Torture leads us back to Vietnam

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When the U.S. government acknowledged in 2009 that enemy combatants captured in Iraq and Afghanistan were tortured, two questions arose.  Was torture justified, and should we punish those responsible for approving torture?

The first question is difficult to answer, for the evidence is inconclusive as to whether torture has produced much information of any worth.  Some maintain we gained valuable information through torture.  Others contend that the information obtained by torture might have been procured through other means.

So, if the answer to the first question is unclear, then where do we go with the second question?   To answer that question, maybe we need to look at torture from another direction.  Why not reacquaint ourselves with what occurred in Vietnam?

During the war, we didn’t know who North Vietnam was holding captive.  We knew only that hundreds of downed aviators were being held captive. The secrecy surrounding their captivity was a source of endless anxiety for family members, but think of the terror it caused for the POWs themselves.

Bad enough to be tortured, but what if nobody back home knew you were alive?  Maybe you would be spending the rest of your life wearing striped pajamas in a concrete cell in Hanoi?

When the POWs were finally released, we learned about the brutality practiced by the North Vietnamese. To get a sense for how bad it was, read Sen. John McCain’s Faith of My Fathers or Jeremiah Denton’s, When Hell Was in Session.

Having survived the Hanoi Hilton, is it any surprise that McCain stated he wanted to close down Guantanamo Bay and has argued against torture? McCain wouldn’t wish on his worst enemies what he had to endure.

The story of our POWs from the Vietnam War parallels what the U.S. government has done during the last several years in two ways.  First, it’s clear that we tortured and abused the enemy combatants from Afghanistan and Iraq.  I suspect our abuse of these detainees pales in comparison to what the North Vietnamese did.  Still, I am not comforted.  There is little virtue in not being quite as bad as the other guy.

Perhaps worse, we kept their names secret and have been detaining many of them for years with no set sentence.  And for what purpose?  Of the hundreds of men incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay, only a few had been formally charged with crimes. The Bush administration apparently forgot how outraged Americans were when the same treatment was leveled against our servicemen.

A second parallel is the gamesmanship that both the North Vietnamese and our government used in referring to their enemies. The North Vietnamese didn’t recognize our involvement in what they considered to be a civil war, and so they called our downed aircrew “Yankee air pirates” and “war criminals.”

We have used the term “detainee” for Iraqi and Afghan prisoners because we are technically not at war.   Never mind that U.S. soldiers are engaging Taliban and Al-Qaida fighters in what can be described only as combat.  The Bush administration insisted on the distinction, because the Geneva Convention governs the treatment of POWs and prohibits torture.

What’s especially bothersome about what has happened is that efforts were made to justify torture under legal principles.  Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and David Addington, former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, reasoned that torture was lawful. These men came to conclusions that could be reached only by lawyers writing from the comfort and security of Washington offices.

These men of privilege had no business weighing in on what constitutes torture, and they certainly had no idea what they were talking about.

Gonzales and his colleagues had no vision for the long term ramifications of the policies they were advocating or the world’s perception of the United States.  Concepts such as world leadership and moral authority escaped them.

The Bush administration’s treatment of detainees, though cloaked under the rationale of national security, was ultimately driven by fear of terrorism.  No one can deny the threat that terrorism presents, but when that fear overtakes the principles that have always set our nation apart from the rest of the world, we find ourselves acting no better than a former enemy.

How did we allow this to happen? Shouldn’t there be some consequences, if only a public rebuke, for the men who got us there?

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