Good countries don't finish last

Posted: May 16, 2004 12:00 AM

Wars can be lost on the battlefield, but not completely won there. That's because war, as the Prussian military strategist Karl von Clausewitz wrote, "is the continuation of politics by other means." And politics is not naked force: political endeavors succeed or fail on their ideas and values. Wars can only be won when the peace is won -- in hearts and minds.

This truth does not give us occasion to cast all weaponry aside and commence a group hug to the strains of Kumbaya. It is not utopian dogma. But it does bear a positive import: good countries, just like good men and women, don't finish last. In the real world, they actually finish first.

American soldiers must not torture or humiliate foreign soldiers or civilians for two powerful reasons: first, it is wrong, and second, it produces disastrous results. It seems strange to have to say that.

How America behaves in the world does matter -- for us and for everyone else. Greatness measured merely in military might is not the greatness the American people seek. A strong military lacking in humanity is not the service that the bulk of our military men and women seek to be part of.

Reactions to Torture

The support for the war in public opinion polling is for the liberation of the people of Iraq, not for the interrogating and tormenting of the defenseless. This is precisely why President Bush's support is now eroding, even after it had held firm despite months of consistently negative news from Iraq. Americans cannot stomach these abuses -- to their credit.

Conservative commentators, including Rush Limbaugh, have been too quick to point out that these abuses, disgusting though they are, pale in comparison to the abuses of Saddam Hussein and of Al Qaeda. True enough. But what's the point?

There are no merit badges for light torture. To his credit, President Bush recognized this.

And I've been shocked to hear too many citizens actually defend this behavior. Some believe they are facing hard truths that others squeamishly refuse to face. We even hear that torture can be justified, if it gains authorities critical information that might save innocent lives. It is an interesting hypothetical question of ethics.

I've always believed that the end does not justify the means. Historically, such a philosophy can be that first step toward appallingly evil means . . . and consistently disastrous ends -- something regular readers of my Common Sense e-letter know well.

Furthermore, beyond being morally repugnant, what are the military costs and benefits of using such terror tactics?

As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld admitted, morale has been dealt a body blow. It has made the soldiers' job tougher. After all, it is very hard to convince people unused to the rule of law to adopt a new legal framework from an occupation army. It is doubly hard when even a few in that army opt for rule by brutal means with which those people are all too familiar.

The prison abuse strengthens the morale of the Iraqi resistance, as it would any enemy force. As Jacob Hornberger, a veteran and president of the Future of Freedom Foundation, wrote,

[T]he anger and hatred and thirst for revenge and vengeance is now going to be immeasurable, given the unbelievable humiliation wrecked on Iraqi men with the forced nudity, sex abuse, and torture at Abu Ghraib prison, especially by U.S. female military personnel. One of the worst things a soldier can face is a well-motivated enemy.

We should remember the words of General Robert E. Lee:

No greater disgrace can befall an army and through it our whole people than the perpetration of barbarous outrages upon the innocent and defenseless. Such proceedings not only disgrace the perpetrators and all connected with them, but are subversive of the discipline and efficiency of the army, and destructive of the ends of our movement.

Lastly, the benefits are illusory -- gone as soon as the hypothetical becomes the real. There is no evidence that useful information is obtained from torture, in general, nor certainly from the debauchery exhibited at Abu Ghraib.

An Iraqi prisoner recently released from Abu Ghraib, told The New York Times that after his vicious treatment he "admitted to belonging to the insurgency, of knowing top terrorists, of being Mr. bin Laden, of being a member of a militant Shiite Muslim group, even though he is a Sunni. He said he made up stories about where the resistance was hiding in the western desert."

Do the Right Thing

Note that terrorists, as if to prove themselves greatly more bloodthirsty and barbaric than these American prison guards could hope to be, responded by decapitating American Daniel Berg on video for the world to see.

The chilling crime and every decent person's reaction to it, throughout the entire world, powerfully proves the importance of winning hearts and minds, and of humanity's unifying sense of decency. The common decency that flows from citizen control of government and protection of individual freedom has long been one of America's most powerful weapons.

And yet we must recognize that not everyone in the world naturally leaps to decency. Our enemies surely don't. But this does not excuse atrocities large or small. In fact, it reinforces the futility of treating our enemies with inhumanity, for they will leap to every instance as an excuse for further inhumanity in double portion. What most vexes them is our justice. So our injustices are what please them most, and allow them to mount further resistance, and gain new recruits.

I'm not interested in blaming Bush and Rumsfeld for the abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison as those in Congress -- too numerous to name -- are doing for political reasons. If Congress were serious about getting to the bottom of the matter, they would have commanded those responsible all the way up the line to testify before Congress, under oath, not simply had a media event with Rumsfeld.

Meanwhile, the courts-martial and the investigations continue. Rumsfeld has said there will be no cover-up. Those guilty of committing or condoning these abuses should be seriously punished. All the way up the line.

That's the right approach. But it is time to go further. It is time to examine, alter, and end forever policies across the board -- from the prison at Guantanamo Bay and the Bush/Kerry Patriot Act to the arrest and detention of American citizens without charge.

The war on terror must not be a war of terror. Our respect for the rights of every individual is the key to not only our liberty, but the liberation of struggling peoples around the world. Because, whether Alexis de Tocqueville actually ever said it, it is nevertheless true that "America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great."