Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Wrong, Major Bob

Eric Alterman, Altercation blogger, has a recurring guest, Major Bob Bateman. Major Bob is a fascinating voice amid the usual shrill arguments of Iraq War support/opposition, mostly becauses he is an Army officer currently serving there. I highly recommend checking out Eric's blog and looking for the submissions by Maj. Bob.

In his latest post, the Major makes a major mistake with language. He misunderstands what he is saying. Here is the text of his argument. It is eloquent and thoughtful, and I do not want to shortchange him:

Today, here in Iraq, we are struggling against a perception in the Arab world which is just as misrepresentative of the larger reality as that of the myth of [Sherman's] March to the Sea. I just cannot see any way to counteract that myth either. The developing macro-myth of the American treatment of prisoners will be with us, like it or not, for generations. And this is important: It will not matter when we have completely fixed all the institutional, or individual, or systemic problems that led to the various accounts of abuse. It will not matter at all. We could turn over the entire military judicial system, hell, we could turn over control of the whole U.S. military, to the combined powers of the ACLU, Doctors Without Borders and the Hague, and it would not matter. The power of myth is that strong.

Now let me note that from a moral standpoint it should not matter that tens of thousands have processed through or been held by American forces. Human Rights, when you absolutely boil them down, are not about the many, but the few. So what should matter to all of us is what happened to those who have been abused. Morally, this is the right way to approach the issue. But at the same time the focus on the few means that their image is amplified, and over time the amplification of that image will result in the solidification of a larger myth.

Perhaps not soon, but eventually, more of the images of what took place here two years ago at Abu Ghraib will enter the public domain. These will coalesce with the stories such as those revealed by Captain Fishback of the 82nd Airborne. The end result of which will be an iconic image of this war which was not imagined before it started. From this will derive two situations. The first, here, in the Middle East. The second occurs back there, at home.

Here the images and the facts will blur. What will remain is an iconic perception which will tar the United States for decades if not centuries.

At home the blame game will really start. Within academic halls the images will be deconstructed, their effect analyzed, and the “inevitability” of their appearance retro-forecasted. But on the political side, the only debate from that point forward will be, “Whose fault is it that the pictures landed on the Internet?”

The real question, however, should be, “What are we going to do about this coming reality?” We cannot stop the myth from developing, and we probably cannot erase the myth. So how will we live with it?

On one level, he is right - the damage that was done will live on in retellings, becoming ever more embroidered and expansive, until it becomes a matter of faith that such-and-such happened. And he is most certainly right that the pundits and apologists will focus on the presence of proof as the true problem, not how the US will be forced to live with this for generations.

But he is terribly, egregiously wrong on the most basic premise. It is not a myth. The tale, in the telling, may reach mythic proportions, but the foundation, the originating act (or, shall we say, the incidents that have coalesced into the condition we can shorthand as "Abu Ghraib", a concept encompassing acts conducted across the world), that is anything but myth.

That is the deliberate, conscious and preferred policy of the current US administration and senior DoD leadership (civilian and military). It is precisely what the US intended to do. It is the institutional normalization of torture as part of US foreign policy. There is no myth or maybe about it. George Bush has recently vowed to veto any attempt to limit or even criticize his desire to torture other human beings as part of his war games.

Without this very concrete policy, we would not be facing the myth. Large numbers of armed men put into direct conflict with each other produces barbarity and act of torture. This is as old as humanity. Perhaps it is one of the primal conditions under which the East African Plains Ape was transformed into something resembling a human - when we looked at ourselves doing such things and recoiled in horror. But, to return to the point, had Abu Ghraib taken place under the common place uncertainty and chaotic conditions of war, it would not engender this myth. It would be another instance of soldiers run amok.

The power of the myth, what will catapult it beyond propaganda, is that it was and remains how our administration defines its relations to other humans - as lesser, as irrelevant, as disposable. A myth, to be durable, requires a firm foundation in truth. Not so much facticity as experience undergirds this truth. The myth of Noah's flood was grounded in the breaking of the Bosphorous and the creation of the Black Sea. The myth of American savagery is just as permanently planted in the soil of the current administration's dedication to torture, and the way it is trying to ensconce it in the heart of American law and military practice, to ensure it is a touchstone of our national identity.

America is a country that tortures as a condition of everyday operations. Now that this fact has been established, it is not to be undone, for once done well is to be done forever. This country has always prided itself on being a nation of laws, not men, and now this barbarity has been woven into our law. There is no unravelling of it now. Like the dream of equal justice for all, careers open to talent, and the possibility of escaping the castes and classes of the Old World, it is indelibly a part of our mythos - because it is a part of our reality.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, for starters I wish you'd written me as's not like I am unreachable.

But, that being said, here I am. And so my counterpoint is this: The obscenity that happened at A-G, and within some units elsewhere, here in Iraq as well as Afghanistan, was and remains anamolous. I know that you (and Eric, for what it's worth) disagree, but although I don't enter the political tilts, I do contend that this was, in fact, an event conducted at the lowest levels without support or permission from higher levels. (It is to the unending shame of my profession that we did not Court Martial the lieutenant, the captain, the battalion commander and the Bde Cdr, at least for dereliction of duty; but that's another story.)

All of that being said, my contention about the development of the myth depends upon the fact that while abominations occurred to dozens, and more broadly defined, perhaps hundreds, it did not occur to the more than 100,000 who have passed through our hands in confinement. Yet because of what happened to 100 (a made up number), there will be the myth that it happened to all 100,000 (+), follow?

With regards from Baghdad,

Bob Bateman