Killing Expeditions and Torture are Politically Expedient

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

The latest Wikileaks release joins its predecessor in cataloging the criminality of the United States war effort. The Guardian quotes the Pentagon saying,

This security breach could very well get our troops and those they are fighting with killed. Our enemies will mine this information looking for insights into how we operate, cultivate sources and react in combat situations, even the capability of our equipment.

So “how we operate” is criminal. Of course a good part of the reason we operate in this fashion is a fear that no one, certainly not myself, who has not been at war can truly appreciate, but in all fairness, this leak offers a glimpse of. Simply put, soldiers have no reliable way of distinguishing innocent civilians from insurgents. Soldiers, most of whom are quite young men, few of whom have higher educations, are consistently placed in positions where they must decide between shooting first and asking questions later, as they have been ordered to do, and placing their own lives at considerable risk.

But also, there have been clear cut cases where helicopters pursued and attacked men who attempted to surrender. And the leak details yet more instances of torture; U.S. soldiers sometimes reported abuse they discovered, sometimes committed it themselves, and sometimes threatened to turn detainees over to Iraqi forces who were even more brutal.

I’ve been saying for a while that modern war is inherently criminal. These leaks confirm that. But they also remove any doubt as to the complicity of those in the Pentagon who accumulated these reports.

In The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (New York: Random House, 2008), Philip Zimbardo uses a detailed account of the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment to shed light on Abu Ghraib and assembles a case against senior Pentagon and Bush administration officials for creating a situation which induced their subordinates to torture not only at Abu Ghraib, but also at Guantanamo.

The Obama administration has extended these policies, secretly expanding the war to many more places, ordered more drone attacks that are notorious for killing civilians, defended torture policies in court, not merely preserved military commissions but instituted a two-tier system of justice—civilian courts for those prosecutors think they have sufficient evidence untainted by torture and commissions for more difficult cases—and refused to investigate Bush administration criminality. Because it is now a full participant in that criminality.

I’ve been hearing a lot recently about how we should consider the limits of what is politically possible. But as Paul Krugman has pointed out, Obama chose the Beltway and Wall Street insiders who have determined what is practical, what can be done, and what should be done. Perhaps these people were right about what was possible, but we haven’t even seen a fight for basic human morality.

And people aren’t just getting killed. They’re being stupidly killed, tortured, maimed, injured, and otherwise abused. I’m sorry, but I have a real problem rationalizing this on grounds of political expediency.

But that’s the country we’re in.