I have wanted to write about scandals regarding torture, abuse, and human rights violations for some time. I’m talking specifically about torture and misconduct by American soldiers and “private contractors” acting under American authority. I have waited because while the scandals were fresh, it seemed too much of an explosive topic. I guess what I really want to talk about is blind patriotism when it comes to the military in this country. Supporting our troops does not mean accepting, excusing, or justifying everything they do. It does not mean calling every soldier a hero, just because he joined the military. Many of our brave soldiers are heroes, but one must actually do something heroic to be a hero.
It is true that many who are the subjects of recent scandals are not actually our military, but are mercenaries under government control. Mercenaries hired by the Pentagon are a relatively new thing. For the past several years, since the advent of these mercenaries on the scene, and since the continuation of our seemingly perpetual war on terrorism, there have been a number of scandalous videos showing instances of physical and mental abuse including rape, electrocution, humiliation such as forcing prisoners into piling naked into a pyramid while being photographed, and inmates being forced to simulate sex with each other for the pleasure of the guards holding them. According to a report by Julian Borger of The Guardian on April 30, 2004, a staff sergeant, Chip Frederick, was accused of “posing in a photograph sitting on top of a detainee, committing an indecent act, and with assault for striking detainees – and ordering detainees to strike each other.” Also, according to Borger, Frederick told CBS: “”We had no support, no training whatsoever. And I kept asking my chain of command for certain things … like rules and regulations.’” (Borger, The Guardian).
Then there is the string of abuses exposed by Bradley Manning, who is thought by many Americans to be a traitor. I disagree. Today, it seems that whistle-blowers exposing real criminal activities are vilified and made into the criminals, diverting attention from the real atrocities being committed. The list of abuses by American soldiers in Iraq and in Guantanamo Bay are too numerous and ghastly to detail here. However, I would like to discuss the scandal involving a group of Marines photographed while urinating on the dead bodies of Afghan Taliban fighters. Two were charged with this crime when news of this act went viral. This caused an outraged American public to flood Facebook with angry tirades of disdain for the “liberal media” for exposing the dirty laundry of our poor, overworked, and mentally exhausted soldiers, defending their actions as understandable under the circumstances. When did the conditions of war, horrible as they are, become an excuse for dishonorable and disgusting behavior?
This is a touchy subject. I’ve lost friends over my stance on this issue. Yes, I am aware that there have been isolated instances of torture by Americans in every war, and I do realize that with today’s technology of video cell phones this behavior is more public than ever before. However, it has also become more acceptable to American civilians than ever before, and that scares me. One particular day when I got into the conversation, a friend of mine had posted a picture on Facebook of these Marines along with an exceptionally angry rant about the “liberal media” ruining the lives of these poor boys. I commented on her post that I was glad that my father, a WWII disabled veteran and a Marine was not likely to hear about this scandal because he was in a nursing home and too deaf to really catch much of the news on TV. I told my friend that he would be sickened at the thought of Marines acting in this dishonorable way. I went on to say that I had grown up hearing my dad’s stories of how Americans (to his knowledge) never stooped to the level of the Japanese or Germans in World War II, but treated prisoners with human decency. My father told me that his platoon knew that if they got out of line and acted unbecomingly with the enemy, they would be severely reprimanded, punished, and in the case of a soldier attempting to torture, rape, or demoralize anyone including the enemy, they would have been shot on the spot by the commanding officer. He was proud of this fact. He felt like he was a member of a group with a higher moral and ethical standing, that he believed in what he was fighting for, and that anyone, whether under stress or not, who would lower himself to the cruel and inhumane treatment of another human being was not worthy to be called an American. Well, I was immediately attacked as being a liberal, and being un-American myself for not supporting the behavior of these unfortunate boys. My friend un-friended me, blocked me, and still refuses to speak to me whenever I see her in public.
Is it a “liberal” characteristic to be concerned with human rights? Is it a “liberal” notion to expect ethical, moral, and sane behavior from our troops representing us around the world? Is it a “liberal” quality alone to care about the consequences of these actions and what damage is done to the victims and to their perpetrators? If so, I will gladly be called a “liberal.”
One difference I see between the idealism present in past wars and the cynical acceptance of today is that in previous generations, the majority of people were horrified and ashamed at these types of scandals. It was believed that these kinds of actions were done by the lowest of the low, and would not be tolerated by superior officers, the government, or the citizens in general. Now, thousands of citizens actually defend the behavior of soldiers who engage in this conduct, justifying it, and minimizing it. I believe this is detrimental to our nation as a whole, and does no one any good to pretend that there is ever any justification for this appalling behavior.
I believe part of the reason for this shift is extreme nationalism and blind patriotism. This could possibly be a result of the horrific attack on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. America seems to have changed a great deal since that day. Also, TV shows like 24, glamorize and blur the moral line between hard interrogation and the degradation and demoralizing abuse of prisoners. I heard from an Air Force officer that the leader of an anti-terrorist unit in the Air Force actually contacted the producers of the show to request that they stop making it seem like torture works as an effective interrogation technique. Supposedly since the show aired, soldiers who were surveyed believed that torture was necessary in some cases more than before the show existed. Jack Bauer, the main character on 24, shoots people in the knees to get answers as a “last resort.” Jack always gets results, but in reality, torture doesn’t work because anyone will say anything to stop the abuse. The information cannot be trusted. However, as a result of this show and others like it, some soldiers think it can.
However, my position on this issue has always been that whether it works or not is irrelevant. It is morally wrong under any circumstances and is cruel, unnecessary, and possibly even more harmful to the psyche and character of the persecutor than to the victim, and is harmful to the military morale and to the nation, not to mention our standing as a moral and ethical leader of the free world. I had a difficult time even writing that last part because that hardly seems to describe us anymore.
I am a patriotic person who is proud to be an American for many reasons. However, my pride mainly stems from belief in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and pride in the values that used to be the trademark of this country. We believed in helping the downtrodden, defending the weak, spreading freedom and democracy, and hopefully most of us still do believe in these things. But we must never confuse blind, unconditional acceptance of despicable behavior with love for our country or with supporting our troops. Loving America means among many things, holding her representatives accountable for failing to live up to the ideals we hold dear. I agree with John McCain, who endured first-hand torture at the hands of the enemy as a POW in Viet Nam, when he stated according to Devyn Dwyer of ABC News, in regards to waterboarding as a means of interrogation in the Osama Bin Laden investigation, “’Ultimately this debate is about far more than technical or practical issues,’ said McCain. ‘It is about far more than whether torture works or does not work. It is about far more than utilitarian matters. Ultimately, this is about morality. . . We are America, and we hold ourselves to a higher standard.’” So as civilians, let us do the same, holding ourselves and our military, government, and every other representative of us to the standards we claim to have. Let us hold ourselves to a higher standard and refuse to minimize or condone torture, abuse, demoralization, degradation, or any human rights violations. –Christina Knowles
Borger, Julian. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/media/2004/apr/30/television.internationalnews. Accessed 1/27/14.
Dwyer, Devin, ABC News. http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/ May 12, 2011. Accessed 1/27/14.
Powerful, brave, and well put.