Bugle and Bell
musings on the soul of war
Saints have no moderation, nor do poets, just exuberance.
by Anne Sexton ["The Saints Come Marching In"]
The Kiss of Judas
Torture as a Perversion of the Sacrament of Human Touch
Ideally, this column would be prefaced by an inverted Nike
swoosh trademark – having affixed to
it the stark and direct slogan: JUST DON'T DO
This installment of Bugle and Bell attempts to address
the role, if any, of systematic torture within the carrying out
of military missions – whether broad or narrow in scope. It
is not intended to pass eternal judgment on individuals who may
have performed torture or acquiesced in its implementation.
However, this discussion will not merely seek judgment regarding
the policy of intentionally causing pain to a fellow human being;
it will assume judgment – whether the reader is in
agreement or not.
Talking about torture is like talking about abortion. You either
"see it," or you don't. You can cite authorities, weave
arguments, wave the flag and/or the Cross (or Crescent or Star of
David or yin/yang symbol or what-have-you), and talk about cause
and effect. But, ultimately (and this is
an ultimate issue), it transcends legalistic conventions –
Geneva or otherwise. It is about who you are and who
you intend to be, whether in a society or as an individual.
A friend and fellow graduate student of the writer volunteered to
be a medic while serving with the U.S. Army during the Vietnam
era. He did not see the members of the combat arms branches as
being morally lesser than himself; he simply wanted to help
people in a fashion in which he could see some immediate results.
He was willing to risk his own safety to reach out and
touch and, hopefully, aid in the healing of fellow soldiers
who were wounded. Ultimately, he was sent overseas to the combat
zone where he looked forward to his role as Doc.
To his horror, he was assigned to long-range reconnaissance
patrols where he was expected to not only minister to the health
needs of his fellow soldiers, but also, to keep alive as long as
possible those enemy soldiers and sympathizers captured by the
patrols, and tortured for information before being killed in cold
blood. This medic's orders were to revive the victims of torture
in the hopes of extracting yet more information –
information that would ostensibly result in the more successful
performance of American and South Vietnamese missions, and the
subsequent saving of friendly lives. He ultimately suffered a
nervous breakdown and, perhaps to his credit, is internally
scarred to this day.
Marine Major Don Thieme has presented the same dilemma in a
present-day and more scholarly context. In his commentary,
"Don't Surrender the Moral High Ground" in the
February 2006 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute's journal,
Proceedings, he includes the following comments.
"No one who has ever been shot at , felt the surge of adrenaline,
the rush of fear, and the jubilation of survival can second-guess
the actions of a man who makes a split-second decision to take or
grant life. But once a man raises his hands, surrenders, and is
taken into custody, he is a noncombatant. He gets treated in
accordance with the Geneva Conventions, the Law of Armed
Conflict, and common sense – the same way you would want
your brother or fellow Marine treated.
"We cannot dehumanize our enemies as they dehumanize us, their
fellow Muslims, their countrymen, and their women. To assume the
position of übermensch is to plunge head first down
the slippery Faustian slope that stops at Auschwitz, Cambodia,
the Balkans, and Rwanda. To dehumanize and demonize our enemies
changes nothing in their core character, while ceding them the
victory of their vitriol as we become the very beasts of their
propaganda. They lose nothing, we lose everything."
Torture and other rough treatment is sometimes rationalized by
euphemisms such as You can't make omelets without cracking a
few eggs. However, that is just as logical as the
euphemism which is sometimes used as a justification for
statutory rape, preying upon underage sexual partners – who
are allegedly Old enough to bleed, old enough to breed.
There is a sexual connotation to the use of torture. That is not
to say that the torturer – who may be reluctantly following
orders from a superior whose position allows him to keep his
hands clean – gets some kinky thrill out of hurting
other people. Not necessarily. However, sexual
activity – in the appropriate context, one of the most
divine applications of human touch – entails
empathy with the other; likewise, the
application of torture entails some degree of empathy
with he or she who is being tortured. One can imagine pleasure in
another in the application of it, and one can visualize pain in
another in the application of it. It is not necessarily that we
must guard so much against our possible insensitivity when we are
in a survival mode; we must guard against a sensitivity that
becomes misdirected – or that becomes so intense, in
combat's microcosm of emotions (even good emotions), that
sensitivity short-circuits from overload and becomes
It has been said that, generally, the greatest weakness of an
individual is not the opposite of his greatest strength –
but is, rather, an over-extension of his greatest strength. Like
cancer, it metastasizes. The weakness is a perversion of that
which normally represents strength or health. The same may be
said about the strengths and weaknesses of a society.
Those of us who are blessed with living in America are enabled
and encouraged to maintain and amplify our youthful optimism. All
things are possible. We can smell the flowers and enjoy
the moment en route to our lofty goals. Our automobiles –
if we choose for them to be so – can be not only pragmatic
tools for transportation but, as well, venues for fashion and
fun. Our entire culture may be said to be a sport utility
The perpetual projection and celebration of youthfulness may be
said to hold weariness and jadedness and moral surrender at bay.
Idealism is, well, the ideal. However, most of
us – if we look back at our own individual childhood
– will recall that not everything about the early stages of
growing up was material worthy of nostalgia.
The cruelty of youth is the dark side of its
undercurrents. Novels like Golding's Lord of the Flies
(1954) and King's Carrie (1973) remind us of what it was
like to either be the outsider on the playground or to be caught
up in the "lynch mob" mentality of the cool and popular kids
consolidating their power base.
People are tortured or mistreated – whether in military
situations or otherwise – and not only for the purpose of
gaining information useful to one's cause. People are cruel to
other people because it is perceived to be fun. The excesses at
the Abu Ghraib prison have been compared, by its apologists, to
being a harmless fraternity prank. However, the pranks
of college fraternities and sororities – such as the
infamous pig parties where a prize is given to the
insider who locates and brings the ugliest date – are by no
means all innocent and light-hearted.
The military is the servant of its civilian culture. The
politicians tell the military whom to fight and whom to ally with
and whom to tread water with. However, if the military is to live
up to its own high standards – and the military is almost a
religion with its rituals, its vestments, its commandments, its
taboos, its asceticism, its legendary saintly holders of the
Congressional Medal of Honor, and its emphasis on character
– while it must still be aware of the tendencies and
pressures of the larger society that it serves. And, where the
tendencies and pressures of that society are detrimental to its
mission and to its humanitarianism, the military needs to employ
some sort of preventative maintenance in order to
maintain and protect its ideals.
That is not to say that the military should set political policy.
That is to say that, if the military can exercise combined
action programs in Vietnam and Afghanistan to identify with
the local culture, where it perceive the winning of hearts
and minds as being at least as valuable as the winning of
terrain, it can be a positive force in the broad cultures of
America. The U.S. Marine Corps sponsors John Philip Sousa Awards
to recognize laud-worthy bandsmen in public high schools. How
might the armed services or individual soldiers, sailors, airmen,
Coastguardsmen, or Marines take steps to reduce the vicarious
cruelty in our youth-on-a-pedestal society?
Our society makes a lot of money on vicarious cruelty. Television
programs like American Idol and Donald Trump's The
Apprentice and Martha Stewart's wannabe imitations
make much of not only showcasing the strong and talented but,
also, of humiliating the weak and untalented. The current trial
of Sadaam Hussein is simply the pot calling the kettle
black; to be sure, he is guilty of monstrous crimes against
humanity, but our subsequent public bear-baiting is only
one or two moral steps above the grisly videotapes released by
terrorists in possession of hostages. Look at the tabloids while
in the line at the grocery store; are not vicarious cruelty and
voyeurism rampant weaknesses in our fun society? Look at
the electronic games being marketed en masse – even if
they, tongue-in-cheek, purport to be patriotic and to extol
military operations. Vicarious cruelty is the creed of the
When the military teaches a recruit to fire a rifle correctly, it
is a lot easier to teach a recruit who has never handled a rifle
than it is to teach a recruit who has previously learned to fire
a rifle improperly – that is, not in the military fashion
that he will need to know if he is to effectively function
whenever he may possibly find himself in a combat situation where
he is not only the hunter but the hunted. Likewise, it is a lot
easier to teach a recruit to kick ass – only if
that adversarial ass is not helpless and is capable of kicking
first and/or kicking back – if the society of vicarious
cruelty has not previously taught him to take no
prisoners. Unfortunately, there is a lot of the "take no
prisoners" mentality evident on our civilian world's highways and
expressways; put a couch potato behind a steering wheel and you
get the mouse that roared – road rage.
Basic training itself can border on mistreatment. There is a fine
line between reproducing the stress and exhaustion which a man
must be able to surmount in combat – and exercising a
sadism toward recruits which only teaches the survivors to treat
others likewise. The training of Army Rangers and of Navy Seals
can be said to be torturous in many ways, but, unlike a
prisoner-of-war, a candidate for one of these elite assignments
out from the hurtful training at any time if he chooses to do so.
There are times when we need to be hard on ourselves. But there
are more times – even in the military – when we need
to be gentle with ourselves. Otherwise, we will indeed do unto
others as we would have others do unto us. If we want our ass
consistently kicked, we can only assume that others will want
their ass to be consistently kicked (and that is indeed what some
people want, but they are neither normal nor extraordinary).
Look into the services of a good massage therapist or
chiropractor. Exchange hugs with your loved ones. Eat strawberry
cheesecake. Try the local cuisine. Even combatants need
occasional R and R if they are to be effective –
and to be fully alive. Don't wait to be assigned life
– seize the day.
Does life sometimes consist of choosing the lesser of two
evils? Yes. Is it ever necessary to choose the application
of torture? Let's hope not.
It is well known what happens to the bee if it uses its stinger.
However, that is just another euphemism. With regard to the
problem of torture, you ultimately just have to see it.
And, seeing it, you have to rise above the society's addiction to
vicarious cruelty and be a professional human being. That is the
synthesis of being the ultimate elitist and just being
one of the people.
Be a professional human being. And leave the torture and
self-torture to the unprofessional human beings.
contributed by B. Keith Cossey