'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Support the Troops (Part 1) 

From today's Independent:

Two wars and a decade of sanctions have led to a huge rise in the mortality rate among young children in Iraq, leaving statistics that were once the envy of the Arab world now comparable with those of sub-Saharan Africa.

A new report shows that in the years since 1990, Iraq has seen its child mortality rate soar by 125 per cent, the highest increase of any country in the world. Its rate of deaths of children under five now matches that of Mauritania.

Jeff MacAskey, head of health for the Save the Children charity, which published the report, said: "Iraq, Botswana and Zimbabwe all have different reasons for making the least amount of progress on child mortality. Whether it's the impact of war, HIV/Aids or poverty the consequences are equally devastating. Yet other countries such as Malawi and Nepal have shown that despite conflict and poverty child mortality rates can be reversed."

Figures collated by the charity show that in 1990 Iraq's mortality rate for under-fives was 50 per 1,000 live births. In 2005 it was 125. While many other countries have higher rates - Angola, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, all have rates above 200 - the increase in Iraq is higher than elsewhere.

Sadly, as we all know, it's not just children who have been victimized by the sanctions, the wars and the occupation, many thousands of adults of have lost their lives as well. As for the living, our soldiers don't seem to have a very high regard for them:

Almost one in ten US combat troops deployed in Iraq have mistreated a civilian, according to a new survey conducted by an army mental health advisory team.

The report, released on Friday, also found that less than half of the soldiers and marines surveyed would report a fellow serviceman for killing or injuring an innocent Iraqi.

"Soldiers with high levels of anger, who had experienced high levels of combat or who screened positive for mental health symptoms were nearly twice as likely to mistreat noncombatants," Major General Gale Pollock, the acting army surgeon general, told reporters at a press conference.

The most common mistreatment reported by soldiers and marines was that of insulting non-combatants in their presence, the report said.

The survey showed that 55 per cent of US army soldiers, and only 40 per cent of marines, would report a fellow serviceman for killing or injuring an innocent non-combatant.

The survey, which shows increasing rates of mental health problems for troops on extended or multiple deployments in Iraq, was the first to include questions on ethics and ethical training.

As such, the report stresses the findings cannot be compared "with any other group of military personnel".

More than a third of the 1,320 soldiers and 447 marines surveyed said that torture should be allowed to save the life of a fellow soldier or marine, while almost 38 per cent said torture should be allowed in order to gather "important information about insurgents".

"These men and women have been seeing their friends injured and I think that having that thought is normal," said Pollock, but she added: "They're not acting on those thoughts. They're not torturing the people."

The survey showed only 47 per cent of soldiers and 38 per cent of marines agreed that non-combatants should be treated with dignity and respect.

US operations in Iraq have been dogged by claims of mistreatment of Iraqi detainees and civilians, including revelations of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 and reports of the killing of 24 Iraqi civilians by Marines in Haditha in November 19, 2005.

Of course, the striking part of this story is the extent of rationalization for the tendency of many US troops to consider Iraqis as dehumanized, along with a paradoxical perspective that the troops merely keep their negative attitudes about the Iraqis to themselves, without acting upon them.

Major General Gale Pollock's comment encapsulates it perfectly: These men and women have been seeing their friends injured and I think that having that thought is normal. They're not acting on those thoughts. They're not torturing the people.

Oh, really? Apparently, as the article suggests, Pollock is ignorant of the disclosures of abuse at Abu Ghraib, as well as the outright killings of civilians at places like Haditha. Meanwhile, the survey questions related to torture are revealing, indicative of a predisposition within the military to sanction it. The troops were asked if torture should be permitted to save their lives and gain valuable intelligence information about the insurgency. Not surprisingly, significant pluralities found it acceptable.

By asking questions about torture that assumed its effectiveness, the army mental health advisory team actually propagandized in support of it. It is actually a wonder that more troops didn't answer the questions affirmatively. If the advisory team had framed the questions differently, based upon a more honest description of the uses of torture and its consequences, it may have obtained very different responses.

For example, consider this evaluation of torture in the historical, ethical and moral context by Alfred McCoy:

For over 2,000 years, from ancient Athens through the Inquisition, interrogators found that the infliction of physical pain often produced heightened resistance or unreliable information - the strong defied pain while the weak blurted out whatever was necessary to stop it. By contrast, the CIA's psychological torture paradigm used two new methods, sensory disorientation and "self-inflicted pain," both of which were aimed at causing victims to feel responsible for their own suffering and so to capitulate more readily to their torturers. A week after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, General Geoffrey Miller, U.S. prison commander in Iraq (and formerly in Guantánamo), offered an unwitting summary of this two-phase torture. "We will no longer, in any circumstances, hood any of the detainees," the general said. "We will no longer use stress positions in any of our interrogations. And we will no longer use sleep deprivation in any of our interrogations."

Under field conditions since the start of the Afghan War, Agency and allied interrogators have often added to their no-touch repertoire physical methods reminiscent of the Inquisition's trademark tortures - strappado, question de l'eau, "crippling stork," and "masks of mockery." At the CIA's center near Kabul in 2002, for instance, American interrogators forced prisoners "to stand with their hands chained to the ceiling and their feet shackled," an effect similar to the strappado. Instead of the Inquisition's iron-framed "crippling stork" to contort the victim's body, CIA interrogators made their victims assume similar "stress positions" without any external mechanism, aiming again for the psychological effect of self-induced pain.

Although seemingly less brutal than physical methods, the CIA's "no touch" torture actually leaves deep, searing psychological scars on both victims and - something seldom noted - their interrogators. Victims often need long treatment to recover from a trauma many experts consider more crippling than physical pain. Perpetrators can suffer a dangerous expansion of ego, leading to escalating acts of cruelty and lasting emotional disorders. When applied in actual operations, the CIA's psychological procedures have frequently led to unimaginable cruelties, physical and sexual, by individual perpetrators whose improvisations are often horrific and only occasionally effective.

Just as interrogators are often seduced by a dark, empowering sense of dominance over victims, so their superiors, even at the highest level, can succumb to fantasies of torture as an all-powerful weapon. Our contemporary view of torture as aberrant and its perpetrators as abhorrent ignores both its pervasiveness as a Western practice for two millennia and its perverse appeal. Once torture begins, its perpetrators, plunging into uncharted recesses of consciousness, are often swept away by dark reveries, by frenzies of power and potency, mastery and control - particularly in times of crisis. "When feelings of insecurity develop within those holding power," reads one CIA analysis of the Soviet state applicable to post-9/11 America, "they become increasingly suspicious and put great pressures on the secret police to obtain arrests and confessions. At such times police officials are inclined to condone anything which produces a speedy 'confession' and brutality may become widespread."

Enraptured by this illusory power, modern states that sanction torture usually allow it to spread uncontrollably. By 1967, just four years after compiling a torture manual for use against a few top Soviet targets, the CIA was operating forty interrogation centers in South Vietnam as part of its Phoenix Program that killed over 20,000 Viet Cong suspects. In the centers themselves, countless thousands were tortured for information that led to these assassinations. Similarly, just a few months after CIA interrogators first tortured top Al Qaeda suspects at Kabul in 2002, its agents were involved in the brutal interrogation of hundreds of Iraqi prisoners. As its most troubling legacy, the CIA's psychological method, with its legitimating scientific patina and its avoidance of obvious physical brutality, has provided a pretext for the preservation of torture as an acceptable practice within the U.S. intelligence community.

Once adopted, torture offers such a powerful illusion of efficient information extraction that its perpetrators, high and low, remain wedded to its use. They regularly refuse to recognize its limited utility and high political cost. At least twice during the Cold War, the CIA's torture training contributed to the destabilization of two key American allies, Iran's Shah and the Philippines' Ferdinand Marcos. Yet even after their spectacular falls, the Agency remained blind to the way its torture training was destroying the allies it was designed to defend.

Or, to be more concise, information obtained through torture is unreliable, but creates a sense of sadomasochistic omnipotence in those who practice it. Ringo Lam's Hong Kong classic, Burning Paradise, is an arresting cinematic exposition of this phenomenon. One assumes that the military is well aware of the lack of effectiveness of torture from the standpoint of gathering information, it has been common knowledge for a long time. But is the military really interested in torture for this purpose? I doubt it.

Perhaps, we should instead focus upon the potential psychological benefit, from a military perspective, related to those who inflict it. As McCoy describes (and Lam displays visually, to chilling effect), those who do it become addicted to a feeling of irrational omnipotence, perhaps akin to those who abuse cocaine and methamphetamine. Militarily, such a psychological state may be considered desirable, especially when, if left to an objective examination of the situation, the troops would conclude that the war has bn lost.

Indeed, the difference between those who found torture acceptable, and those who did not, may be partially explainable in this way. Troops who answered affirmatively may have believed, even if they had not personally abused Iraqis, that torture was empowering, a way of transforming a demoralized situation, while, those who answered negatively may have thought that recourse to torture would not change anything, and might even makes things worse.

As for the Iraqis, I have frequently commented, as with Guantanamo and the detainees there, that the use of torture is not about developing information for the purpose of attaining military objectives. Rather, it is about intimidating the populace through the brutalization of those subjected to it, and the many others who learn of it. Given that we are now in the fifth year of the occupation, we can only charitably describe the effectiveness of it as mixed at best.

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