Jonah Goldberg

In his press conference Wednesday night, President Obama offered a nice little sermonette on "shortcuts."

Asked about his decision to release the "torture memos" and ban waterboarding, Obama said: "I was struck by an article that I was reading the other day talking about the fact that the British during World War II, when London was being bombed to smithereens, had 200 or so detainees. And Churchill said, 'We don't torture,' when ... all of the British people were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat. ... Churchill understood, you start taking shortcuts, over time, that corrodes what's best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country."

It's a nice, honorable statement. But there's not much evidence it's true.

It's unconfirmed, but the article Obama referred to is probably a combination of a 2006 op-ed by Ben Macintyre in the Times of London and a recent blog post about it by the Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan. Macintyre focused on British Col. Robin "Tin Eye" Stephens, the wartime commander of Camp 020 whose motto was "never strike a man," a code he didn't always succeed in enforcing. But even many of Stephens' preferred techniques -- sleep deprivation, psychological cruelty, etc. -- are routinely denounced as "torture" by Bush administration critics like Sullivan.

Macintyre doesn't mention Churchill. That's all Sullivan, who writes: "Churchill nonetheless knew that embracing torture was the equivalent of surrender to the barbarism he was fighting."

Typically, Sullivan's emotions are getting ahead of his facts. Churchill's preference for humane treatment of German POWs under the Geneva Conventions had more to do with ensuring reciprocity from enemy armies. Al-Qaida isn't a signatory and isn't interested in such reciprocity.

One reason Churchill might have eschewed putting the screws to detainees in 1942 is that he already knew what they could tell him about the bombings. The Allies knew where the airbases were and had cracked German codes years before.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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