Torture: A Failure of Leadership or Followership?

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 Afghanistan, 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:

  1. 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
  2. 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.

Encouraging to me is that the anti-war movement seems to be leaving their own Bizarro world in which the Democratic Party is a party of peace. Justin Raimondo reports from ’s anti-war rally in Washington (links his):

“There are a lot of people here who are wondering, where are the Democrats?” said Tom Andrews, the director of the Hollywood-centric “Win Without War.” This past weekend, the entire Democratic Party leadership fled town, including party chairman Howard Dean — once the Great White Hope of Democratic war critics — Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and even Russ Feingold, who is positioning himself as the “antiwar” presidential candidate. Knight-Ridder reports the Democrats are “wary” of the antiwar movement, as well they might be considering that it was Bill Clinton who signed the Iraq Liberation Act — the legislation that originally authorized action to effect “regime change” in Baghdad — with the enthusiastic support of top Democrats.…

A recent military appropriations bill authorized spending for the construction of permanent bases in Iraq, and the Democratic leadership voted for it. Indeed, if anything, the Democrats want to spend more money on “nation-building” than the Republicans, and are ready and willing to hike taxes in order to do it. This, mind you, would be awfully unpopular, among grassroots Democrats as well as Republicans: 77 percent of all Americans would disapprove of having to pay more in taxes in order to pay for the Iraq war, according to the NYT/CBS poll, while 55 percent don’t want to give up recent tax cuts to foot the bill.

We can’t depend on the mis-leadership of the Democratic Party to get us out of the quagmire. They were in on the Iraq disaster from the beginning, with the Democratic Leadership Council consistently hewing to a hard line, and the Democratic party neocons generally riding roughshod over pro-peace grassroots activists. The convention that nominated John Kerry was a display of unabashed militarism and me-tooism, during which anyone caught with antiwar signs or even buttons was summarily kicked out the door (as happened to Medea Benjamin).

There are signs the antiwar movement is waking up to the Democrats’ perfidy, with Cindy Sheehan going after Hillary on account of the New York senator’s support for the war (which Ms Clinton describes as “a noble cause”). Far from advocating withdrawal, Senator Clinton has more than once suggested we need to send in more troops. At the San Francisco demonstration, as I noted on the blog, an entire contingent organized by Code Pink drew attention to Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi’s consistent support for war funding and other measures that would prolong our presence in Iraq. Awareness is growing, but we need more than that. We need action.