Torture and Truth America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror by Mark Danner

by rthieme on May 12, 2005

Torture and Truth

America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror

including the torture photographs and the major documents and reports

by Mark Danner

New York Review Books

New York: November 2004

579 pp


by Richard Thieme

That title – and subtitle and sub-subtitle – suggest what is valuable about this book and what is perplexing.

Mark Danner wants to tell the truth about torture generally as used and outsourced by Americans and specifically about the events at Abu Ghraib. He wants to link his accounts of those big and little truths to voluminous documentation, much of which would have ordinarily been edited into footnotes and an annotated bibliography. Somewhere between the massive documentation and three brief articles is a large middle ground that is mostly missing.

I’m not suggesting that Danner could have done it much differently. He works within the constraints of a war on terrorists which mandates a legitimate need for secrecy and also under an administration with an obsessive need for secrecy, making it difficult to build the bigger picture. Danner acknowledges that missing middle which is in effect a null set that includes the data we don’t have. There is too much, he states, that we don’t know, and what’s worse, we don’t know what we don’t know. He has the journalist’s curse of knowing more than he can prove and defaults to assembling all that documentation which also has the benefit of making a very small book much bigger.


The organization of the book into three parts reflects the dilemma.

The first consists of three articles written originally for The New York Review of Books on the truth about torture, the logic of torture and the road to Abu Ghraib. These articles are the heart of the book, in which Danner reflects on the context which led to Abu Ghraib.

The second part of the book consists of two additional articles about the war in Iraq that relate more tangentially to the book’s primary focus. One has the feeling that they are there because they were already there.

The third section consists of appendices stretching from pp. 73 to 579, including letters and memos germane to the debate over POWs and interrogation, photos from Abu Ghraib, horrific testimony from prisoners and the Red Cross, and the official Taguba, Schlesinger and Fay/Jones reports.

A reader would have to be committed far beyond a general interest in the subject to read through all that, much of it presented in bureaucratise and politician-talk. Much of what can be extrapolated is included in the three articles where Danner states clearly that the events at Abu Ghraib and other incidents of torture occur in a larger context. If he discussed that context in greater depth and detail, some of the Alice-in-Wonderlandish statements in the government memos would make more sense. But he doesn’t. He can’t, really, and for good reason.

The wartime environment of World War 2 morphed into a Cold War which lasted for 45 years. Levels of secrecy necessary during wartime were applied to a world no longer defined as Axis vs. Allies but as Communists vs. Free World and then Terrorists versus Free World. That “Free World” includes allies whose governments range from democratic to fascist. Alignment with American objectives is more important than ideology or behavior. We have sponsored, trained, and supported death squads and counter-revolutionaries, training proxies in assassination, torture, and sabotage for years.

Since World War 2, we have also lived in a bifurcated environment: above the line, information and media are manipulated to create a consensus, a reasonably coherent if fabricated narrative, for a population lacking access to important facts. Below the line a variety of alternative interpretations are available in a compartmentalized way on a need-to-know basis and at various levels of clearance. We accept that multiple streams of alternative realities flow in layers and consider their flagrant contradictions a necessary consequence of national security.

A national security state predicated on a culture of secrecy, funded clandestinely and unaccountable to an electorate, has inevitably evolved. During times of “democratic excesses” in the sixties, as the Bilderberg Conference called social action on behalf of greater equality and justice, a strategy of managing perception was developed, a private and public partnership that continues to this day. Eisenhower called it the “military-industrial complex” when he left office and warned of its growing power.

He had no idea. What Ike feared, a tiny alien bursting out of the gut of the Cold War, is nothing compared to the monster with which we live.

The inability to integrate what we know and suspect in a single coherent narrative prevents us from seeing the same historical facts as facts and results in that vast missing middle in Danner’s book. His articles discuss Abu Ghraib as an instantiation of a much larger context, one characteristic of the expansion of the American empire over many years. But when it comes to details, there is only Abu Ghraib. This obscures rather than underscores Danner’s most important assertions: Neither Abu Ghraib nor the use of torture are anomalous.

The tension between knowing what we know even when we can not document it and the limited focus on Abu Ghraib takes us through a looking-glass. We read nitpicking arguments about when “severe pain” becomes torture or how long a prisoner must show subsequent symptoms for torture to be deemed to have taken place and want to scream, “Can you hear what you’re saying?”  Government documents only make sense if Abu Ghraib and the practice of torture are anomalous while Danner’s discussion references a world in which it is commonplace. But the documentation only supports the discussion of Abu Ghraib.

To marshal evidence for that missing middle ground would require transparency in government and a shared historical understanding. In our time, neither exist. Torture and Truth illustrates why we need to reclaim the word “absurd” from the existentialist lexicon and simultaneously articulate a moral vision capable of redeeming our fury in the face of the awfulness not only of Abu Ghraib but of that “much more” on the edges of our awareness.

Originally published in the National Catholic Reporter

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