all too fitting way for Bowden to close his polemic. This assertion, riddled with contradictions while seething with bravado, exemplifies the schizophrenic character of most arguments in favor of “torture lite.” Though touting “torture lite” as the most realistic option they universally fail to make helpful empirical references, relying heavily on a series of overused hypothetical anecdotes that, as Alfred C. McCoy notes, require a “sleight of hand shift from the fictional to the real.”[29] Psychological torture may allow privileged groups to indulge their paranoia and adolescent theories without the inconvenience of having to witness the tell-tale signs of “physical” torture, but the damage is just as real. But, as Solzhenitsyn writes, “What won’t idle, well-fed, unfeeling people invent?”[30]  

        Lastly, both the narratives of Soviet torture and American torture are ones of impunity. In the U.S. the so-called “Torture Debate” was so passionately argued, in part, because most apologists for the Bush administration refused to believe that the piles of legal opinions churned out by the Office of Legal Counsel were part of a systematic effort by top officials to evade future prosecution. Many of these same apologists would probably be surprised to learn that, according to Solzhenitsyn, Stalin himself artfully worked to distance himself from the torture that he authorized: “always, Stalin did not pronounce the final word, and his subordinates had to guess what he wanted…like a jackal, he left himself an escape hole.”[31] In Iraq, General Ricardo Sanchez’s office pursued a deliberately ambiguous interrogation policy in order to preclude the possibility of future recriminations. Within the space of one month his office altered the Interrogation Rules of Engagement (IROE) for Abu Ghraib five times, a move that allowed transgressions to occur behind a veneer of regulation while bewildering American personnel by the discursive character of the manuals.[32] Besides confusing interrogators, several of the IROEs misinterpreted the Geneva Conventions, even claiming that the Conventions’ provisions could be denied in the event that they were found “prejudicial to the security of Iraq.”[33] Captain Carolyn Wood, who oversaw military intelligence at the prison, said that even after harsh techniques were proscribed in the IROEs, she was assured that “those approaches removed…were not necessarily out of  reach.”[34] The cumulative effect of these measures was a practiced air of ambiguity. Mixing the regulations’ opacity with the commanders’ indifference resulted in an environment wholly amenable to excesses of all varieties.

        If the legal innovations and atmosphere of ambiguity nurtured by top officials does not signal executive involvement and impunity, then what transpired in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib most certainly does. In the months preceding the Abu Ghraib scandal of spring 2004, members of the Judge Advocate General’s Office (JAG) regularly frequented Tier 1A of the prison where the most heinous abuses occurred – and often witnessed them.[35] Nothing happened. And after Sergeant Joseph Darby delivered the now notorious photos to his superiors, Colonel Pappas, the head of military intelligence at the prison, issued a memo asking all American personnel at the prison to dispose of “photos” and other “contraband” in “amnesty boxes.”[36] Soldiers were told that would not be prosecuted for whatever materials were deposited. Many of the personnel who were involved in the subsequent scandal said they perceived this memo as a veiled message to dispose of all evidence of their crimes in order to prevent a media firestorm. These suspicions are confirmed by Lieutenant Colonel Vic Harris, who was responsible for finally leaking the photos to the CBS news program 60 Minutes. He says that he was moved to leak the photos precisely because the top brass had decided to quietly dispose of the evidence: “The only intent was to hide it and try to prevent the images from getting out to the media, to make it go away and not let the public know about it.”[37]

        The publication of the photos aroused disgust around the world but little remorse within the American government. Instead, the damage was contained, fit inside a made-to-order story about a few “bad apples” that allowed the top officials who had helped instigate the crimes feign innocence and take up their expected roles in the festivities that followed. Like Stalin, they played the part of the “jackal,” leaving themselves an “escape hole,” through which they conveniently absconded from their places in the torture matrix to take up their sanitized masks in public. Those who were punished – though a light punishment it was – were those who figured most prominently in the photos, leaving out the numerous others who had helped make the horror glimpsed in the photos systematic. In the end, what had become institutionalized was presented as a localized problem that had been surgically excised like a once malignant tumor. The gangrene of the “bad apples” had been contained, allowing the rot that lay beneath to spread, once again unhindered by the public’s eye.


        To say that comparisons between America’s Global War on Terror and the Soviet penal system immortalized by Alexander Solzhenitsyn are imperfect is, of course, true. The USSR’s forced labor camps consumed the lives of so many more people than the number of those thrown into American detention centers that such comparisons may even seem crass. It is also important to remember that the majority of those who languished in these camps were not outsiders, but members of the very society who had condemned them to what amounted all too often to an untimely anonymous death. Comparisons may appear especially crude when the behavior of U.S. officials is compared to that of Stalin, a figure who has rightly or wrongly become synonymous with absolute evil.

        The purpose of this essay, however, is not to engage in histrionics or sensational gesturing, but, instead, to place America’s GWAT within a larger historical timeframe. In doing so it becomes clear that neither American behavior nor the arguments used to buttress it are unprecedented. Taking a broader historical perspective forces the viewer to look past the deceptive arguments offered by torture’s apologists and regard the total self-conviction of top officials with a healthy dose of skepticism. Furthermore, acknowledging the parallels between Soviet torture and American torture can actually make both phenomena more explicable, revealing the humanness of the perpetrators and their motivations. While it is easy to project the entirety of the blame for these excesses on Stalin or an almost equally cloistered set of “bad apples,” the fact of the matter is that these evils were systematically executed, involving a large number of people and, to an uncomfortable extent, society’s complicity.

        Most importantly, adopting a broader view of American torture in Iraq and elsewhere makes it beyond clear that psychological torture is just as indefensible as physical torture; the very term “psychological” betrays unfounded assumptions. That Alexander Solzhenitsyn chose to spend the majority of the time he allots to the interrogation process speaking about the untold horror of the “so-called light methods,” is indeed telling.[38] And, as Solzhenitsyn himself recognized, the use of these measures was even in his own time neither novel, nor unprecedented: “How ancient it all is, how medieval, how primitive! The only thing new about it is that it was applied in a socialist society!”[39] This observation leads us to another, mainly that relevant parallels to the American torture of GWAT could just as easily be drawn from other times and places. The question we are left then is this: will American society continue to stomach the use of these hackneyed and inherently indiscriminate measures, or will it finally surrender its fantasies and disabuse itself of torture’s mystique.





[1] Lloyd C. Garner, Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam: Or, How Not to Learn From the Past (The New Press: New York, 2008), 174.

[2] Alfred W. McCoy, A Question of Torture (New York: Henry, Holt and Company, 2006), 189.

[3] Peter Ford, “Europe cringes at Bush ‘crusade’ against terrorists,” The Christian Science Monitor, 19 Sept. 2001, (accessed 12 Jan. 2013).

[4] George W. Bush, “Speech Outlining Iraqi Threat, Cincinnati Ohio, October 7, 2002,” The Iraq Papers, eds. John Ehrenberg, J. Patrice McSherry, José Ramón Sanchéz and Caroleen Marji Sayej (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2010), 88.

[5] Arshad Zaman, “Cheney’s “dark side” Quote,” America at War: Global Perspectives on the “Af/Pak” War, 21 May 2009, (accessed 1 Jan. 2013).

[6] It is worth mentioning that while this essay draws parallels between Soviet and American torture there are myriad other sources from which strong parallels could be made. Some of the legal opinions drafted by the White House’s Office of Legal Counsel, for example, bear a remarkable semblance to those drafted by the British government approving torture as a means of cracking down on the IRA. Sir Edmund Compton’s report on the use of torture in Northern Ireland, issued 16 November 1971, states that, “Where we have concluded that physical ill-treatment took place, we are not making a finding of brutality on the part of those who handled these complaints. We consider that brutality is an inhuman or savage form of cruelty, and that cruelty implies a disposition to inflict suffering, coupled with indifference to, or pleasure in, the victim’s pain.” (John Conroy, Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture [Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2000], 43.). Compton’s conclusion that an interrogator’s “disposition” or attitude towards the punition determines whether or not the act is equivalent to torture is remarkably similar to the conclusions of Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee’s August 2001 memo to White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales. Bybee wrote that “in order to constitute torture, an act must be a deliberate and calculated act of an extremely cruel and inhuman nature, specifically intended to inflict excruciating and agonizing physical or mental pain or suffering.” (Jay Bybee, “Standards of Conduct for Interrogations Under 18 U.S.C. Sections 2340-2340A (Excerpt),” from The Iraq Papers, eds. John Ehrenberg, J. Patrice McSherry, José Ramón Sanchéz and Caroleen Marji Sayej [Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2010], 442.). In both cases, whether or not tortured was committed is predicated on wispy ideas concerning the intent or attitude of the perpetrator. Naturally, this is a very convenient ruling for those committing the abuse, just as it is unhelpful for the victim. One wonders if Compton and Bybee would with this same logic claim that a bank robbery is only a bank robbery if the robbers were “disposed” to malicious feelings while they were pocketing the bank’s assets. 

[7] Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation I-II, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (Harper and Row, Publishers: New York 1973), 28.

[8] Abdul Salam Zaeef, My Life with the Taliban, trans. Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn (Columbia University Press: New York, 2010), 206.

[9] Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris, Standard Operating Procedure (The Penguin Press: New York, 2008), 97, 175.

[10] Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 121.

[11] Gourevitch and Morris, Standard, 23.

[12] Moazzam Begg and Victoria Brittain, Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar (New York: The New Press, 2006), 199, 198.

[13] Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 121.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Gourevitch and Morris, Standard, 121.

[16] Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 103; also see Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 (Jonathan Cape: London 1996), 643-4.

[17] Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 103, 108.

[18] Ibid., 111.

[19] Ibid., 110.

[20] Ibid., 108.

[21] Ibid., 117.

[22] The choice of starting the article with the example of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is a curious one, as there is currently no verifiable evidence that any meaningful intelligence was gained by torturing him. The CIA has admitted to “waterboarding” him 183 times from 2002-3, a practice which, incidentally, was a favorite torture technique of the Gestapo (Human Rights Watch, “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,” Human Rights Watch, 26 Oct. 2012, [accessed 9 Jan 2013]; Lloyd C. Garner, Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam: Or, How Not to Learn From the Past [The New Press: New York, 2008], 174.). Like the CIA, the Gestapo adopted a euphemism for what amounts to forcibly drowning a victim – what they called“bathtub torture”(Ibid.). And as Malcolm W. Nance, a military instructor who oversaw the use of waterboarding in SERE training notes, this was a technique used by “the Japanese, North Korea, Iraq, the Soviet Union, the Khmer Rouge and the North Vietnamesebesides the “Nazis” (Malcolm W. Nance, “Waterboarding is not simulated drowning – it is drowning,” Salon, 9 Nov. 2007, (accessed 10 Jan. 2013). These observations again allude to the reality that historical comparisons between American torture and torture used by other regimes, both past and present, are not lacking in number or poignancy. There are simply too many compelling precedents to choose from.

[23] Mark Bowden, “The Dark Art of Interrogation,” The Atlantic, Oct. 2003, (accessed 1 Jan. 2013)

[24] Physicians for Human Rights, Break Them Down: Systematic Use of Psychological Torture by US Forces (Cambridge 2005).

[25] Mark Bowden, “The Dark Art,” The Atlantic

[26] Ibid.

[27] Arguments in favor of the selective use of psychological torture, especially as advocated by proponents like Alan Dershowitz who favor judicial cooperation with torturers, is extremely ironic from a broader historical standpoint. Modern usage of trial by jury originated, in part, as an attempt to divorce the legal process from reliance on torture, which had proven to be a very unsatisfactory means of eliciting information from defendants (John Conroy, Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture [Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2000], 30.). More generally speaking, history also has much to say concerning Bowden’s faith in the viability of selective torture. When torture has been introduced as a selectively conceived tool its use has almost invariably broadened, gradually encompassing more groups and purposes. The Romans initially used torture to obtain confessions from defendants who were at the bottom of the social order. Eventually it was used to extract information from witnesses too, as well as members of the more privileged classes (Ibid., 27-9). Torture’s gradual metastasis, which ultimately destroys the notion of selectivity, also occurred after its resurgence in twelfth-century Europe. Again, past failures to systematically employ torture effectively are one of the major reasons why society currently entertains legal norms that lack a place for torture.  

[28] Mark Bowden, “The Dark Art,” The Atlantic

[29] McCoy, A Question, 191.

[30] Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 117.

[31] Ibid. 102.

[32] Gourevitch and Morris, Standard, 53.

[33] Ibid., 54.

[34] Ibid. 53.

[35] Ibid., 166-7.

[36] Ibid., 247-8.

[37] Ibid., 251.

[38] Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 103.

[39] Ibid., 115.