Tuesday, February 23, 2016


The centennial commemorations associated with World War I come almost daily, and they are important to note lest we become complacent about the distance humankind has traveled. One hundred years ago this past Sunday, the Battle of Verdun began. Over the course of the next ten months, the German and French armies blasted away at each other in what appears in retrospect to have been one of those set pieces characteristic of the Great War, one in which tens of thousands of troops were killed--perhaps 300,000 altogether--with no significant advantage being gained by either side.

Paul Jankowski, a historian at Brandeis University and the author of a book on the Battle of Verdun, considers the battle's meaning in an essay published over the weekend in the New York Times Sunday Review. The battle, Jankowski concludes, in the end controlled the generals who had hoped to control it. This offers a lesson worth remembering when we hear the intemperate talk of war from presidential candidates who seem to know little about history.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Reviving Torture

On April 28, 2004, the CBS News program 60 Minutes II aired a story revealing in graphic detail--with photos supplied by a U.S. soldier who had chosen to blow the whistle on prisoner abuse--the torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of Iraqi captives at the U.S. Army's detention facility at Abu Ghraib. The story led to multiple investigations, the removal of Brig. Gen. Janet Karpinski from her command, and the court-martial of several low-ranking soldiers involved in the mistreatment of prisoners. Those at the highest levels of government denied responsibility, argued that "enhanced interrogation" was not torture and therefore was not illegal, and claimed that getting rough with detainees was necessary to get actionable intelligence for the "war on terror." In November of that same year, President George W. Bush became the first Republican candidate for the presidency since 1988 to win a majority of the popular vote. Respect for human rights was apparently not among the American electorate's priorities at the time.

In the Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire back on February 6, Donald Trump said, "I would bring back waterboarding and I'd bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding." The line won the applause of many of those in the audience, a group older but apparently no wiser with respect to fundamental human rights norms than those who had voted for Bush in 2004.

To be clear, waterboarding is torture. It has been rightly condemned as torture by the United States Government in the past, at least when it was being employed by others. It violates every reasonable construction of the terms of the the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the 1984 Convention on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Its use is forbidden by the U.S. Army Field Manual. And as a result of an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act signed by President Obama on November 25, 2015, it is now a clear and unequivocal violation of federal law. The U.S. Constitution, of course, requires the president to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed," whether he or she agrees with those laws or not.

Just days after Trump's embrace of waterboarding and, in the same debate, Ted Cruz's denial that waterboarding is torture, John McCain took to the floor of the Senate to condemn such loose talk. His remarks should be carefully noted by the Republican candidates vying, or so it appears, to be torturer-in-chief.

Ignoring the pleas of human rights groups, President Obama opted not to prosecute--or even investigate--the violations of federal and international law by those in the George W. Bush administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney, who advocated the use of "enhanced interrogation" techniques, including waterboarding. In retrospect, that may have been a mistake. Perhaps it would not now be so easy for some to talk of reviving torture if more had been punished for actually practicing it.