Counterinsurgency and Torture
After a lapse of thirty years, counterinsurgency is back as a topic of military study. I recently attended a three-day "strategy implementation seminar" on counterinsurgency at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Participating in the event were three hundred military officers at the rank of colonel or above and a number of visitors interested in military strategy. Speakers included retired General Barry McCaffrey, the former drug czar, and Michael Scheuer, the ex-CIA analyst who wrote Imperial Hubris. General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, delivered the opening address.
Counterinsurgency is the work of empire. It involves a dominant power forcing its will on a subject people. As Petraeus wrote in his foreword to the Department of the Army's Field Manual on Counterinsurgency (FM 3-24), published in December 2006: "all insurgencies, even today's highly adaptable strains, remain wars amongst the people." The work of countering insurgents-be they American Indians, Viet Cong guerillas, or "former Saddamists"-involves "a mix of offensive, defensive, and stability operations," says Petraeus. "Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation builders as well as warriors." The modalities involved in this process range from the distribution of food, medical supplies, and other social benefits to outright bribery and on from there into the dark arts of psychological warfare, political assassination, sabotage, and torture.
The United States Army has long been involved in the work of counterinsurgency. Carlisle Barracks, where the U.S. Army War College is located, was established in central Pennsylvania's Cumberland Valley in the mid-1700s for the purpose of instructing British and Provincial troops in counterinsurgency, which back then meant fighting Indians. "We used to be real good at dealing with tribes," said a colonel I met at the War College. "Back in the days of Manifest Destiny, we were geniuses at setting one group of Indians against another. This is what we need to do in Iraq. Get some Sunnis on our side, to block the crazy Shi'a. Then, when things calm down, we start introducing the poison blankets."
After its Indian-fighting days, Carlisle Barracks later served as a kind of onshore Guantánamo detention center. Former insurgents, often against their will, were sent here to attend what was called the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. One of the school's former students was Wa-Tho-Huk, who is better known as the famous football player Jim Thorpe. Devoted to ethnic cleansing, the Carlisle School adopted as its motto: "Kill the Indian and save the man." This failed attempt at "civilizing" Native Americans was closed in 1918; the U.S. Army War College was brought to Carlisle in 1973.
Founded in 1901 by Secretary of War Elihu Root, the War College was created "to study and confer on the great problems of national defense, military science, and responsible command." Graduates from the school include Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, Al Haig, George Patton, and Norman Schwarzkopf. The "strategy implementation seminar" I attended, in July 2007, was the second in what is now an annual series of lectures and classroom discussions at the War College. (Next year's topic will be irregular warfare.) The seminar is designed as the capstone experience for three hundred colonels and lieutenant colonels who have spent two years completing a master's degree in strategic studies, with a curriculum that includes courses in "Irregular and Catastrophic Challenges" and "Leadership in a Global Environment."
At the end of their studies (conducted mainly through distance courses in the field), the newly minted master's students are brought to Carlisle to mingle with a roster of distinguished visitors. My fellow guests included people from RAND, Georgetown University, and the National Security Agency-the usual mix of Beltway pundits, academics, and co-conspirators from the military industrial complex. I also met a man who owns a lot of mini-marts in Arkansas, a vice president at AT&T, a young Iraqi woman studying journalism at MIT, and someone from the Primetime Torture Project, which tracks how "the number of scenes of torture on TV shows is significantly higher than it was five years ago and [how] the characters who torture have changed. It used to be that only villains on television tortured. Today, 'good guy' and heroic American characters torture-and this torture is depicted as necessary, effective, and even patriotic."
Some of my fellow visitors at the War College knew something about counterinsurgency, but this was not required for attendance. In my own case, I began studying the subject while writing about Time magazine correspondent and Communist spy Pham Xuan An. I published an article about An in The New Yorker, and my book on spies and journalists will be published later this year. I was invited to Carlisle as a member of the fourth estate (the U.S. military being keen at the moment to "embed" sympathetic journalists), after being nominated for the assignment by a friend who teaches constitutional law at West Point and the U.S. Air Force Academy.
While writing about Pham Xuan An's own training in counterinsurgency, which he received from French, American, North Vietnamese, and South Vietnamese experts-all in his line of work as a quadruple agent-I studied the history and methods of counterinsurgency. During my visit to the War College, I learned that the United States is busily reviving these counterinsurgency techniques from past imperial wars led by U.S. and other Western powers. Counterinsurgency is an anxious domain, especially anxious about the mobility of journalists and other reporters on the front lines. Surprised by its embarrassed silence on the subject, I further learned that the U.S. Army War College, in fact, the entire United States military, is haunted by competing ideological camps with respect to the issues surrounding counterinsurgency and torture.
When not attending lectures, I spent most of my time at the War College in a classroom with fifteen colonels about to complete their degrees. I am not certain about their practical knowledge of counterinsurgency, learned while serving tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, but their classroom coverage of the subject was thin. They had read only one book on counterinsurgency, John Nagl's Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, and none of them had seen The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo's brilliant movie on counterinsurgency, which even the Pentagon considered important enough to screen five months after the invasion of Iraq. Another work that my classmates were not likely to get around to reading, because it weighs in at a hefty 275 pages and is loaded with more talk about anthropology than armaments, is the Department of the Army's Field Manual on Counterinsurgency (FM 3-24).
The modern practice of counterinsurgency was developed during the Vietnam War, first by the French, who carried these practices from Southeast Asia to North Africa, and then by the Americans, who reinvented everything already known by the French. French agrovilles became "strategic hamlets," but the idea of engineering what Harvard professor of government Samuel Huntington called "forced urbanization" was the same, and it ended with equally disastrous results. The United States, twenty years later, lost the same war that the French had already lost at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. As British author-and spy-Graham Greene wrote in Ways of Escape, one of his two autobiographies, "Dien Bien Phu was a defeat for more than the French Army. The battle marked virtually the end of any hope the Western Powers might have entertained that they could dominate the East. The French, with Cartesian clarity, accepted the verdict. . . (That young Americans were still to die in Vietnam only shows that it takes time for the echoes even of a total defeat to circle the globe)."
Counterinsurgency is a tough slog, but the rules of the business are pretty simple. Because insurgencies are often dirty operations involving civilian populations in acts of urban terrorism, one needs a substantial force to counter them. French Colonel Roger Trinquier, who perfected many of the practices of modern counterinsurgency and wrote the classic text on the subject, Modern Warfare (1961), argued that counterinsurgency inevitably involves torture.The French, first in Vietnam and then in Algeria, broke insurgencies one cell at a time through the measured application of torture. Trinquier aided General Jacques Massu in implementing these methods during the Battle of Algiers, and Trinquier himself is depicted in the film The Battle of Algiers by a French officer who busies himself throughout the movie drawing social network graphs. He is assembling, one name at a time, in a great pyramid of names, the intelligence gathered from torturing hundreds of thousands of Algerian insurgents. Near the end of the movie, the very last name at the top of the pyramid is discovered, and the head of the Algerian insurgency is killed.
Two years later the French have lost the war and a million French colonialists are forced to flee North Africa. In other words, the French won the Battle of Algiers but lost the Algerian War-an experience that America would come to know from its own debacle in Southeast Asia. When Pontecorvo's film was screened at the Pentagon on August 27, 2003, the U.S. Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, which was sponsoring the event, sent out a promotional flyer saying: "How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. . . . Children shoot soldiers at point blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film."
The United States used torture widely and immoderately during the Vietnam war. After inheriting "tiger cage" torture cells from the French, the Americans went on to build even more brutal tiger cages of their own. South Vietnam was laced with a gulag of prisons, while the countryside was defoliated, napalmed, and emptied of peasants who were forced into concentration camps, euphemistically known as "strategic hamlets" or "community development projects." After Vietnam, U.S. knowledge about counterinsurgency was transferred to the South American dictators who organized death squads and started disappearing people in "dirty" wars, but the knowledge was repatriated after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade towers and the Pentagon.
This is when America's enemies-and a lot of people mistaken for being our enemies-began disappearing into Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, Bagram, and other "dark sites" around the world.
From the spate of recent books and films on the subject and the revelations surrounding the forced resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the embattled hearings of his successor, we know that after 9/11 the Bush administration embraced torture as one of its central tools in fighting what it calls the Global War on Terror. The administration struggled to hide this policy. It papered it over with legal documents so flimsy that they had to be retracted when brought to light. It worked through a spectrum of propaganda and lies to deny what was immediately obvious to the world when the first photos were released from Abu Ghraib in April 2004. The spin masters lost control of the story as soon as "leash girl" Lynndi English was seen parading naked Iraqi prisoners with dog collars around their necks and piling them into pyramidal heaps of battered flesh.
The one image that stands as the defining icon of America's embrace of torture is the man known derisively in the Middle East as "the Statue of Liberty." He is the hooded Iraqi who is standing with outstretched arms, teetering on a wooden box. He has a bag over his head for sensory deprivation and electrodes attached to his arms and penis. The cables are meant to administer an electric shock if he loses his balance and falls off the box. When Time magazine put prisoner 151716 on the cover of its international editions-I myself first saw this picture while traveling in Vietnam-everyone around the world knew what they were looking at: Christ on the Cross, an old form of torture, where the victim inflicts pain on himself through what today we call "stress positions." The torture is passive. It is self-inflicted. It includes a large component of psychological torture, and many people in the United States today are so confused on the subject that they would say that psychological torture is not really torture at all. The rest of the world does not share this confusion. When they saw prisoner 151716, dressed in monkish brown sackcloth, with his arms outstretched in a helpless appeal for mercy, they knew that he was being tortured.
For many of the colonels and guests attending the seminar with me in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the problem with prisoner 151716 lay not with the fact that U.S. citizens were torturing Iraqis, but with the fact that the photo was released in the first place. Whenever someone from the news media addressed our War College seminar, the antagonism from the audience was palpable. Control of the media is a crucial aspect of counterinsurgency. As stated in FM 3-24: "The information environment is a critical dimension" in irregular warfare, "and insurgents attempt to shape it to their advantage" (1-3). Insurgents, whenever possible, will "attract high-profile media coverage or local publicity and inflate perceptions of insurgent capabilities. Resulting stories often include insurgent fabrications designed to undermine the government's legitimacy." The Army Manual quotes Lawrence of Arabia in noting that "the printing press is the greatest weapon in the armory of the modern commander." Now, "interconnectedness and information technology are new aspects of this contemporary wave of insurgencies" (1-4).
Revisionist historians of the Vietnam War have brought back the old canard that the war was lost by disloyal journalists who weakened our resolve on the home front. These historians and their supporters in the military have vowed that this will never happen again. We will have no more "uncensored" wars. No more TV wars, except those in which every image is packaged as propaganda. The military is now engaged-fully engaged-in fighting what they call an "information war." From this perspective, how galling it must have been for them to see the Abu Ghraib story broken in the New Yorker by Seymour Hersh, the same journalist who, thirty years earlier, had broken the story of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
Aside from their dire view of journalists and the media, the colonels I met at the U.S. Army War College were generally upbeat. To the layman, Iraq looks like a cesspool of exploding body parts, a slow-motion civil war, where the killing will stop only when the country has been ethnically cleansed into tribal fiefdoms as far from democracy as one can get in the modern world. But this is not what Iraq looks like to a U.S. Army colonel who is finishing a master's degree in the strategic aspects of national security. Iraq looks like a pushover. A cakewalk. A slam dunk, as George Tenet famously said. We are not fighting the Russian Army in the desert. The Chinese are nowhere in sight. If you look at Iraq and Afghanistan through the eyes of an army officer, the Global War on Terror is little more than a police action in rugged terrain against a few loonies armed with mortars and some trip wire. Even if you throw Iran into the mix and start calling it World War III, all you get is an enemy that looks to the U.S. Army like a sand flea. The gross domestic product of Iran is the same as the state of Connecticut, and its military budget is the size of Sweden's. To a superpower who patrols the world with drones that are flown from video consoles in Nevada, the war in Iraq looks like a winner-particularly now that Rumsfeld and his neocon cronies have been replaced by a first-rate military man like David Petraeus.
I heard the word torture mentioned only once during my time at the War College. Michael Scheuer, the old CIA veteran from the Bin Laden Unit, remarked at the end of his presentation that he never thought torture was worthwhile. He would have used it if it worked, but in his experience he had found that insurgents are trained to hand out disinformation, and the intelligence you get from torturing them is either dubious or wrong. He gave as an example the famous case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the Al Qaeda operative who was sent by the United States to be tortured in Egypt. George Bush relayed Al-Libi's "confession" to the U.S. public when he announced during a speech in Cincinnati in October 2002 that "Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and gases." The story was fabricated, and this statement and the rest of al-Libi's "confession" have since disappeared into a hall of mirrors.
The argument on torture pits two schools of thought against each other. There are the Trinquierists who believe in the efficacy of torture. They advance their argument most strenuously through the "ticking time bomb hypothesis." You torture your opponent to get out of him the tactical information that allows you to diffuse a time bomb before it blows up in your face. Torture is a dark art that you use because it works.
The other side argues that this position is wrong. The strong when tortured confess to nothing, and the weak confess to everything. Torture produces an avalanche of disinformation. The Iraq war proves this handily. The war ranks among the most significant intelligence failures in American history. Everything the United States thought it knew about Iraq before the invasion was wrong. The supposed intelligence from "Curveball" in Germany and al-Libi in Egypt was nothing but red herrings and Al Qaeda disinformation. Torture is illegal. It is morally corrosive and strategically unwise. In the context of a seminar on counterinsurgency, one would also note that torture doesn't work. I thought I would be engaging in this discussion when I attended the U.S. Army War College's seminar on counterinsurgency, but I was surprised to find that no one at the Carlisle Barracks was either prepared for or willing to have this conversation.
Why were people avoiding the subject of torture? Maybe they were ignorant of its history in fighting counterinsurgencies. Maybe they were suffering from a kind of imperial amnesia, which presumes that U.S. power-no matter how it projects itself in the world-is always just and right. Maybe they were embracing the myth of the American frontier and the redemptive value of violence. In this case, one employs torture not as a necessary evil, but as a social good-a kind of refining fire, an apocalyptic strategy for separating believers from apostates. As cultural historian Richard Slotkin noted in Gunfighter Nation and his other books on the western frontier, Americans have long believed in the idea of "regeneration through violence."
Maybe the bugaboo of racism underlay the silence I found at Carlisle. Targets of torture are reduced to the status of "other," and racial stereotypes further reduce them to being "inferior." Their subaltern position excuses and almost invites their being tortured, as if the act of torture could confirm what skin color and race had already implied about their disloyalty to Western values. Presuppositions about racial superiority fueled U.S. expansion across the western frontier, and similar presuppositions are now fueling its drive into the Middle East, where the feathered headdress of the Cheyenne has been replaced by the new symbology of keffiyehs and hihabs.
Of course, the most informed and thoughtful members of the U.S. military are thick in the middle of this debate about counterinsurgency and torture. These issues swirl around every mention of Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, and Bagram. This reality may ultimately force the military to confront the history of torture, while busily constructing historical narratives and trying to control historical interpretations about the use of torture in recent wars. The effort will fail, and the military will harm itself in the process, if it leaves this assignment to the revisionists who want to erase torture from the historical record and lull us into refighting "better" wars than the wars that we actually fought. We need to confront the truth of our contingent choices and realize that some of them were bad and others were both bad and wrong.
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