Sunday, May 16, 2004

After a week

So, after a week of working my ever-lovin' ass off at my real job, I have some time to come up for fresh air and see what's going on over at Abu Ghraib.

Here's the update. Really, here's the update.

This wasn't the work of a few random nutjobs. This was part of a plan, developed by Rumsfeld with his complete knowledge, for the interrogation of Al Qaeda suspects held at Gitmo. The Bush administration takes the position that such "enemy combatants" are not covered by the Geneva Convention, even when they're just Taliban fighters grabbed on the battlefield. In fact, as Newsweek has just reported, White House counsel Al Gonzalez argued that the Geneva Convention is generally "quaint" and outdated after 9/11. So we had no problem with torturing the people imprisoned at Gitmo.

The Abu Ghraib problem erupted when the administration imported the Gitmo tactics to Iraq. Of course, the people in Iraq are not al-Qaeda; 70-90% of them are innocent, if you believe the Red Cross. Nor are they "enemy combatants," even under the Bush Administration's aggressive interpretation of that phrase. They're just whomever the Americans decided to arrest. And they are being tortured under a system that was developed by people who knew that their methods violated international law.

The cherry on top of all this is the Pentagon's denial of this new revelation. Listen to weasel language like this:

"The abuse evidenced in the videos and photos, and any similar abuse that may come to light in any of the ongoing half dozen investigations into this matter, has no basis in any sanctioned program, training manual, instruction, or order in the Department of Defense.

Or, in English, "the DoD never put it in writing."


I'm just tired.

During my spare time this weekend, I watched a remarkable triptych of Vietnam documentaries. Vietnam has become an interest of mine, for several reasons, some of which are related to Iraq and some of which are related to a project I'm working on.

I was continuously shocked at how relevant they are today.

The first was "Return with Honor," the 1998 PBS documentary about the American POWs in North Vietnam. It's not especially well-made, but the stories are absolutely magnetic and it leaves a lasting impression. For instance, I was filled with an absolutely seething hatred of George W. Bush. Why? Because he was the bastard who, in South Carolina in 2000, spread the rumor that John McCain had gone crazy in the Hanoi Hilton and thus was unfit for the Presidency. That filthy f*cker must go. A genuine war hero was slandered by a fake hero, a man who did everything he could to avoid combat, but who now calls himself the "War Presnit." John McCain kept his honor, Dubya never had any.

Last line of "Return with Honor": "Number One, I'm not as tough as I thought I was, Number Two, I'm a lot more resilient than I thought I was, and um, Number Three is, there's no such thing as a bad day when you have a doorknob on the inside of the door."

The second documentary was "Hearts and Minds," the incendiary 1974 film that won Best Documentary. Why was it so offensive? Because it depicts Americans as brutal, racist idiots who couldn't win for stepping on their own d*cks. Because of scenes like the one where General Westmoreland talks about how the Oriental has no regard for human life, how they simply don't care about the dead as much as "we" do -- all while the screen is showing the wailing and grieving of familiies as dead South Vietnamese soldiers are being buried. Because it shows American soldiers in whorehouses, American soldiers making fun of the Vietnamese, Americans on the "home front" who don't want to hear the truth about the war from the people that fought it. The end of the film shows a "Home With Honor" parade in Anytown USA in 1973, which deteriorated into a riot when the paraders attacked the Vietnam veterans who were protesting for better treatment. It was this kind of "you are here now" reporting that made this film a hit.

Just kidding. It was, then and now, a pariah. It focuses on the harm caused by America, not on the harm caused by the NVA or VC, because the thesis of the film (stated by Daniel Ellsberg) is that the US had no business being there in the first place. Interestingly, the essay by the director in the DVD booklet admits that in 1974 neither he nor the Left really believed that Communism was opposed to individual liberty, and that the events of 1975 and 1976 were shocking and repulsive. Remember, this film was made before the fall of Saigon, before the reeducation camps. But he stands by the film as a depiction of everything that was not being shown on American television at the time.

Lt. George Coker is in both "Hearts and Minds" and "Return With Honor," and it makes an interesting contrast. He's one of the key people in "Hearts and Minds," a freshly-released POW who goes on tour talking about his experiences. Take this Q&A at a school [paraphrased]:

Q (8 year old girl): What was Vietnam like?

A (POW): It would be very pretty if it wasn't for the people. They're very ignorant and backward.

Q: (8 year old boy): What do you think about people who burned their draft cards?

A: (POW) I think they had the right to do that. If they want to say "I hate you" and leave and go to Canada, they have the right to do that. But they can't ever come back.

You don't see any of that in "Return with Honor," where Coker is a subject of stories and films, but he is not interviewed. But you do see North Vietnamese propaganda films made of the POWs at the time, such as the one where John McCain is lying on a cot telling his wife he loves her because he is about to die at any moment, oh and by the way did I tell you that George W Bush is a filthy f*cker who must go? NOW? I thought maybe I mentioned that.

The third film is the best of the three: last year's Best Documentary winner, "The Fog of War." It's the life of Robert McNamara, told by Robert McNamara -- but filmed by Errol Morris, who isn't about to let McNamara whitewash his own life. What happens when you send Ford Motor Co.'s efficiency expert to run a war? You get Vietnam, a war that worked beautifully on paper. And McNamara knows that he screwed it up royally. He wanted to get out, but didn't say so publicly. Johnson wanted to blow hell out of Vietnam, but was held back by McNamara. The halting policy that resulted was worse than either one alone, made intolerable by McNamara's repeated advice to Johnson to lie to the American people.

Best moment: when McNamara describes how Kennedy created a way for Kruschev to back down in the Cuban Missile Crisis, such that he could claim that America was going to invade Cuba and the Soviets stopped it. "It was nonsense," McNamara says, "but it was a way for him to back down."

Morris: "But Kennedy did invade Cuba."

McNamara: [long, long pause, staring straight into the camera] "Well, yes, the Bay of Pigs and so on, but... [pause] You have a good point. But the real thing was..." And he's off again, talking about the Robert McNamara view of the world.

If we could get a reporter to ask questions half this good, it would be a different country.

Finally, and most bluntly, McNamara's "eleven lessons" from his life (Vietnam and otherwise) are a bitter rebuke to the idiots that got us into Iraq. We should tie down the idiots in the White House and make them watch this film, "Clockwork Orange"-style, until they finally get it.

There are a lot of differences between Vietnam and Iraq.

One has sand. The other has jungles.

The military-industrial complex did not learn from history. Let those of us who oppose it do a better job.

 6:21 PM

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