Torture versus war

A couple of weeks ago, when I first outlined a case for prosecutions of torturers, our intrepid commenter, Ian, objected on the basis that our illegitimate wars were a far greater stain on our country. For instance, our occupation of Iraq has sent hundreds of thousands to early graves; what are a few hundred tortured prisoners compared to that level of killing?

I didn’t and still don’t have an easy answer to that question. After all, similar logic – torturing a few is worth it for the chance to save the lives of thousands – has convinced otherwise reasonable people to commit or support these crimes in the first place. At least the logic the leads to torture is demonstrably faulty, because torture is just as likely to produce bad intelligence, and can backfire like it did after the Abu Ghraib pictures went public and terrorist recruitment skyrocketed. In that case, we can just as easily ask how many more lives were lost because of torture.

The original question though is not about the right or wrongness of torture (I think Ian accepts that it’s wrong), but the weight of that crime versus war itself and the validity of prosecutions for the lesser of the two.

I accept the idea of a Just War. While a great evil, war is sometimes necessary to combat an even greater evil. The easiest example would be the Allied campaign against Nazi Germany. I don’t think our war in Iraq rose to the level of a just war, and it’s probably illegal under international law. Ultimately I agree that unjust wars are a greater evil than torture. The comparative human cost is just too high.

The problem is that once you accept that war is ‘just’ under some conditions, you can’t very well outlaw war itself. Bush, like other war starters, adeptly fudged the evidence to make attacking Iraq seem just. He also cleverly diverted the blame to the CIA and other intelligence agencies once his case for war fell apart. Because of that level of deniability, I don’t think we’re going to see Bush or any of his crew brought to justice for the Iraq war, although I wouldn’t be opposed to trying.

On the other hand, the case for torture prosecutions is much clearer. Administration officials aren’t denying what’s happened, they’re defending it in public. There is also a substantial paper trail linking these same officials to the authorization of very specific torture techniques. And make no mistake, torture is a great evil. That’s why America led the way to banning its practice around the world. It’s why we prosecuted Nazis and Imperial Japanese soldiers for committing similar crimes.

And make no mistake, there is a difference between killing someone on the battlefield and torturing them as a prisoner. From a reader at Sullivan’s blog:

During warfare, both sides are fighting each other. If you don’t do unto him, he’ll do unto you. When you capture a prisoner, they are your ward. You are responsible for them. How you treat them does not depend on what kind of person they are, it depends on what kind of person you are.

As a matter of policy and national identity we’ve said that we’re better than many of our enemies. We have values and a heritage worth defending and not surrendering under even the most dire of circumstances.

4 Comments

  1. Ian

    “The easiest example would be the Allied campaign against Nazi Germany.”

    Except that isn’t really how it happened. We didn’t enter WWII to stop the Nazis. We entered WWII because Japan, Germany’s ally, attacked us. Nothing excuses dropping an atomic weapon on a city full of civilians. Nothing. Your “do unto him” comment futher down doesn’t apply there.

    “During warfare, both sides are fighting each other. If you don’t do unto him, he’ll do unto you.”

    Except unless the tanks are rolling down your street, you don’t really have to be involved in the war. The base assumption of such a statement is that you are in the war to begin with. I agree that torture is wrong an unnecessary, but I feel similarly about war.

  2. Ian

    Oh, and before I get jumped on, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have been involved in WWII. I am just saying our reasons for entering it were more about self-preservation and less about stopping the Nazis. In that instance, our national defense was actually used in defense.

  3. Chris

    We entered WWII because Japan, Germany’s ally, attacked us.

    I never said otherwise. It was a Just War precisely mainly because it was more or less defensive in nature.

    Nothing excuses dropping an atomic weapon on a city full of civilians. Nothing.

    I never said there was an excuse. Same goes for firebombing Dresden and Tokyo. But those war crimes are not an indictment of the entire Allied war effort.

  4. Ian

    “And make no mistake, torture is a great evil. That’s why America led the way to banning its practice around the world. It’s why we prosecuted Nazis and Imperial Japanese soldiers for committing similar crimes.”

    Yet we held Japanese Americans in internment camps and McCarthyism became all the rage.

    “The problem is that once you accept that war is ‘just’ under some conditions, you can’t very well outlaw war itself.”

    Perhaps this is where we differ. This is a question of ‘Do the ends justify the means?’. War encompasses a wide range of things a country can do. Dropping bombs on a military base and dropping bombs on civilians are both acts of war. I know we do our best to avoid civilians, but they’re still dying, so we aren’t doing well enough. I’m saying how can we excuse and ignore our military practices that result in the deaths of thousands of civilians, but be upset about torture? Is torture not just another bad military practice that happens during war?

    “As a matter of policy and national identity we’ve said that we’re better than many of our enemies.”

    This is precisely what I mean. We are the only ones who can hold ourselves accountable for violating that policy and that identity. This isn’t written in stone anywhere and there will be not necessarily be justice for violating these principles. We can do better than just going after people for torture. We can change the way we do things and interact with the world. We can change how we fight wars and our criteria for entering wars. I just feel like torture prosecutions are only scratching the surface of what needs to be done.