Strong support for torture among US military in Iraq: A corollary of occupation

by Stephen Soldz; Psyche, Science, and Society; May 12, 2007

A new survey of US military personnel in Iraq finds high rates of support for torture. Forty-one percent of soldiers in Iraq and 44% of marines agree that “Torture should be allowed if it will save the life of a Soldier/Marine” and 36% of soldiers and 39% of marines agree that “Torture should be allowed in order to gather important info about insurgents.” Responses to another question give a sense of who, in the opinion of many occupation soldiers and marines, should be subject to torture: 17% of both soldiers and marines agree that “All non-combatants should be treated as insurgents.”

These results illustrate the US military’s conflicting attitudes toward banned torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. On the one hand, the US military has a long history of teaching and promoting torture around the world, in the various American client states in Latin America and elsewhere. For example, the School of the Americas is well-known for teaching torture techniques and providing detailed manuals for Latin American militaries on how to conduct effective torture. And itshould not be forgotten that many of the most notorious US torture facilities around the world are run by the US military, including Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Camp Cropper, and Bagram. at each of these facilities, and at so many others, torture, conducted by both military and others (CIA and private “interrogation” contractors) was routine and encouraged.

On the other hand, there is a history of military opposition to torture and resistance to the Bush administration’s more extreme pro-torture policies and interpretations of laws. For example, as the administration moved to include torture as a central element of its Global War On Terror, military lawyers from the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG) offices actively opposed these moves, largely on the basis that they were both ineffective at obtaining information and would alienate needed allies — Muslims around the world — in combating terror.

More recently the US military has adopted a new interrogation Army Field Manual with policies that ban many, but not all, abusive interrogation techniques. Many of the most abusive technique are banned, including:

· Forcing the detainee to be naked, perform sexual acts, or pose in a sexual manner.

· Placing hoods or sacks over the head of a detainee; using duct tape over the eyes.

· Applying beatings, electric shock, burns, or other forms of physical pain.

· “Waterboarding.”

· Using military working dogs.

· Inducing hypothermia or heat injury.

· Conducting mock executions.

· Depriving the detainee of necessary food, water, or medical care.

However, under the guise of separating detainees from others with whom they might share information, the AFM allows prolonged isolation. And the manual allows the exploitation of a detainees fears, which can easily extend to abuse.

Another factor affecting attitudes toward torture concerns the dynamics of occupation. US troops are involved in an occupation of a land whose culture and people are alien to them. When the population of that land resist occupation, becoming “insurgents,” these troops have little basis for understanding this rebellion, for to understand would be to realize that their role is that of occupier, making their presence difficult to rationalize. Countries seeking to dominate another country use some combination of the carrot and the stick. But terrorizing the population to be occupied is usually an essential component of the occupation strategy. Torture is a key element of this control through terror. The US troops in Iraq understand what the brass, with their shocked response to this survey, pretend not to comprehend: that torture goes along with occupation and domination. Perhaps it isn’t a logical necessity. But it is rare for an unpopular occupation to not be accompanied by torture, to show the population to be subjugated just who is boss.

Ending the US military’s support for torture in practice will most likely require an end to its role as a force to occupy the varied lands of other people. It will also require an understanding that other peoples are the equals of those bearing “the white man’s burden.” Human rights and empire do not go together.

Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Institute for the Study of Violence of the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He maintains the Psyche, Science, and Society blog.


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