Last week, I was invited by Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, one of the world’s leading experts on al Qaeda, to speak to a group of about two dozen experts and graduate students at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore. This was a closed-door talk, and I was speaking alongside a close friend of mine who is an expert on Afghanistan. The room was filled with people from countries like India, Singapore, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. None of these countries enjoy the freedom of speech that we have in America. No writer from any of these countries could dare publish the things that I can freely publish, or that readers can freely publish as comments. Singapore is a great ally of the United States and one of my favorite destinations. The people are well educated, peaceful and diverse. Still, our friends in Singapore do not have freedom of speech. Despite the limits of expression that they live under, this group of experts and graduate students in Singapore asked some of the most well-informed questions I have heard about the war in Iraq. No doubt, there were some who disapproved of America’s involvement in Iraq, but how can we challenge our own views if we do not listen to others who disagree with us? One of the main reasons we made so many mistakes in Iraq was that high officials in the Bush Administration were often afraid of the truth and viewed a serious foreign policy question with ideological blinders. Instead of honestly appraising the facts on the ground, they saw only what they wanted to see. And instead of encouraging candor and even dissent, they ignored or attacked those who disagreed with them.
Groupthink can be deadly. In my book Danger Close I wrote about the Special Forces Qualification Course (Q-Course), which had a land navigation section so difficult that it caused many people to fail the course. I saw Vietnam combat veterans get lost on land navigation. They flunked the course. Sure, it wasn’t easy to make your way through swamps during heavy rains at midnight while freezing and carrying a heavy load. But worse than the physical challenges were the mental hurdles. Soldiers were strictly forbidden to cooperate with each other on this particular section. But they did it anyway, thinking that they would have a better chance as a group. And they were wrong. I saw soldiers form into groups. The most confident soldier would embark on an azimuth and the others would follow behind. They would all get lost because they were following a leader who was wrong. The soldiers who passed the course tended to be those who thought for themselves. Combat veterans get lost on land navigation.
Even though most of us seem to recognize the perils of groupthink, we still constantly fall into its trap. That’s human nature, our herding instinct, perhaps. Yet one thing that makes America so strong is our ability to break from the herd, or even turn it around. Back in 2005 I wrote what no one else dared to say, or didn’t see – even if it was painfully obvious – that Iraq was falling into civil war. During a period of peak casualties in mid-2007, when folks were saying the Surge had failed, I wrote and said on radio that the Surge appeared to be succeeding. In 2006, when I was in Afghanistan reporting that the war was being lost, many readers were angry. Now we have greater casualties in Afghanistan than in Iraq, while we have far fewer troops deployed to Afghanistan. I believe the war in Iraq is nearly over – knock on wood – while the war in Afghanistan is just getting started.
One way to foil groupthink is to listen to others. Really listen. Not just think up counterarguments while waiting for them to run out of breath. Listening to others does not mean we have to agree with their words. But it does mean respecting them enough to take what they say seriously, especially when we disagree with them. Honest and serious people do this. Meanwhile, there is a lot of noise on both ends of the American political spectrum that deserve our attention even if it is biased and wrong. Read the websites of the far-Right and Left-wing. These groups rarely, if ever, give a dissenting voice the chance to speak. Their sites are examples of groupthink run amok. That doesn’t mean the participants are dumb or bad. Often these sites are created by very smart people who got their brains caught in the ideological bear trap. Getting caught in a trap doesn’t make a bear dumb or deserving; traps tend to be well camouflaged. I saw a bear caught in a trap one time. Boy, was that bear mad. And it sure did stink. It crawled into a trap, right behind our tent in Cataloochee up in the mountains. We kids ran out with a flashlight and peered in at the angry bear. The rangers hauled it off the next day, saying they would release it far away. Some of these far-Right and far-Left websites are like bear traps, only we cannot release those people far away. We live with them, and often they are our friends and family, victims of ideology.
Ideologies traffic in received ideas, which give people the illusion of thinking, without actually having to do the hard work of thought. Received ideas, like some religious and cult beliefs, are not challenged, merely accepted, and repeated until they become so important to those who hold them that to challenge these ideas would be to question one’s very identity. People who hold received ideas seem to feel personally threatened by the prospect of being wrong. Instead of reading and listening to possibly change their minds, they seek to reinforce the received ideas they already hold dear. On the Left, one received idea is that the Iraq War is lost. On the Right, one received idea is that torture is acceptable. The Left is wrong. We are winning the war in Iraq. The Right is wrong. Torture is unacceptable.
There is no way to know how many American lives were lost in Iraq due to the tortures we inflicted upon Iraqis at Abu Ghraib and other places. This is no argument of moral equivalence. I have seen the atrocities committed by al Qaeda and other terrorists, and I am not saying that Americans have ever come close to those acts. New Yorkers saw the atrocities of al Qaeda, as did many others.
Yet, when we tortured detainees, we lost something very important, something that America and its allies need in order to prevail against terrorists, not just in Iraq, but all over the world. We scarred our honor.
Torture works. There is no doubt that we can squeeze information from people. A lot of people say that information derived from torture is useless and suspect, and, of course, torture can make someone say anything just to stop the pain. But the fact is, torture does work. That does not mean we should do it. While torture might provide tactical gains, it delivers a strategic blunder. Let’s not argue whether it works or not. Let’s have the hard argument – whether or not it’s consistent with our values. We can obtain short term benefits from using torture, but in the long run we inflict far more pain on ourselves. The scars of torture never heal. Conversely, when detainees are treated with respect, they never forget it. Obviously, there are some hardcore prisoners who should be kept locked away until they die, but there is a much larger part who just want to go back to life without war.
While stationed in Germany with the 10th Special Forces Group, I spoke to many older Germans. I speak German and many of the older Germans did not speak English. These men and women lived through World War II. They often apologized for the younger generation of Germans who did not respect the United States. They told me stories of their days as POWs under American control, and described the honorable and respectful treatment they received. One of my grandfathers was a guard on a ship that brought German prisoners to the United States. My grandfather said they treated the Germans well. When the ship steamed into New York, the Germans were astonished to see the city lights. They had been told that New York City was being bombed and was blacked out. When those young German soldiers were eventually released, they went on to become thousands upon thousands of ambassadors for the United States. It is difficult to convey how good it made me feel when old Germans would tell me that Americans, our grandparents, were honorable people, far more honorable than the Nazis who committed industrial-sized genocide. The Nazis broke all the rules, and we beat them, not only because of our superior resources and fighting abilities, but the strategic advantage of our values. Atrocities occurred on all sides, but at least we considered atrocities to be war crimes, even when committed by our own people. When our soldiers were convicted of rape, they were executed. Still, our “Greatest Generation” harbored ill feelings toward the “Japs.” These feelings lasted long after the war was over. Why? Because, the Japanese had tortured and murdered our people after they were captured. And no doubt partially because of these crimes, we detonated two nuclear weapons over Japanese cities.
But once we defeated the Axis, we helped rebuild their countries. Our Greatest Generation acted with honor and great wisdom. It was the right thing to do, but also the strategically intelligent thing to do. Now Germany and Japan are stable, prosperous democracies and close allies.
When this war is over in Iraq, we do not want a generation of Iraqis thinking that all we did was invade their country and torture and kill people. We want them to know that, despite whatever mistakes we made, we have no ill-feelings toward Iraqis. A lot of people call this type of thinking “naïve,” but I would argue it is the opposite of naiveté. We recognize that there is good and evil in every man. We seek to fight the evil while nurturing the good. We want the Iraqis to know that Americans are warriors, but not barbarians. They already know that our young folks will fight like wolverines. The Iraqi insurgents learned that lesson the hard way. American soldiers and Marines have died fighting, with great honor, to bring the region a step forward. By contrast, al Qaeda has murdered tens of thousands of Iraqis, and committed atrocities that have turned the people against them. Al Qaeda and other terrorists fight without honor. And simply put, that’s why we’re winning in Iraq. We recaptured the most important strategic territory in guerrilla war – the moral high ground, while never laying down our sword. Wars like Iraq and Afghanistan are fought not over land, but for the will of the people. If it was the land we wanted, and if we lacked goodwill and honor, these wars would have been simple matters. Yet we want something better for these nations and the world, as we did following World War II. Honor is never easy to uphold and savage behavior begets savage behavior. That’s why it’s important to remember that when we give up the moral high ground, we lose a fantastically important battle. And we have defeated ourselves.
Ask Colonel Ricky Gibbs (U.S. Army) about high ground. Colonel Gibbs told me the story of an Iraqi man who brought his sons to American soldiers, saying that he knew justice would be served. After an investigation, Colonel Gibbs kept one son and released the other. I have seen so many instances of Iraqis being relieved that American soldiers were holding their sons and not Iraqis, because Iraqis too often mistreat and even torture prisoners. And so, by the hand of his own father, an insurgent was taken off the streets. To defeat the terrorists, we need intelligence, which the people have and will only provide if they trust us. That father likely would never have turned in his sons if he thought we were dishonorable torturers.
Back in 2003-2004, when we were conducting mass arrests and torturing prisoners, al Qaeda and other enemies grew very strong, and our people suffered at the hands of an enemy that we were at least partially responsible for creating. We locked away huge numbers of Iraqis simply because they were “military aged” males (basically, anyone who had reached puberty) at the wrong place at the wrong time, which could be in their homes in a suspect village. I’ve seen men flex-cuffed without the slightest evidence, thrown to Iraqi “justice” and essentially lost. Now imagine that you or your son or husband or brother were arrested and tortured. You might have been neutral to begin with, but you and your entire family might soon learn to hate. Instead of picking up the phone when you saw an ambush being laid, you might simply call the kids inside and go back to washing dishes. Or you might set an ambush yourself.
That’s why I agree with Joe Galloway. He might be a mean old man, and he might be wrong about some things. Wrong in my mind, at least. But he’s right about torture. Now it’s time that our government make a clear and unambiguous promise to the world that Americans will not torture. If President Bush is concerned about a possible scenario where a terrorist under interrogation has precise knowledge of an imminent catastrophic attack, then he can always offer a presidential pardon to an interrogator who, resorting to torture, got accurate information that led to the thwarting of such an attack. In every other case, American government personnel or contractors who commit torture should be prosecuted under American law. And the President should make that clear. If the President believes torture is okay, then he should put his fingerprints on every approval he signs.
We can win without torture. President Bush saw the strategic advantages of the Surge when many thought the Iraq War was lost. Yet he refuses to categorically condemn and outlaw torture. His unwillingness to do so has put the United States and its allies at strategic disadvantage, one that will take us a long time to overcome. And it has cost American lives.