Claire Wolfe hits it on the nose (links hers):
Torturing prisoners. Whistleblowers who were there say it was routine and “a failure of leadership.”
The beatings and other abuses served mainly to relieve stress, according to the three soldiers. “On their day off people would show up all the time,” said one sergeant. “Everyone in camp knew if you wanted to work out your frustration you show up at the PUC tent. In a way it was sport.”
The soldiers blamed the abuses in large part on the failure of civilian and military leaders to clarify what was and was not permitted, particularly in light of the administration’s position that the Geneva Convention, in which the unit had been trained, did not apply to detainees captured in Afghanistan.
Human Rights Watch issues a report on prisoner torture and abuse by the U.S. and titles it “Leadership Failure.”
Where does everybody get this? Are we honestly supposed to believe that people with decent hearts and common sense torture people routinely — simply because no leader steps forth to say, “No, no!”? Come off it. No doubt there were and are “leadership failures” — in Iraq, in Afganistan, in the treatment of the 500 endlessly “detained” prisoners of Guantanamo Bay, many of whom are now starving themselves before an uncaring media. Hell, the Bush administration is an ongoing, rolling wreck of a “leadership failure.” The concept of political leadership is ultimately a failure, in and of itself. The very notion of expecting “leaders” to determine everyone else’s behavior by command and control is obnoxious and ought to be rooted out of the human consciousness.
But however responsible the leaders are for tolerating, encouraging, and especially covertly making policy of torture, the do-ers still have the power to say no and f**k no. Individuals who beat or otherwise abuse others for amusement, release of tension, peer pressure, or just because they imagine that’s how things ought to be done are warped individuals — even if they’re twisted in a sadly common way. Orders on high might be able to curb their Lord of the Flies devolution. But “leadership” doesn’t change their nature or make them any less responsible.
In defense of the “leadership failure” school of thought, I would make two points:
- that abuse and torture of prisoners of war is the norm in wartime, and in order to prevent it you have to institute vigorous anti-abuse policies backed up by a zero-tolerance brand of authority (and the Dubya Squad did pretty much exactly the opposite), so in this sense, this is a “leadership failure,” and
- soldiers who have been engaging in the sort of vicious, remorseless terror that has characterized the war in Iraq (the levelling of Falluja, the aerial bombardment of civilian areas, etc.) are living in an ethical Bizarro world in which any familiar ethical guideposts have been destroyed or inverted — is it any wonder to hear them complain that, having been praised for murdering a family in a car at a checkpoint yesterday they had no way of knowing that they shouldn’t take a baseball bat to a prisoner today unless someone told them that those were the rules? (Someone with “rank,” since moral authority doesn’t exist in Bizarro world.)
The right thing to do is never to go into this Bizarro world at all, which means never to go into the military or any other organization that insists that you surrender your moral autonomy. Joining the military is not an honorable thing to do, despite all of the propaganda and adventure novels to the contrary. Volunteering to kill strangers on the orders of politicians — I’d rather break bread with kiddy porn aficionados or telemarketers than with people who wear a military uniform with pride.