Wikileaks: Is the judicious use of force really torture?
Wikileaks fails to note that 'cruel' treatment can often be key to saving lives, says Praveen Swami.
Back in 1381, the citizens of the Afghan city of Herat rebelled against the might of their Emperor, Tamerlane. It was an unwise decision. Miranshah, the Emperor's son, ordered the beheading of the rebels, whose skulls were stacked up in a tower outside the city's gates.
The pile of leaked documents Julian Assange and Wikileaks have made available to the world this week tell us this: soldiers at war sometimes torture; commanders are sometimes complicit in their decisions; and their governments sometimes look the other way, or subcontract the task to other governments.
We are called on to be horrified by these disclosures because we have been taught that Tamerlane's towers of skulls are something that belong to a past our civilisation has proscribed. In our popular culture, the torturer is almost always a sadist or a coward; a concentration-camp commandant or dictator's deranged sidekick: never a soldier who is, after all, one of us.
The effect of the Wikileaks disclosures has been to feed a narrative where western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are seen as embodiments of evil and moral hypocrisy. It is worth asking, though, if the moral certitudes that underpin the outrage over the Wikileaks documents in fact help us understand what the problem actually is – and therefore enable us to do something about it.
Much of the torture the leaks detail does not appear to have been driven by sadism. It was carried out in the hope of ending the depredations of terrorists who have killed tens of thousands. The commanders who condoned it didn't have either the time or resources for the kinds of criminal justice procedures that would meet human rights standards in London, and were operating in environments that were considerably more hazardous.
In the wake of the Second World War, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 which mandated, among other things, that "no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment". The third Geneva Convention mandated that "no physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war". In 1987, the UN Convention Against Torture decreed that neither "a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture".
These were fine words, but authored at a considerable distance from the realities and challenges of counter-terrorism campaigns of the past and present. The ugly truth is this: it is hard to think of a single army that hasn't found itself facing the same dilemmas. Torture was used by the US against opponents in Vietnam, by the Soviet Union against insurgents in Afghanistan, and by Britain against the Mau Mau in Kenya. It is well-documented to be used by Saudi Arabia, by Pakistan, by India, by China, by Indonesia – in fact, by just about every state whose forces find themselves embroiled in intractable conflicts.
Living in well-ordered societies, distant from the ethnic and religious savageries of Iraq and Afghanistan, it is easy to imagine law and order to be a single entity, the one inseparable from the other. But in many states, law and order are at odds. The challenge before forces fighting terrorists is, first and foremost, to restore order: simply, to save lives. The principal result of the campaign against the conduct of western troops in Afghanistan and Iraq has been to make that task more difficult, by asking them to work to rules written at a very safe distance from the battlefield.
No one ought to condone barbarism against individuals or the indiscriminate use of force against civilians. Few military commanders would do so, for the good reason that it alienates the very population whose support is essential to defeating insurgencies. But we do need an honest discussion of why soldiers sometimes torture – and what kinds of legal frameworks are needed to proscribe barbarism but allow the reasonable use of force in extraordinary circumstances.
In 1961, the French commando and warfare theorist Roger Trinquier reflected on his experience of France's brutal counter-insurgency campaigns in Indochina and Algeria in a work that is little read today. La Guerre Moderne, with its clinical discussion of torture, shocked readers when it was published.
The captured terrorist, Lt Col Trinquier wrote, "cannot be treated as an ordinary criminal, nor like a prisoner taken on the battlefield… If the prisoner gives the information requested, the examination is quickly terminated; if not, specialists must force his secret from him".
Trinquier used the word terrorism to describe a military tactic, not as a weapon of moral condemnation: the terrorist was simply "a soldier, like the aviator or the infantryman". The terrorist's victims might often be defenceless innocents, Trinquier observed, but "during a period of history when the bombing of open cities is permitted, and when two Japanese cities were razed to hasten the end of the war in the Pacific, one cannot with good cause reproach him".
But the failure to exercise force judiciously, Trinquier concluded, meant "sacrificing defenceless populations to unscrupulous enemies".
That is something those lining up to condemn the armies damned by Wikileaks might do well to consider.