The Daily Sandwich

"We have to learn the lesson that intellectual honesty is fundamental for everything we cherish." -Sir Karl Popper

Location: Boston, Massachusetts, United States


Friday, February 09, 2007

Fact and Fiction

A lot of people laugh when I say that I think 'Starship Troopers' is one of the greatest anti-war films ever made. Unfortunately, critics dismissed it as a gory, brain-dead genre flick while fans of the genre were apparently underwhelmed by its lack of brain-dead goriness. (The director-- who was a child in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands-- and screenwriter discuss at length their frustration that everyone totally missed the point in the excellent commentary track.) The irony is that the movie preceded the 'Bush Era' by just a couple of years-- just when we most needed a reminder of how appealing fascism can be in the right package. I could go on, but I learned years ago that it's a lost cause.

But I thought that would serve as an apt introduction for a pair of stories on war. First is "24-Mania," which is filling some people's heads with visions, but not of sugarplums.

Finnegan told the producers that “24,” by suggesting that the U.S. government perpetrates myriad forms of torture, hurts the country’s image internationally. Finnegan, who is a lawyer, has for a number of years taught a course on the laws of war to West Point seniors—cadets who would soon be commanders in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. He always tries, he said, to get his students to sort out not just what is legal but what is right. However, it had become increasingly hard to convince some cadets that America had to respect the rule of law and human rights, even when terrorists did not. One reason for the growing resistance, he suggested, was misperceptions spread by “24,” which was exceptionally popular with his students. As he told me, “The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about “24”?’ ” He continued, “The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.”

Gary Solis, a retired law professor who designed and taught the Law of War for Commanders curriculum at West Point, told me that he had similar arguments with his students. He said that, under both U.S. and international law, “Jack Bauer is a criminal. In real life, he would be prosecuted.” Yet the motto of many of his students was identical to Jack Bauer’s: “Whatever it takes.” His students were particularly impressed by a scene in which Bauer barges into a room where a stubborn suspect is being held, shoots him in one leg, and threatens to shoot the other if he doesn’t talk. In less than ten seconds, the suspect reveals that his associates plan to assassinate the Secretary of Defense. Solis told me, “I tried to impress on them that this technique would open the wrong doors, but it was like trying to stomp out an anthill.”

Time for an unpleasant dose of reality: a man who served in Iraq as an interrogator tells his story. A must-read.

The lead interrogator at the DIF had given me specific instructions: I was to deprive the detainee of sleep during my 12-hour shift by opening his cell every hour, forcing him to stand in a corner and stripping him of his clothes. Three years later the tables have turned. It is rare that I sleep through the night without a visit from this man. His memory harasses me as I once harassed him.

Despite my best efforts, I cannot ignore the mistakes I made at the interrogation facility in Fallujah. I failed to disobey a meritless order, I failed to protect a prisoner in my custody, and I failed to uphold the standards of human decency. Instead, I intimidated, degraded and humiliated a man who could not defend himself. I compromised my values. I will never forgive myself.

You can't deny the appeal of a super-tough anti-hero like Jack Bauer, and Mr. Fair's story isn't the stuff of hit TV shows, but it's a basic lesson in courage and strength of character that has been lost on countless generations of mankind.