May 14, 2004

Strakon Lights Up

The torture and abuse scandal
See ... all that you can be

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Really, it's the surprise that's surprising.

In the February 1946 issue of The Atlantic, Edgar L. Jones, a former U.S. war correspondent in the Pacific, posed a rhetorical question and then answered it:

What kind of war do civilians suppose we fought, anyway? We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers. [1]
Since Jones took care to specify that the last atrocity happened in the Pacific Theater, we are entitled to read him as saying that the other ones occurred in both theaters. In Armageddon, British historian Clive Ponting writes:
British and American troops had no great hatred of German or Italian troops, but even so a German soldier surrendering still only had a fifty-fifty chance of surviving as a prisoner rather than being shot. [2]
Perhaps most returning soldiers kept those atrocities secret from their loved ones — except, of course, for those who proudly smuggled body parts back home for the entertainment of their "sweethearts." Perhaps some of those "sweethearts," if they were still inclined to be sweet, managed to recall their man to some understanding of decency. Perhaps the men successfully compartmentalized the crimes they committed or witnessed, as having nothing to do with "real life" back home. And perhaps some of those who committed war crimes even repented. I am willing to entertain those possibilities.

But even if we can believe that such atrocities were somehow sealed away as toxic waste and prevented from corroding our civilization, the "strategic-bombing" campaigns in both theaters were certainly not sealed away. Quite the contrary. For decades after World War II, the Establishment and its media gloried in the incineration of Japan and central Europe (as well as considerable parts of western and southern Europe). It was the sort of act that was represented — loudly, insistently, proudly — as a Good Thing to those of us who grew up in the 1950s and later. Are we really to believe that had no corrosive effect? Or, for that matter, that the experience, shared by millions of men, of being enslaved for the purpose of murdering other slaves had no corrosive effect? In this case, familiarity has bred a lack of contempt; but all of that was an atrocity in itself. It was an enormity of enormous proportions.


Abuse of prisoners during interrogation or otherwise is hardly an unprecedented war crime for American soldiers and their allies. (Everyone knows it has a long history among American civilian police and "correctional" officers.) It runs at least as far back as the POW camps of the Second War of Independence; but, excuse me, I'm dwelling on "ancient history," am I not? And nothing is more anti-American than that. So let's examine something more recent. In the aftermath of the European part of World War II, when the Allied authorities were preparing to try war criminals (only those on the Axis side, of course), they did not shrink from practicing torture in the pursuit of confessions. In particular, the important "confession" of Rudolf Höss, one of the commandants of Auschwitz, was obtained in that way by a team of British soldiers. Moreover, Mark Weber of the Institute for Historical Review has written: "In his 1949 study, Victor's Justice, historian Montgomery Belgion reported that [Josef] Kramer and other 'Belsen' trial defendants were tortured, sometimes to the point that they begged to be put to death." (Kramer was another Auschwitz commandant, as well as a commandant of Belsen.)

In the 20th century the great modern states settled on some standard interrogation techniques for political prisoners, including sleep deprivation, time disorientation, forced nudity, and various kinds of therapy involving cold water, noise, and bright lights. Those items seem to be on the menu even of those regimes that offer fingernail-extraction, genital-electrocution, rape, and back-of-the-neck bullet massage as special delicacies.

The torturers, when caught out, always fall back on the "Befehl ist Befehl" defense that was so popular in the mid 1940s: "Orders are orders." In the old days the criminals used to stipulate in the face of prosecution that what they had done was wrong, though they "had no choice" but to do it. No doubt some secretly thought it wasn't wrong at all, but at least they seemed to understand that normal, decent people were going to be horrified by their crimes. Many of the glorious young American freedom-fighters in Iraq, though, don't seem to understand that.

The problem is that the normal, decent people who could have served as role models, moral exemplars, and cultural custodians for those young folk are thin on the ground these days.


The criminality of World War II flowed into the American bloodstream, mixing with other poisons, including the social and moral mutagens the war had already engendered on the home front. American civilization (such as it was) was already disintegrating before 1941, but the war hit it with a 16-pound sledge.

The actual phrase "the greatest generation" seems to have been coined only a few years ago, but the substance of that propaganda was all too familiar to us Baby Boomers as we grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. And eventually we children of the war — if I may quote myself — began "smelling contradiction, bad faith, corruption, guilt, and hypocrisy." Soon, whatever "eternal American verities" had survived into the mid 1960s began to lose their plausibility.

It wasn't just the bogus "verities" that dissolved, either, and that's the killer irony. No, swept up in the iconoclasm were authentic verities that are authentically eternal, ones that must be understood and observed by people inhabiting any civilization worth the name.


Now once again the United State goes abroad in search of monsters to destroy. But this time with a twist, as in "twisted." The skull-importers of the 1940s were certainly capable of chortling their way through the charnel house, even though they had been brought up in a culture that in many respects was still recognizably Western, recognizably American, and recognizably Christian. But take a look at the new Americans and what they have done — and the dementedly cheerful verve with which they have done it.

Degraded and violent behavior of the characteristically modern sort seems to be intimately related, in some way, to infantilism among adults. Of course that observation comports with white Westerners' traditional understanding of maturity as comprising — among other good things — dignity, foresight, forbearance, and self-control. But in the 1960s adulthood came to be seen, by the new generations, as inherently corrupt and repressive. A new understanding of adulthood arose; and it seems to comprise little more than the license to get blasted, bully and humiliate others, grunt and squeal like an animal, fornicate, and wallow in pornography, all without being grounded. Meditate upon what the word "adult" usually denotes nowadays, when used as an adjective. And note well the jokey nihilistic perverted eroticism that helps give this torture scandal its characteristically modern look.

Along with the understanding of adulthood, the moral vocabulary itself has broken loose of any anchor. To very many of the Boomer and post-Boomer generations, "good" conduct has come to mean little more than "cool" conduct. If it were admissible to find any of this amusing, we might be amused that morals and mores have gone adrift during the very decades that the System has buried us in political correctness, and raved unceasingly about "compassion," "sensitivity," and the hatefulness of "hate."


I like to make lists. I could list example after example of our degradation, extracted from our popular culture, our family life, our manners ... I've done that before, and it always makes for colorful reading. But must I really? Don't those of us who still have a grip on normality and decency understand by now that the stench of America's continentwide garbage dump rises, thick and revolting, to the high heavens?

Those who are surprised at the revelations of American torture in Iraq just haven't been paying attention.

May 14, 2004

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