October 19, 2005

Bush's Legacy

When people study the Bush legacy, one thing that will be called out is his policy on torture. One hundred years from now, the infamous place names - Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, Bagram - will be linked to the name of Bush and his betrayal of the American values of human rights and the rule of law.

During the wars of the shattered Yugoslavia, many stories talked about the centuries of hatred, anger and mistrust the people of that land had for the others in that land. The actions in the 10th century or the 15th century created the hatred that the leaders stoked to burning flames to justify the bitter civil war.

Today, our country has sown the seeds that are destined to be the roots of a long, lingering hatred. Thus, Major Bob Bateman noted last week how we have shaped the psychology of a region which will survive for centuries, engendering anger and hatred whenever a demagogue wants to use them for his own gain.

Name: Major Bob Bateman
Dateline: Baghdad, Iraq

Perception is Reality

In Ohio State historian Mark Grimsley is one of the most balanced and intellectually inquisitive academics I know. His interests and insights across a wide-range of fields demonstrate all that is right within academia, and his ability to spot interesting anomalies never fails. He is also an expert on the Civil War. His award winning book, The Hard Hand of War, describes the evolution of the behavior of the Union Army towards civilians in the States then under rebellion. He starts with the infamous “Lieber Code,” and carries the official view through “General Order 100” to the eventual culmination of a ‘hard handed attitude’ towards the enemy by the end of the war. The ultimate expression of which was Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s now-infamous March to the Sea. But Professor Grimsley has an accompanying lecture that he likes to give about Sherman’s March. During that lecture he recounts a curious tale about a situation in which he found himself while researching his book.

Grimsley was in Georgia, along the route which Sherman took from Atlanta to the Sea. He was in a small town and somehow the topic of his research came up. One of the oldsters noted that yes, Sherman’s ‘bummers’ had come through and absolutely destroyed the town. Then the man pointed at one of the beautiful, pristine, and never rebuilt ante-bellum mansions and said without apparent irony, “Yep, they burned it [the mansion] to the ground.”

The building, the standing, completely-untouched-perfectly-preserved Ante-Bellum building, was a testimony to perceptions vs. reality.

The reality was that Sherman’s “bummers” burned a lot of outbuildings, a lot of barns, a lot of warehouses, but had not touched (by and large) the homes along their route. But the legend, even today, even in a modern first-world nation state, is much more powerful than the mere facts. The concrete, unassailable-evidence-standing-right-there-fact is that the mansions, regardless of Margaret Mitchell’s intimations, remain standing even today, without much more than a scratch. In a way they are a mute testament to the ability to change history to match their ideas of what should have happened (or must have happened) despite concrete evidence to the contrary.

Today, here in Iraq, we are struggling against a perception in the Arab world which is just as misrepresentative of the larger reality as that of the myth of the March to the Sea. I just cannot see any way to counteract that myth either. The developing macro-myth of the American treatment of prisoners will be with us, like it or not, for generations. And this is important: It will not matter when we have completely fixed all the institutional, or individual, or systemic problems that led to the various accounts of abuse. It will not matter at all. We could turn over the entire military judicial system, hell, we could turn over control of the whole U.S. military, to the combined powers of the ACLU, Doctors Without Borders and the Hague, and it would not matter. The power of myth is that strong.

Now let me note that from a moral standpoint it should not matter that tens of thousands have processed through or been held by American forces. Human Rights, when you absolutely boil them down, are not about the many, but the few. So what should matter to all of us is what happened to those who have been abused. Morally, this is the right way to approach the issue. But at the same time the focus on the few means that their image is amplified, and over time the amplification of that image will result in the solidification of a larger myth.

Perhaps not soon, but eventually, more of the images of what took place here two years ago at Abu Ghraib will enter the public domain. These will coalesce with the stories such as those revealed by Captain Fishback of the 82nd Airborne. The end result of which will be an iconic image of this war which was not imagined before it started. From this will derive two situations. The first, here, in the Middle East. The second occurs back there, at home.

Here the images and the facts will blur. What will remain is an iconic perception which will tar the United States for decades if not centuries.

You can get more on this important story by visiting Frontline. Watch John Yoo, Donald Rumsfeld and General Geoffry Miller salt the ground of the era they occupy.

Many thanks to Eric Alterman for bringing us the thoughts of Major Bateman.

Posted by Mary at October 19, 2005 01:06 AM | Human Rights | Technorati links |