The Moral High Ground


A naughty burlesque troupe made its way across Europe this past week, astonishing packed houses with its signature ballad, “Not U.S.—We Never Pull Fingernails.” “Incroyable!” cried the French press. “Unglaublich!” echoed the Germans. Here in the U.S., the captive American masses, who have been endlessly battered by the song, simply stood hunched over, their hands clapped over their ears, as they rasped: “Just turn off the music. We’ll confess.”

Condoleezza Rice was the leader of the above-satirized European propaganda tour. Her face in poker mode, the secretary of state pledged that “the United States does not permit, tolerate, or condone torture under any circumstances.”

To some, her vow seemed odd, since just a week earlier, at a Pentagon press briefing, Donald Rumsfeld offered a different take on torture—or tried to. When asked what is required of American troops if the American-trained Iraqi troops should torture prisoners, the secretary of defense, one of the architects of the Iraq war, said that “obviously, the United States does not have a responsibility when a sovereign country engages in something [we] disapprove of. However, we do have a responsibility to say so . . .”

At Rumsfeld’s side, General Peter Pace, the newly installed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was quick to correct him. The general said: “It is the absolute responsibility of every U.S. service member, if they see inhumane treatment being conducted, to intervene, to stop it.”

Rumsfeld was perplexed. Addressing Pace, he said, “But I don’t think you mean they have an obligation to physically stop it; it’s to report it.”

Pace was patient but firm: “If they are physically present when inhumane treatment is taking place, sir, they have an obligation to try to stop it.” (A thank you here to The Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank for his account on November 30, page A18.)

So, which is it? Do American forces or intelligence officials torture some prisoners or don’t they?

Of course they do. Every army since the beginning of history has used torture either to try to pry intelligence out of enemy forces or take revenge for fallen buddies—or simply to act out in the grip of the pathological rage or cruelty spewed up in any war.

That is why a body of rules has evolved over time—in the Geneva Conventions and the military manuals of conduct issued by most governments to their armed forces. The rules are important, for they are a deterrent to bestial behavior, especially in well-trained and disciplined armies. It’s a given that the armies of democracies don’t come anywhere near the level of atrocities committed by police states or terrorist organizations.

Still, an insoluble contradiction is inherent in the official rules against torture. It is this: The very concept of war is a contradiction of civilized rules of behavior. Soldiers are taught to kill other soldiers. To disable an enemy unit—make it ineffective—you have to kill or severely wound a certain proportion of the humans in that unit. It’s bestial. Sometimes the more bestial army is the victor.

One more surreal truth about wars from someone who has witnessed them: Though both sides in a war commit atrocities, the winning side is never subjected to war crimes trials. Only the losers.

So what makes this a story about the press? It’s because for a host of reasons, reporters and their proprietors, who surely know that torture is a constant in war, all too rarely address such subjects in detail as moral issues or issues of psychological damage to returning soldiers. Returnees, including reporters, come back with lots of mental scars. Some have to do with the ugly things they’ve witnessed. Others relate to heavy guilt over not being able to save a pal or leaving behind needy foreign friends when you leave the war zone.

One of the reasons the press is reluctant to report graphically and in depth about the torture and brutishness of war is the fear of backlash from readers or viewers who don’t want to see or hear about war’s true-life destruction. In television dramas or at the movies, audiences are not threatened by depictions of slaughter and gore, because they can dismiss it as the magic of special effects.

But whatever the press’s reasons or rationalizations for not discussing subjects like torture with greater candor and pictorial force, they don’t pass the test of being honest with the public. I’ve written often about how we in the press don’t live up to the mantra we keep intoning as our raison d’être: “the public’s right to know.”

Why shouldn’t we tell people more about terrible things that happen regularly in our world? What’s the point in not doing so, now that there’s an Internet peering into every hamlet on the planet, looking at matters bright as well as dark?

Readers or viewers can always turn the page or switch to another channel if a story upsets them. And I’m not talking about gratuitous depictions of violence, just about real happenings.

Since wars will always be with us—and are sometimes necessary—what cogent reasons can journalists give for not being candid about the ubiquitousness of torture and other inhumane acts during wars? Yet when reporters—not those covering the war but, say, in Washington—describe this now global debate about the war, about torture, about civilians being mowed down, one too often finds a tidiness in the language, a cosmetic patina. There is nothing tidy about a human being screaming in pain.

Reporters quizzing Condoleezza Rice or Donald Rumsfeld are in the wrong setting and asking the wrong people. Neither of those officials has seen battle; both learned it all from reports on paper or on a computer screen or from a general who has to be respectful to his civilian bosses. Still, General Pace didn’t flinch when it came to re- educating Rumsfeld, in public, about a soldier’s duty in the presence of torture. Many of the current war’s architects clearly need re-education.

Even as the secretary of state is trying to sell the world the slogan that “the United States doesn’t permit, tolerate, or condone torture” (notice that she doesn’t say that soldiers or CIA operatives don’t commit acts of torture), the vice president, Dick Cheney, is lobbying Congress to pass legislation to make torture by the CIA legal or at least immune from prosecution.

The imperial presidency has been amassing power to itself for decades. George W. Bush’s regime has markedly stepped up the pace and scope of the power grab. Through it all, the many White Houses have blinded much of the public into believing that we are more moral and worthy than other countries. So our leaders lecture those countries about human rights and poverty—while it was our leaders who started a war of choice, not necessity, and it is our country of 300 million souls that has nearly 40 million of them living under the poverty line that Washington itself sets.

Those are some pretty good reasons why the press should be telling the whole truth—in clear, unsanitized language—about torture and the war and, for instance, the government’s broken promises to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. That would be a real “Plan for Victory.”