Blogs > HNN > Is History a Series of Moralistic Soundbites?

Jan 29, 2006 11:25 pm

Is History a Series of Moralistic Soundbites?

I’m intrigued by the reaction, such as it was to my last posting. “Sad,” says Oscar Chamberlain, setting off a small discussion about “waterboarding.”

Let’s get away from that for a moment to larger issues of what human history is. I want to suggest the following points in roughly ascending order of importance: (1) Historical associations cheapen themselves when they pretend to speak for a wide membership on public issues not related to the profession they represent. (2) “Torture” is a powerful word that demands clear definition. (3) Human history is filled with difficult and ambiguous situations that do not lend themselves to soundbite moral judgment.

There is no need to spend much time on number one. I’ll just remark that the members of the American Historical Association have many ways to express themselves on the large political and social issues of the day. The AHA just loses credibility when it does so, especially when resolutions are adopted by a business meeting of less than 100 people. I suppose this is all irrelevant to those members who want to make a moral or political point in any forum, anywhere, anytime.

Number two is more important and deserving of thought. “Torture” is a horrific word precisely because it has a precise historical meaning: the infliction of extreme pain, often accompanied by physical mutilation —broken bones, dislocated joints, severe lacerations. Waterboarding is distasteful. Maybe it is torture, maybe not. Maybe mental anguish, disorientation, and other questionable interrogation methods are. But let’s be clear that the word has been used loosely in much of the debate about treatment of terrorist prisoners, who would happily do much worse to us.

Makes no difference? We need to preserve our own virtue? Well, perhaps. That’s an attractive idea. Is it practical? Is it possible?

Many of us have probably seen one of the survivors of 9/11 on television. A youngish woman employed at the World Trade Center, she walked into the lobby of her tower just after an aircraft had crushed into the building, exploded, and sent a fireball down the elevator shafts. It engulfed her and tossed her out the door. She survived after months of intensive care, lost one eye, endured multiple skin grafts, and has a face still hard to look at. That’s what I call torture. And I don’t much care what happens to the people who had a hand in it.

Point number three is basic. Simple categorical morality is often unfeasible in human situations. We talk glibly about the Geneva Conventions, but they were designed as guides to the treatment of uniformed soldiers in conventional combat who observed the rules of the game. By and large in World War II, Germans treated American prisoners decently and vice-versa. During the Battle of the Bulge, after SS troops massacred Americans who had surrendered at Malmedy, Americans routinely shot SS prisoners. No one seemed to think this was a war crime at the time. In general, moreover, the United States won World War II by doing things that none of us can be proud of, including the incineration of numerous cities and their civilian populations. Some people like to think the war could have been won by doing none of this. I doubt that, but even if it had been the case, these were responses to an enemy that specialized in doing even worse. One thing we all need to understand is that human nature and human history do not facilitate moral simplicity, that aspirational ideals usually give way to amoral reality.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 2/1/2006

"It is possible that the Bush administration is worried about laws that would force them to jail our fighting men and women in situations that are a lot more murky than Abu Ghraib. "

Actually, no, I don't think so. If you look at the prosecutions that have occurred, the general tendency is to stick it to the person in the field and to protect the higher ups.

If you want a clearer look at the mindset, here is a link to the 2002 Gonzales Memo. and look at how logic is used to bend the law to allow premeditated torture.

Read it, consider that this man got a promotion, and weep.

Tom Bruscino - 2/1/2006


Say some American troops are in combat in an urban environment. In the course of the fight, they shoot an enemy in the leg and he surrenders. The fight is still going on, and the guy who just surrendered knows where the location of an observation post that is directing mortar fire onto the Americans. The action is very fluid, and as they are under fire the Americans tell the wounded enemy that they will not get him medical attention unless he tells them where the observation post is.

Is that torture? If so, should they be prosecuted? How about their commanding officers? How far up the chain of command should be punished?

It is possible that the Bush administration is worried about laws that would force them to jail our fighting men and women in situations that are a lot more murky than Abu Ghraib.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/1/2006

"I am sure that the "professorate" stands united against all sorts evils. Why it should announce to the world its disdain for totalitarian regimes or torture seems unclear to me, since it brings no particular expertise to bear on either subject."

Mr. Bowers, have you ever heard of history a course on the Holocaust? Or for that matter have you heard of history courses and books that touch on the dark side of humanity, whether in China, India, America, or wherever. Historians are uniquely placed to point out the way torture has been used, and if you do not know that, then you know precious little about history, whether as a discipline or as a body of knowledge.

As for a definition of torture, if you don't mind, I will start with the purpose of torture: It is break down violently the ability of a person to do the right thing as he or she sees it in order to gain information.

As to why the United States committing torture is particularly bad? The American concept of the freedom of the individual and of the ability of free individuals to govern themselves rests on his belief: that an individual is capable of acting virtuously, that is of acting on the basis of his/her moral beliefs even when that is hard.

The purpose of torture is to destroy that ability. The purpose of torture is not simply to persuade, confuse or trick. It is to break. And unlike bones, broken wills don't mend in weeks or months.

As to whether a particular course of action is torture or not, I would use as a guide, the following:

1. Systematic physical violence is torture. Period.

2. The threat of such violence when the prisoner has seen such violence inflicted upon others--or at least has seen the results of that violence--is torture. Period.

3. Some purely "psychological" actions may be torture. For example, rape is a form of torture. And I would argue to be threatened with rape or sexual humiliation is likewise torture. As best as I can tell, what many of the Abu Graib prisoners endured was a sexual humiliation that was not far removed from rape, in terms of its impact on the individual.

A final thought. What Hamby missed in my response to his first post was my objection to the Bush administration "legitimizing" torture with action like the Gonzales memo or Bush's own stated interpretation of the recent ban on torture. The latter basically boiled down to: in case of war I can torture who I please and it is legal. That is legitimization; the inclusion of torture as a natural and legal part of the president's duties as commander-in-chief.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/1/2006

No slinking off in this corner, Mr. Bower. At least one prisoner at Abu Grahib is known to have died at the hands of American guards there. We have yet to see the remaining trove of photographs of what went on there. I am glad that you agree that torture is "immoral, evil, and properly illegal in all civilized countries." Nor am I embarrassed by being accused using a right wing vocabulary when I insist that I want the United States to be counted among them. I wish that you and Dr. Hamby did.
Dr. Hamby's post explicitely said that he did not care what happened to people who had a hand in 9/11. Even if one agrees with him about that, I pointed out that the American response to 9/11 has not narrowly targetted persons known to be responsible for it. You dismiss that reality as empty emotion. You're full of it.

Hank Bower - 2/1/2006

Wow! A little pushback and the professor folds his tent and slinks away with a parting insult that I "don't recognize torture as unAmerican behavior." What a bizarre conclusion based on nothing. I thought only the far right accused people of being unAmerican.

In fact, I would never imagine describing torture as simply "unAmerican;" it is immoral, evil and properly illegal in all civilized countries. The misconduct at Abu Graib that the professor seems obsessed over was properly prosecuted even though it did not rise to the level of torture.

When one fails to present anything but vague emotional argument instead of solid intellectual analysis, one should not be surprised that other people appear to have made up their minds beforehand. You give no reason to agree with you.

Mr. Hamby presented an excellent, thoughtful post. It deserved better than "That's pitiful, Professor Hamby" from anyone who disagrees with him.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/31/2006

Mr. Bower, It's pretty clear that this conversation isn't going anywhere. I could define every word I use; still you would not be satisfied. You would not be satisfied because you've made up your mind beforehand. I am willing for you to remain there. I am sorry that you don't recognize torture as unAmerican behavior, but willing to recognize that you and Professor Hamby have made up your minds that it is acceptable.

Hank Bower - 1/31/2006

Mr. Luker,

Please read Mr. Hamby's post rather than hyperventilating about "pictures" that you fail even to identify. Perhaps you could refer us to pictures depicting prisoners with broken bones, dislocated joints or severe lacerations inflicted as a matter of policy by American forces. I have never seen such pictures nor read allegations of such conduct.

If you disagree with Mr. Hamby's definition of torture, please step up to the plate and offer an alternative. Except for discussion of American conduct in Iraq, torture has always had a very specific and horrific meaning as Mr. Hamby quite correctly points out. Not every mistreatment of prisoners, regardless of how distasteful, rises to the level of torture.

I am a lawyer, not a professor, so what may seem to you to be subtle distinctions and needless focus on definitions are extremely important to me. Words have meaning and they communicate important ideas and distinctions. Mindlessly calling something "torture" simply to add emotional power to a weak argument demeans debate rather than facilitating communication.

I am sure that the "professorate" stands united against all sorts evils. Why it should announce to the world its disdain for totalitarian regimes or torture seems unclear to me, since it brings no particular expertise to bear on either subject.

Mr. Hamby very clearly sets forth his arguments; you merely assume the righteousness of your position without providing readers with any rational support for that position.

You want Mr. Hamby to support the "professorate" in opposing "a totalitarian regime" but fail to define what that means or if it relates to a particular country. Perhaps you fail to be more specific in an attempt not to embarrass yourself.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/31/2006

Thank you, Professor Bower. We aren't talking about "allegations." If you haven't seen the photographs, you must not be breathing. Dr. Hamby drew no distinctions about when the professorate should speak collectively and when it should keep silent. I'd like to hear him say that the professorate should collectively oppose a totalitarian regime, for example. I agree with Dr. Hamby that professional organizations should not trivialize themselves with resolutions about divisive policy details. There was _no_ opposition to the anti-torture resolution and it is hardly an insignificant matter.

Hank Bower - 1/31/2006

Mr. Luker,

Your comment has all the intellectual content of "Bush lied; people died." Wild allegations of torture by the US in response to a careful definition of torture and intelligent discussion of the Geneva Conventions add nothing to an understanding of any of the issues raised by Mr. Hamby.

Your suggestion that Mr. Hamby's reasoned opposition to historical assiciations' pretending to speak for their members on political issues somehow justifies "silence in the face of a totalitarian regime" is simply a non sequitur.

After reading your comments, one can only conclude that you must have nothing serious to say to the very important points raised by Mr. Hamby. That, rather than Mr. Hamby's posting, is pitiful.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/31/2006

As for AHA pronouncements, resolutions adopted in a business meeting must be approved by the AHA's popularly elected executive committee before they have official standing. The resolution against the use of torture was so approved. As for your other point, the issue isn't your personal righteousness or mine. The issue is whether the United States stands for human rights to the degree that we respect those of our enemies. If you need one, contingencies can always be used as an excuse for our own violation of other people's human rights.

Alonzo Hamby - 1/30/2006

A pretty pitiful response, Ralph. Professors, you and me included, have plenty of bullhorns without utilizing an AHA meeting attended by less than one percent of the membership. And neither of us seems to have much trouble telling the world what we think.
Obviously some of us are more moral than others. Feel good about it.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/30/2006

Professor Hamby's rationalization for the silence of the professorate would also justify silence in the face of a totalitarian regime. Unfortunately, our response to 9/11 has not been so carefully targeted as to torture or kill only those who were a part of the support system that led to it, so his indifference to our torture of others is silence in the face of outrages committed by the United States. That's pitiful, Professor Hamby.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/30/2006

Simple categorical morality is often unfeasible in human situations.

Yeah, yeah. I do the same thing in class: context, context, context.

You were expecting people to get excited about this?