All of which makes some
remaining facts puzzling. Who are the
34 percent of Americans who still support the imploding
Bush administration? What successes do they see in
the thicket of domestic and foreign failures stretching
toward the horizon?
But perhaps the biggest mystery is why the Administration
has aggressively pursed torture as policy. Every expert
seems to agree that torture is virtually useless as
an interrogation technique. John McCain, who occupies
the unquestionable moral high ground on this issue,
condemns administration policy, as does Colin Powell.
Yet the Administration has mounted consistent legal
and political defenses of the morally and strategically
There is an excellent essay in the November issue
of Harper’s. William Pfaff’s article,
“What we’ve lost: George W. Bush and the
price of torture,” is an important read. It
brings together a great deal of familiar information,
and paints a bleak picture of the moral failings of
our leaders. But I had a terrible flash of insight
when I read this:
“Terrorism and guerrilla warfare demoralize
because they are unpredictable and without rules.
There is no predictable way to recognize enemies,
no structure to determine what is and is not allowable,
and so reciprocal atrocities indiscriminate violence,
and the collateral killing of civilians are invited.”
Think back on the Vietnam War, the crucible of all
current thinking about American military policy. Whether
you think the fight was inherently hopeless or that
it was lost on the home front, it is not debatable
that the asymmetry of the forms of warfare employed
by the two sides was a huge factor in the outcome.
The conditions Pfaff mentions were all in evidence.
And when Americans responded with indiscriminate violence
of our own, and massacred all of the residents of
a village called My Lai, the resulting blowback at
home had a huge effect on support for the war and,
eventually, the ability of our government to continue
to wage it.
It gives the architects of our current quagmire both
too much and too little credit to say that they have
not learned from this history. It gives too little
credit because the sadistic lessons they choose to
extract they learned well; too much because ignorance
is less morally culpable than the murderous scholarship
now being applied.
the lesson this administration learned from Iraq War
One more than a year ago: “The lesson George
W. Bush learned from his father's experience is now
obvious: the mistake was not in ending Operation Desert
Storm too soon: it was in letting the war end at all.”
That conclusion is no less valid today. For a long
time I thought Iraq War II showed the Bush Administration
had learned no lessons from Viet Nam. But now I realize
the terrible lesson they learned was about how to
respond to asymmetrical warfare.
The techniques by which small insurgent forces can
beat a larger and stronger occupying force through
asymmetrical warfare have been understood for more
than half a century. They were used by Mao to beat
the Chinese Nationalists; they were used by the Viet
Cong to wear down the United States; and Colin Powell,
Bush Senior and many others foresaw that they would
have been used to stalemate us in 1991 if we had tried
to occupy Iraq the first time around.
Orville Schell is the author of numerous books on
China, covered the war in Indochina and is now Dean
of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University
of California, Berkeley. He wrote
“Above all, counseled Mao, weaker forces
should avoid major engagements and settle instead
with a victory of attrition by means of repeated,
Elaborating on the teachings of classical Chinese
strategist Sun Zi, Mao wrote: "The enemy advances,
we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy
tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue."
The effectiveness of these techniques, and of the
tactics of terror the insurgents have added to them,
is beyond debate. The neoCons grasped that they could
not win an asymmetrical war, so they sought to even
things up. Even these buffoons knew it would be absurd
to bring the battle into balance by converting the
insurgents into the military arm of a nation-state.
The terrible lesson the neoCons learned from Vietnam
– the way they are seeking to fight a symmetrical
war – is to fight terror with terror.
Thus the new calculus: the insurgents become suicide
bombers; we level cities the insurgents have already
abandoned. The insurgents behead; we waterboard and
crucify. The insurgents plant roadside bombs; we incinerate
civilians with white phosphorus. For every indiscriminate,
random horror they perpetrate, we offer our own in
This hypothesis is horrifying in its implications,
and it is only a hypothesis. But it is a hypothesis
that solves a lot of mysteries about our leaders.
It explains why they are undaunted by the consensus
that torture will not yield useful information –
they don’t expect to get any. It explains why
they are so insistent on holding tens of thousands
of prisoners whether or not there is a reasonable
basis for their incarceration – they are not
making any attempt to separate combatants from the
bystanders. It explains the horror of white phosphorus
unleashed on civilians, and aerial bombardment of
our supposedly democratic client – tactical
military concerns are secondary at best. The randomness
of the violence, abuse and destruction is not an unavoidable
byproduct of an otherwise sane policy; the randomness
is itself the very object of the policy.
And of course, our descent into such unspeakable
tactics explains another, shameful mystery: why the
evil we fight has become so difficult to distinguish
from the evil we have become.
John Steinberg is a Senior Recidivist with the
Poor Man Institute for Freedom and Democracy and a
Pony. He bloviates regularly @ www.bluememe.blogspot.com.