Tuesday, May 11, 2004

War is hell 

Over the past week there has been much ado about the torture and abuse of Iraqi’s being held by the U.S. military. From the halls of the Senate, to the television studios, to the editorial pages of most U.S. papers there has been a flood of crocodile tears over the recently disclosed torture. We are told this is an aberration, that it in no way represents how the U.S. military normally conducts itself and that it is a “stain” upon the U.S.

This is complete nonsense. What happened in the Abu Ghraib prison was no aberration – it is standard conduct for all military forces throughout the world. Yes the Geneva Convention exists. But it exists on paper and nowhere else. The primary law of war is not anything to do with the Geneva Convention; it is to win at all costs.

In military training in the 1970s the author was subject to a rather disconcerting simulated method of torture. It involved tying a person to a wooden plank. The plank was positioned so that the persons head was down and their feet up at more or less a 45% angle. Of course your blood goes to your head, which is plenty uncomfortable as it is. But then the real torture takes place. Water is poured by a funnel into your nostrils and given your position rapidly fills your nasal cavities. This is extremely uncomfortable and gives the person subject to it the sensation of drowning. Going through something like this most people will be willing to talk about a lot more than just their name rank and serial number.

After regaining my composure I asked the officer conducting the training about that particular torture. He responded that it was a very common method of extracting information from prisoners of war and had the added benefit of leaving no visible injuries that someone like the Red Cross could then get upset about. He further explained that it was the most effective interrogation technique that the U.S. used against the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War. So much for the Geneva Convention.

War is, as Sherman put it, “unrefined cruelty”. War is where one side uses extreme violence to try to impose its will on someone else. The side which is best at inflicting extreme violence on the other side generally wins. This is why war is almost always a race to the bottom in which both sides compete to see who can be most viscous.
And while all wars tend to be this way guerilla wars tend to be this way in the extreme. This is so because in guerilla wars there is no capturing of territory or overthrowing of governments which can serve as measures of who is winning as is the case with traditional wars between nations. In guerrilla wars the stronger side generally controls all the territory and the state apparatus of the country throughout the duration of the war. The weaker side is just too week to hold territory or set up a formal government. So there is only one thing that is really being fought over – and that is casualties. The guerilla force tries to kill as many of the occupiers as possible and vice versa. You win not by conquering territory but by spilling as much of your opponent’s blood as possible. In this type of warfare rule number 1 is that there are no rules.

There are many many examples that could be used to illustrate this. The Russian occupation of Afghanistan is one. During that war the mujahadin fighters routinely tortured and executed Russian soldiers that they captured. This never seemed to bother the U.S. government which at the time was funding and training them. The Russians responded by using torture, shooting mujahadin prisoners, and massacring civilians. These outrages by both sides steadily increased as the war progressed and each side became more desperate to win.

So rest assured, what happened in the Abu Ghraib prison is taking place in many other places throughout Iraq at this very moment. There may not be digital cameras in those places to let the outside world know what is going on – but it is going on nevertheless. (In fact the one sure change in the US military that will come about as a result of this “scandal” is the banning of taking pictures inside prisons or during interrogations).

In the same way, the brutal murder of Nick Berg is no exception. We can expect to see a repeat of this type of savagery on the part of the insurgents over and over again for as long as this war goes on. They do it not because they are “animals” but because they think it will help them win the war.

This obscene brutality will go on for as long as this war goes on. War and savagery are synonyms. Those Americans who lived through the Vietnam war no that all to well. The French who lived through Algeria know that. And the Russians who lived through Afghanistan know it too. Today in the United States there is a large segment of the population who has no experience with these matters. They think that war is antiseptic like the video images of bombs dropped from airplanes exploding buildings. In those images there is no blood, no shredded bodies, no sign of death. To many Americans that is what war is. They don’t realize that the beheading of Nick Berg is really what war is all about because they have never lived it and no one has ever told them that. So they are just going to have to learn it the hard way.


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