Better than salt money

Work like you were living in the early days of a better nation


A title escapes me

I should be sleeping right now. I can’t. The world is with me too much, late and soon. Then again, I don’t sleep as well as I did ten years ago. That’s part of why I can’t sleep. It’s not that I suffer from bad dreams. I don’t. When I am haunted (and I’m not often haunted) the haunting happens in my waking moments.

I’m a combat vet. I don’t, “look” like one. I’m quiet. I have long hair. I laugh at things, tell jokes, stop and look at sunsets, and babies and birds and am generally easy going. I also get nervous on days when the wind is warm and dry. I dislike being in cars with open windows. I scan the overpasses when moving down the highway.  When I walk my gaze caresses the high skyline, and tries to look into dark windows.

War is like that. If you’ve been to one you know that’s not explicable. None of us comes back the same. Most of us come back mostly whole. There is a place, a part of us which isn’t as it was; it’s not empty, but it’s searching. It’s the residue of constant fear.

I wasn’t young when I went. I wasn’t young when I enlisted, and I’d been in for eight years when we deployed. I was probably as prepared for it as anyone can be. I’d been trained. I’d read books. I’d known WW2 Vets, and Korean War Vets. If he’d lived a little longer I’d’ve known my Grandfather well enough to say I knew a WW1 vet.  One of the guys I shipped out with, who worked with me when we were doing small unit HumInt, was on his third war.  He did all he could to prepare us.

It didn’t help. Nothing helps. War is a strange beast; it has its own sensibilities. Some of which I knew of, but didn’t know. Take WW2, “The Good War”. Fuck that. In “The Men of Company K” there is an explanation of the difference between, “take him down the road”, and “take him to the road”. The latter was used when there was no time/manpower to spare; the prisoners were killed.

Which is why Who Did You Rape in the War, Daddy? A Question for Veterans that Needs Answering offends me. I am sure my offense matters not a bit to the author. I, after all, am a combat vet.

War is obscene. I mean that in every sense of the word. Some veterans will tell you that you can’t know war if you haven’t served in one, if you haven’t seen combat. These are often the same guys who won’t tell you the truths that they know about war and who never think to blame themselves in any way for our collective ignorance.
The truth is, you actually can know a lot about war without fighting in one. It just isn’t the sort of knowledge that’s easy to come by.

I’ll repeat myself, if you haven’t been there, you don’t know. I’ve been reading military history since I was 12. I’ve been reading milfic (much of which is personal history/experience thinly dressed) since I was abut 14. I’ve read Fussell on the subject. I’ve read David Drake explaining how he came to write his milfic; and the demons he was exorcising. I was taught by combat vets: combat vets who had a personal interest in giving me as much understanding of my profession as was humanly possible. I served with combat vets (from Vietnam, Panama, Iraq, other parts of Central America). Guys I know set up Camps Delta and X-ray in Gitmo. People I worked with worked there.

I can tell you what it was like, and you still won’t know. Until you’ve seen the elephant it’s not real.

I can tell you from experience that if you read a few dozen of the best of them, you can get a fairly good idea about what that war was really like. Maybe not perfect knowledge, but a reasonable picture anyway. Or you can read several hundred of the middling-to-poor books and, if you pay special attention to the few real truths buried in all the run-of-the-mill war stories, you’ll still get some feeling for war American-style.

I can tell you, from experience, that’s rubbish.  None of that will make it clear why I can sit in a hot tub and listen to people shooting at each other in my neighborhood, with a perfectly calm mind, while I will hear a string of firecrackers and be facedown on the floor, scrabbling for cover; having left my chair so quickly I had abrasions on my thighs.  Those are just the obvious ways in which being there gives a different understanding than researching, even from doing oral histories.  Yes, he qualifies it with, “war, American style”, but that’s still talking about it from the outside.

If you read it carefully you can see it’s rubbish. It’s self-delusional. He is telling you that if you don’t know, you can still sift through the books and find, “the few real truths.” How? If you read a book (say one like Chris Mackey’s, “The Interrogators”) how are you going to spot the real truths? If you know Chris (and, disclosure, I do), and you read it what will you take away? How will those truths be different if you don’t know him?

What if you don’t know him, but you do know that the people who took over from him when he left committed war crimes; some of them when to jail, some of them went on to Abu Graib. Some were punished, some got off pretty much scot-free. What “truths” do you think you will glean from it then?

What if I wrote a book, and you found out I served, in Iraq, with some of those same war criminals? What pieces of my writing will you take away as truth? If you read Tim O Brien’s, “The Things They Carried” you will learn another truth… all war memoirs are fiction. We don’t remember clearly. The good, the bad, the ugly: they blur. War has its own, sick and twisted, morality (see above, “to the road/down the road,”, or the scene in Band of Brothers where the officer is reported to have given a bunch of prisoners cigarettes and then machine gunned them all. No one admits to knowing if it’s true, but no one thought it impossible: nor worth reporting).

So no, I’m not saying crimes, even atrocities, don’t happen. I’ll even grant that they aren’t uncommon. That doesn’t mean, however, they are common. It’s not uncommon for someone to drive in excess of 100 mph, but it’s not a commonplace either.

But Nick Turse thinks

Maybe it’s time to start asking questions of our veterans. Hard questions. They shouldn’t be the only ones with the knowledge of what goes on in armies and in war zones. They didn’t get to Vietnam (or Iraq or Afghanistan) on their own and they shouldn’t shoulder the blame or the truth alone and in silence. We all bear it. We all need to hear it. The sooner, the better.

I don’t think I can respond to this without sounding like an apologist: but he’s wrong. He’s wrong because he’s confused the idea something being uncommon somehow brings it close to commonplace. He wants to shoulder some part of the blame for what happens in the warzone… good on ‘im, because most of the fuckheads who sent us over there are shirking the entire idea and none of the cheerleaders who supported the lies, and suppressed those who dissented from the pack, have suffered one bit, but I digress; bitterly.

But his blithe implication that asking rude questions like, “who did you rape in the war daddy” is going to get at the truth… bullshit. He’s managed a Bob Woodwardish case of and told “truths” in a way which misleads. Did atrocities occur? Yes. If you don’t think so, you aren’t reading this.

Were there crimes and atrocities which didn’t make the news? Sure. Do Vets know about them? Some do. Is assuming that every vet was a baby killer, or a rapist, or a murderer going to bring them to light? No. Is offending those vets who weren’t complicit a way to help anyone, “shoulder the blame”? Not in the least.

I’ve spent a lot of the past ten years speaking out about things people think they know about. I get a lot of rude questions. I’ve set myself up for them. Even at that I get questions which gobsmack me. I’m doing, as best I can, the thing he says vets don’t do. I can also tell you I’m not completely candid; because if I was, people would look at me blankly.

Because it’s a foreign place, and those who haven’t travelled there see it; at best, as through a glass, darkly. I know what he’s trying to do, and I know why (he’s been staring into the abyss), but his solution isn’t going to work. Implementing it won’t help; it will (if my reaction is anything to go by) backfire.
Assuming every vet is war criminal, is an injustice. Arguing we need to do it so the population at large can share the guilt… ain’t gonna happen. If they won’t do it for launching a fucking war; they sure as shit aren’t gonna do it for the effects of that war. Which means all that would happen is scapegoating those who went.

Fuck that noise.


Old Song: disgusting arrangement

I’m speaking at FogCon (9 March, 3 p.m.) in a panel about, “the ticking bomb” problem. It’s a moral question I sorted out decades ago, when I decided to accept the job of interrogator. The basic argument, for those who’ve never encountered it is this:

It’s a known fact that a bomb will go off (or some other variation of “people will die if nothing is done!!!!!”) and there is someone in custody who knows where it is, but s/he won’t talk. Do you torture them to get the information?

It’s usually presented as a “gotcha”, by those who are either advocating for torture, or at least willing to accept it. It’s often used as means of self-absolution by torture apologists. As given it’s a no-win situation. Either you accept that torture is allowable, or; for your own moral purity you are going to let innocent people die.

So a few weeks ago I saw a more absurd, and appalling form of the argument: Torture is a religious obligation for Jews.

I’ll let you think about that for a moment. Not just that it’s something they can allow, but it’s incumbent upon them to commit torture. here’s the article which is repeating the argument, and the crucial extract.

Q. What does Judaism say about torturing suspects in order to obtain life-saving information?

A. This highly topical question is the subject of a recent article by Rabbi J. David Bleich in the latest issue of Tradition magazine…

Rabbi Bleich adopts what seems to me an entirely novel ethical approach to the torture issue, based on two concepts of particular importance in Jewish law: the duty of rescue, and the right to self-defense….

In the European and Anglo-Saxon legal traditions, the duty of rescue is very limited. Rabbi Bleich writes that very few jurisdictions impose any sanctions at all on someone who is able to rescue but fails to do so….
By contrast, Jewish law imposes a binding and very demanding level of obligation to help others when their well-being or even their property is in danger. The Torah commands us, “Don’t stand idly by the blood of your fellow” (Leviticus 19:16); rather, we are obligated to take affirmative action to help him.

Jewish law, like other legal systems, recognizes the right to self-defense. Harming another person is of course normally forbidden, but when that person threatens us we are allowed to act aggressively to protect ourselves….

Putting these two principles together, Rabbi Bleich concludes that any person with life-saving information is obligated to reveal it (duty of rescue), and that the right of self-defense would justify aggressive actions to compel the knower to disclose his information. Rabbi Bleich writes: “By failing to act the potential informant makes it possible for a calamity to occur. . . It is thus clear that the law of pursuit sanctions any form of bodily force, including mayhem, when necessary to preserve the life of the victim.”

There is so much wrong with this, even when the following caveats are thrown in:

As Rabbi Bleich points out, this analysis applies fully only when there is certainty that the person in question can and will provide the information needed to defuse a “ticking bomb”. Uncertainty can arise here in many guises: is there a threat at all? Does this person indeed possess the information needed to neutralize the threat? And will torture be effective in eliciting the information? (Rabbi Bleich makes it clear that torture can never be sanctioned when less painful methods will be fruitful.) Obviously these are serious doubts, and experts are divided on whether torture is generally an effective means of obtaining information at all.

Another reservation here is that we have to clearly establish the informant’s duty to disclose. Since his status as a “pursuer” is due to his passive refusal to reveal information he has, there can be no right to harm him if he has valid reasons for keeping his secret. Rabbi Bleich devotes some discussion to this complex angle.

“Experts are divided”. Nope. Not unless you mean the way there are “experts” arguing that climate change isn’t happening, or that Evolution is “only a theory” or that members of the Flat Earth Society argue the world isn’t round, etc. Yes, there are people who will tell you torture works: they either don’t work in the field, or they have a dog in the fight (i.e. they have been complicit in torture).

That’s one thing. The rest, utter rubbish. Victim blaming rubbish too, the language of the abuser, “don’t make me hurt you”.

Rabbi Bliech is also opening Pandora’s Box. Israel actually used to follow this logic; troops in the field could claim, “exigent circumstances” and get a pass for torturing people who knew where bombs were. But guess what… eventually everyone was fair game. The doctrine expanded. If X know where the bomb is and Y knows where X is and Z knows where Y is and…. You can see where that leads.

Where it led the IDF was to filing an amicus brief to the Supreme Court of Israel, in favor of outlawing torture. Why? Because was both not working at finding bombs, and it was making the IDF more thuggish.

It was also radicalizing more people. Rabbi Bliech is making the argument one finds in The Battle of Algiers “Should France remain in Algeria? If your answer is ‘yes’, you must accept all the consequences.”

There is a saving grace, of sorts, in the caveats. As described this moral imperative is impossible to carry out. One can never be sure enough to torture.

Is there a bomb? You don’t really know. If you do know (not think, but know) then you will have enough evidence to have more than one person to question, when that happens you can exploit the prisoners’ dilemma.

How do you know this person knows? If you are certain (not reasonably sure, but certain, as one is certain the tide will turn in the Bay of Fundy), then you have enough other evidence to find the bomb, or someone else who has information.

Can you be sure that torture will work? No. One of the things which is known is that a limit to the need to keep silent; that is a point past which the information is no longer in need of being kept secret, makes it possible to hang until that point. All the bomber has to do is hold out until the bomb goes off. He can also test his torturers, in ways they can’t test him. He can pretend to co-operate, which will tell him what happens. If the abuse abates, he knows how to play for more time.

What the Rabbi has done is, immoral. He has put, “a stumbling block before the blind.” Those who don’t think this through, or who are truly ignorant of the ways in which torture fails as a means to reliably gain useful information will not only think that it can be justified, but that those who didn’t use it were failing in their moral duties.

He should be ashamed.