“Killing Is a Part of War, and Torture Isn’t”

I wasn’t crazy about the way that Tom Junod framed his first piece on Obama’s Lethal Presidency; but it’s getting a lot of people to think about the issues, so while I didn’t comment on it I was happy to have it.

But I am rather interested in where the debate has gone, now that Andrew Sullivan got involved. At issue is whether Obama’s targeted killing–done because, having made detention an unpalatable option (except in the giant black hole of Bagram), it’s all that left–is morally better or worse than torture.

Sully says it’s much better, Junod says it’s not much different. But both make an assumption that gets to one heart of the issue.

Yes, killing is a part of war, and torture isn’t. But what if the the kind of militant who was captured and tortured under Bush is the kind of militant who is simply being killed under President Obama?

Torture is not a part of war? Then why do we put our servicemen and women through SERE training to make sure they’ll be able to withstand torture if we don’t expect, based on historical experience, that they might be subjected to it?

Torture is illegal. But it is, very much, a part of war (and sometimes power generally, as Ayman al-Zawahiri learned in Nasser’s Egypt). Intentionally targeting civilians is also illegal, but part of war. Given that we now seem to be defining “civilian” more narrowly than international law does, we can’t very easily distinguish between torture and killing in this way.

The point is important because this debate is actually talking about at least four different things: reality, morality, legality, and efficacy. The legal argument doesn’t get you very far in this debate, because it puts you on John Yoo’s ground of proclaiming, correctly, that our adversaries don’t abide by international law–they’ve clearly both tortured and killed civilians–and that therefore, incorrectly IMO, we can and should invent new categories to cover both them and their detention.

But the question of morality is equally slippery, as it allows Sully this squishy defense of Obama.

First and foremost, there is an end to the torture program. For many of us, that was the first non-negotiable deal-breaker from the Bush administration. To bungle two wars, as Bush and Cheney did, is one thing. To throw away the invaluable tradition of decency in wartime was unforgivable. Torture is not, as Bunch would have it, a “difficult issue”. It is an easy one. We don’t do it or condone it and we bring to justice anyone caught doing it. Obama’s failing is in the latter part – but it pales in comparison with Cheney’s lawless barbarism. And the end of torture has immensely improved intelligence and brought some moral credibility back to the West. Are some terror suspects being treated horribly in allied countries? There’s much evidence that this is true. And the Obama administration should be extremely careful not to exploit or use any intelligence garnered from torture or abuse. But there is an obvious difference between the injustices perpetrated by regimes in developing countries and the standards we set for ourselves.

For Sully, this is about civilization and barbarism, which comes packed with unexamined assumptions.

This might be an interesting time to note how, within al Qaeda and its affiliates, a similar debate is and has long gone on. Not only have we seen debates about when Islamic law allows the killing of civilians, both non-Muslim and Muslim. We’ve seen Osama bin Laden’s recognition that killing Muslim civilians–and fighting the battle against the US on Muslim grounds–ruined the brand of his movement. But we’ve also seen, in al Qaeda’s now apparently failed attempt to rebrand as Ansar al-Sharia, al Qaeda also trying to “win” the “war” by providing services, by turning on the electricity.

And while it would far oversimplify what our counterterrorism efforts include–we do make efforts, albeit inadequate and almost universally failed ones, to turn on the electricity, too–the debate, as Sully frames it, is occupation, no arms, or drones.

The alternatives are either long-term occupation of Jihadist-spawning countries, or a decision to end all military responses to Jihadist terror, or a more focused drone campaign that can minimize civilian casualties while taking out key enemies planning to kill Western and Muslim civilians.

Which is, if anything, a mere twist on the drones or torture debate. If al Qaeda–Sully’s barbarians–are debating how badly civilian deaths are hurting their cause and whether providing electricity is part of a winning strategy, ought that not be a more central question in our debate?

But that’s not the only thing missing from Sully’s response. In his response to Sully, Junod hits another issue I’ve been trying to get to.

I talked to a source familiar with the targeting process who told me that the people involved in the life-or-death decisions of the Obama administration often do not know the credibility of intelligence sources. This was a highly informed and involved source who, when asked the most essential question — “how good is the intelligence?” — paused and finally couldn’t answer. In fact, when I raised the question of whether those who were once captured are now being killed, the source suggested that it was the wrong question:

“It’s not at all clear that we’d be sending our people into Yemen to capture the people we’re targeting. But it’s not at all clear that we’d be targeting them if the technology wasn’t so advanced. What’s happening is that we’re using the technology to target people we never would have bothered to capture.”

This gets to the point I try to make in the piece: that the Lethal Presidency is inherently expansive, because of its conflation of technological capability with moral imperative, and its confusion of killing with scruple. So when Sullivan asks what I consider an alternative to lethal operations, my answer is not any of the ones he provides: it’s not war or surrender. It’s anything that will provide a check and a balance to a power that no president before President Obama has wielded so confidently, and with such a busy hand.

If Junod’s source is accurately representing what’s going on, our use of drones go beyond the hammer and nail problem of drones being perceived as our only tool. Rather, we strike at low level targets–or people doing jumping jacks–because we can. I think Junod’s source ignores the problem with the underlying bad intelligence–which is that too often, those men doing jumping jacks aren’t even fighters at all. But ultimately, his source suggests we’re using drones because we can.

Admittedly, not even the cover of Mitchell and Jessen’s science made our torture anything but the same old torture (so in that sense, we can’t blame the beauty of the technology as drone apologists seem to do), but the logic for using it ultimately amounts to the same. We use drones because we can. Not because we need to, not because we’ve decided it’s the best way to accomplish our goals. But because it’s easy, it reinforces our feeling of power, and we can.

24 replies
  1. lysias says:

    At Nuremberg, Keitel defended himself against the charge of having treated Russian prisoners of war inhumanely by pointing to the fact that the Soviet Union had not signed the Geneva Conventions and did not observe them. The defense didn’t work. He was convicted and hanged.

  2. sd says:

    Killing vs Torture seems a bit like a moot point if the leader(s) are sociopaths incapable of empathy. And I think an argument can be made that Obama increasingly looks like he lacks empathy.

  3. Roman Berry says:

    Nothing good can come of making killing so easy and without risk. This is the stuff of dystopian sci-fi. Really. An all-powerful state that is able to rain death down from the sky on any who dare oppose it and have it accepted or even cheered by its citizens merely by labeling the dead “militant” or “terrorist”? Yeah…what could possibly go wrong with that?

  4. BSbafflesbrains says:

    @sd: The 1% and their minions have inverse conscience and perverted logic. Agree we will not see empathy or sympathy from them no matter what the realities because they are not within the “normal” range or varient of the rest of us.

  5. GKJames says:

    The “we do it because we can” gets to the heart of it. There’s nothing stopping us, whether politically, militarily, technologically, or — as is apparent from the fact that we’re killing people on less-than-stellar intel — morally.

    As for death vs. torture, there’s more than a whiff of Kaffeeklatsch to the conversation. It simply confirms the extent of the narcissism.

    So, how about changing perspective entirely by no longer calling what we do “war?” Just because the mouth-breather at 1600 Pennsylvania decided back in 2001 that it was “war,” and just because everyone far and wide bought into the idea, doesn’t make the exercise of using a multibillion-dollar military enterprise to chase 1,000 (5,000?) sociopaths a “war.” Ah, but that’s the gist, isn’t it. If we treated the sociopaths as criminals, the fun that comes with murder and torture outside the confines of the law — along with the tumescence it arouses in all those middle-age, overfed, self-righteous denizens of the corridors of power — would evaporate.

  6. Bill Michtom says:

    “To throw away the invaluable tradition of decency in wartime was unforgivable.”

    Would that be the 150 slaughtered at Wounded Knee? Or the hundreds of thousands at Hiroshima & Nagasaki? Or the 3 million dead civilians in Vietnam?

    This man gets paid for writing this shit?

  7. sd says:

    @BSbafflesbrains – so true.
    As far as I can tell, with death instead of torture, Obama has eliminated the complexities of incarceration making for more efficient logistics.

  8. thatvisionthing says:

    @Bill Michtom:

    Has anybody here heard of a Japanese atomic bomb program in WWII? And U-234? I came across a reference to it in Fish Out of Water, a book on German submariners held at a POW camp in Louisiana. One of them was from the U-234, which surrendered to Americans on May 14, 1945. It was a giant submarine, three times the size of the regular ones, built as a mine layer but used at that point as a cargo vessel. It left Kiel in late March 1945, destination Japan. Among its cargo were a couple of Japanese officers and ten containers filled with 1,200 pounds of uranium oxide. (“Scientists have determined that amount of uranium oxide would have contained about 3.5 kg of the isotope U-235, which is the critical one for making bombs. That amount would have been about a fifth of the total U-235 needed to make one bomb.”) When the submarine got the order on May 10 that Hitler was dead and to surrender at an Allied port, the Japanese officers objected, couldn’t prevail, and so committed suicide and were buried at sea on May 11.

    Second Officer (Lieutenant) Karl Ernst Pfaff was taken to what he believed to be a top-secret Navy installation in Virginia for interrogation and into a room in which U-234’s cargo was being stored. There he was ordered to oversee the opening of a metal container…. When the container had been opened and they saw that it was safe, other military authorities came out of hiding. Pfaff was then asked to open the little cigar box-shaped containers that held the uranium oxide.

    The only civilian in the room supervised the operation. “Who is that?” Pfaff asked. “Oppenheimer,” somebody said….

    Historians have quietly puzzled over the uranium shipment for years, wondering what the U.S. military did with it.… The fantastic theory that the uranium was used in the bombs the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forcing Japan to surrender, is possible but unproven…. “There’s no question they were hunting for uranium,” Stanley Goldberg, a science historian in Washington who is writing a book on the Manhattan Project, said of the U.S. bomb venture. “They scraped the bottom of the barrel. They came to within an inch of not having enough material for a uranium bomb.”

    – Wesley Harris, Fish Out Of Water

  9. Jeff Kaye says:

    1. Obama did not end torture by or on behalf of US forces and agencies.

    2. “Tradition of decency in warfare”? I don’t know where Sully got such an idea. Is he totally unfamiliar with the wars the US waged in Southeast Asia, or the clandestine campaigns to invade Cuba, overthrown democratically elected regimes in Latin America, etc.?

    3. You are correct they use the drones because they can. But I believe they also use them primarily because they terrorize populations over which they fly. The data gatherers at DoD and CIA are using this first “drone war” to assess more lethal ways to kill, and the effects such terror produces on a population, methods used to counter drone use, etc.

    4. Given what I say above, I think it’s a false dichotomy to present the issue as use of torture vs use of drones.

  10. klynn says:

    There are many questions that are going through my head after reading this piece. As I think about torture and the EI techniques, I am focused on the intent. The intent to use pain and fear as a means to derive confession (false confession) and command control of an individual and a population. Imagine the stories spreading through a culture and the impact and outcomes such stories may create? (In areas where oral tradition is set in stone.) Not the “sound bite” outcome of winning hearts and minds. Drones are the step after mock burial in a sense, due to the whole context of our methods used to carry out a war on terror. As stories of drone killings spread, there will not be an outcome of winning hearts and minds through humanitarian means in the countries we are carrying out drone killings. (I will not use the word targeted because too many civilians are dying via drones.). There may be the outcome of controlling minds through fear. Perhaps this is how we intend to win hearts and minds, through the domination of fear? Unfortunately, we risk and are accomplishing the other outcome, a massive growth of anti-American sentiment. An outcome which grows terror groups, creating greater risk against our nation. A spiral of violence and threat. So what is minimum force and limit excessive and unnecessary death and destruction when your nation is creating a spiral of violence?

    Drones are weapons operated by humans. A high tech weapon run by an individual. The SA and the SS may have used lower tech weapons such as knives, guns and semi-automatic weapons but their actions with their weapons were used to create fear within a cultural group and fear to control the masses in countires in the 1930-40’s.

    I guess I would be asking, “How are our actions different from the SA and the SS of WWII Nazi Germany? If drone strikes are creating fear and killing targets we would have not targeted in the past, how are our actions different? How is this a tradition of decency in wartime; especially, when the enemy we are focusing on, is creating needed services for living to civilians? Creating needed services for living that are winning hearts and minds as an outcome of their actions. Strangers in my land killing and causing fear. Fellow citizens creating electricity to aid my quality of living. Who is winning the hearts and minds in this viewpoint?

    “But there is an obvious difference between the injustices perpetrated by regimes in developing countries and the standards we set for ourselves.” – Andrew Sullivan

    I would suggest that just because we think our standards are higher than other regimes, it does not mean they are high enough. After all, our enemy is supplying electricity. How can we beat that standard? Are we even committed to surpassing that standard?

    Is there a praxis of jus in bello? Distinction? Proportionality? Necessity? Fair treatment? Means?

    These would have been my observations and questions to Andrew Sullivan.

  11. quixote says:

    I think it was a French wit who said hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. The difference between earlier US war crimes and now is that in the bad old days the government at least tried to lie about it. Now they’re saying evil is good and vice is legal.

    That’s a whole nother level of going down the rabbit hole, and one it’s impossible to get out of because you no longer know which way is up.

  12. Yastreblyansky says:

    @GKJames: For what it’s worth, it stopped being a war in March 2009; that is, a request was issued to Pentagon staffers to replace “Long War” and “Global War on Terror” with “Overseas Contingency Operation”. But I don’t know whether Augustine and Aquinas formulated a theory of a just overseas contingency operation.

  13. earlofhuntingdon says:

    There is nothing more barbaric than war, be it declared or undeclared, at home or abroad, physical or economic. It unleashes power from the restraints of review, approval, censure and consequence, limiting it only to the imagination of the leadership and its ability to extract resources from its population, itself enhanced by the “needs of war”.

    There is nothing delicate or sweet about dying for one’s country, as Dulce et Decorum Est makes clear. There is nothing as unseemly as forgetting its barbarities, both petty and gross, from boredom and inanity to the spilt guts of thousands.

    What we are supposed to forget in the brief respites between overt wars is that the serenity of a tomb for the unknown is not the burial place of an individual, whole soldier. It is a stone marking the graves of tens of thousands, whose bodies are not buried but scattered to the winds, mixed with rain, snow, excrement and poppies, and the hope that we might live a little longer before replenishing the supply of unknown and fragmented bones.

    Torture is what war unleashes. It is the overt torture of bodies and minds maimed away from battle as well as those consigned to battle. War is no longer the continuation of politics by other means; it is the penetration of economic policy in places even politics fears to tread.

  14. thatvisionthing says:


    “But there is an obvious difference between the injustices perpetrated by regimes in developing countries and the standards we set for ourselves.” – Andrew Sullivan

    I would suggest that just because we think our standards are higher than other regimes, it does not mean they are high enough. After all, our enemy is supplying electricity. How can we beat that standard? Are we even committed to surpassing that standard?

    I left a long comment/transcript about our efforts to supply electricity to Afghanistan here: http://www.emptywheel.net/2012/06/13/can-hillary-turn-on-electricity-in-yemen-better-than-aqap/#comment-355323 — Harry Shearer had included in his weekly radio program a trade podcast clip about the comedy of errors as we built a diesel plant outside of Kabul, which concluded:

    So the end result is that electricity from the Tarakhil plant costs 42 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is stratospherically high; it would be high even in the northeast United States. Whereas power that is freely available from transmission lines from former Soviet republics—Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and so on—that electricity is available for 6 cents per kilowatt-hour. … The upshot is that Tarakhil is hardly ever used. It’s a brand new plant, it probably cost more than any other 105-megawatt, 100-megawatt plant ever built, at over $300 million, and it’s almost never used. … There was no need for this plant on any count.

    So, stupid r us.

    Ew’s diary that I left the comment in included a link to a Yemen story, Yemen and the Two Clocks, which I also read into and left a comment about: http://www.emptywheel.net/2012/06/13/can-hillary-turn-on-electricity-in-yemen-better-than-aqap/#comment-355321. The two clocks are oil and water, and they are ticking down:

    Carl Prine: Yeah, but I still see those parallel clocks. I don’t know how much time Yemen has left. I think that they run out of oil in 2017ish.

    Christopher Swift: And the capital runs out of water in the next five to 10 years.

    Carl Prine: Yeah. And within the Arab world, it has the highest population growth rate. The only other place comparable is Gaza. Yemen has an amazingly high fertility rate.

    I don’t know what our high-standards drone plan is for Yemen when the water runs out, but killing people is our priority, our vision, how we face the coming disasters? SO stupid, again. Who can take us seriously?

  15. thatvisionthing says:

    @thatvisionthing: Who can take us seriously? How can we be so stupid? Would point to another transcript comment, this one of a Litopia radio interview of former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray: http://www.emptywheel.net/2012/05/07/nyt-covers-the-war-on-terror-drugs-with-no-mention-of-larger-context/#comment-347834


    37:12 (Host) Peter Cox: This is all actually terribly depressing stuff, in fact, isn’t it Craig, because you think about it, we’re doing the wrong thing. We’re doing the wrong thing morally. We’re doing the wrong thing politically. We’re doing the wrong thing in every way possible. And we’re getting dodgy information as well. I mean, there’s no good can come of it. People must feel very demoralized inside the diplomatic service, most people, don’t they? When they’re – you know, when they are clearly asked to believe that black is white and white is black for no other reason than it’s politically expedient to do so?

    37:43 Craig Murray: I asked a friend of mine who was involved very closely and at a senior level with Iraq in the leadup to the Iraq war, who is someone who definitely knew there were no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and yet was having to work in an environment where he was pretending there were Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. And I said to him, “How do you do it? How do you reconcile it with yourself?” He said, “It’s like playing a video game. You know, when you go into work, it’s like if you’re playing one of these football major games. While you’re in the game, you are the manager of Chelsea for the, you know, two hours you play or whatever. When you leave, you’re not. You go about your daily life.” And so when he walks into the Foreign Office, there are Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. That’s just the fantasy world you move into and that’s the game you are playing at the time. When you go home, you switch off, and of course in real life you know there are not.

    The trouble is, of course, that people actually died. You know, hundreds of thousands of people are dead. You have millions of people have had relatives die. Hundreds of thousands of children have been orphaned. Children have had their limbs blown off. People have been raped and mutilated as a result of these fantasy games. So, you know, it’s one thing to somehow rationalize it that way, to psychologically isolate it from yourself, but can you really remove yourself from the results of what you are doing? You know, there’s a moral void there.

    They’re in their own fantasy world of authority and enemies and video games. And they can’t afford to reality check or conscience check, so they keep playing their stupid, shameful game like the trapped and willful idiots they are.

  16. thatvisionthing says:

    @Jeff Kaye: Hi Jeff, I’m always so grateful for your efforts. I bet I make a hash of this, but I’ll try. Torture, war, drones — all so rotten and stupid you could spit or laugh. You can hardly believe that we could come to this! Like you feel yourself trying to register sense to them, but you can’t. And in fact they hardly register with you. They’re a self-fulfilling disaster that you can’t stop from happening.

    It would be nice to be able to really disconnect, but that seems not exactly right either. The best I can do is do a kind of living autopsy and diagnosis on them because their stench tells me they are dying. What makes Iago evil? I said it in my first comment, secrecy. -> putrid, -> gangrene — the circulation is cut off and democracy is gone. It’s systemic.

    When Daniel Ellsberg read the Pentagon Papers (I just saw the James Spader movie), movie Ellsberg says, “Over 7,000 pages in 47 volumes, what I had in front of me was nothing less than a chronology of our damnation. There were two histories of the war, one for the president, and one for the rest of us. The people were lied to about Vietnam through four consecutive presidential administrations. It wasn’t one man. It was the office itself.” Systemic.

    The end of the movie has a 1971 clip of the real Ellsberg being interviewed by Walter Cronkite before he turned himself in.

    Daniel Ellsberg: I think the lesson is the people of this country can’t afford to let the president run the country by himself, even foreign affairs, any more than domestic affairs, without the help of the Congress, without the help of the public…

    The system should be changed, I think, to begin with. It’s very hard, really, the way our system operates now, for a truly frank, honest man to stay in that system indefinitely without being weeded out, or fired, or made apathetic, or infected/corrupted in the end.


    Even if we could start fresh, I think as long as it’s an us versus them system, good guys versus bad guys, where we’re not all in the same room examining everything openly and reasoning together, it will come to this again. I think if you could take all the villains now, take off their authority caps and put them as equals in a room of equals and sunshine and fresh air, they’d be fine. End of putrid, end of monsters. It’s the secrecy and lies and unchecked authority that are so toxic. I love that part in the E Pleb Neesta youtube where Captain Kirk tells the parallel universe Yangs that the words (of the Consitution, holy but now incomprehensible to them and only to be seen by “the eyes of a chief”) “were not written for the Yangs,” Kirk says, “but the Komms as well. They must apply to everyone, or they mean nothing at all!” (I’m such an old Trekkie :-) I think jury nullification says so much if we could know it again, that any random 12 citizens can check and balance the justice of any government prosecution, that truths are self-evident to any and all, that we rely on and honor each other, and above all that it’s not due process until it’s been conscience checked and reality checked by the people, not the servants they choose. I wonder so much about Marbury vs. Madison these days, if that’s where we went off the rails, when the Supreme Court put itself above checking and balancing and no longer sat with a jury and the circle flow of reason and trust was broken and instead we went to an authority hierarchy of Simon Says.

    I think Madison and Jefferson were right, that there are no angels amongst us, and that we shouldn’t expect there to be, or designate some where none exist, or think our purpose is to burn witches and terrorists.

    I think Alexander Pope said it beautifully: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2012/05/21

  17. Susan says:

    There is no doubt in my mind that murdering people is worse then kidnapping them and torturing them.

  18. klynn says:


    Thanks for your comment and links. I had gone to the previous EW post from her link in this post. I was overwhelmed by your links to the “Two Clocks” Yemen piece.

    EW, THAT “Two Clocks” would make a great post. Yemen. Are we, the US, just setting up what our “high-standards drone plan” is for Yemen when the water runs out or actually trying to set-up something humanitarian?

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