Torture and American strategy

It's an accepted fact that America has tortured alleged members of Al Qaeda. Everyone who reads this blog should read Col. Morris Davis' oped in the New York Times: Unforgivable Behavior, Inadmissible Evidence. This post will briefly look at torture through the lens of American grand strategy.

Torture is frequently justified at the tactical level (i.e. each individual case of torture taken separately) by referring to the "ticking time bomb" scenario. Assuming that torture is effective (which it can be), this makes it relatively easy to justify torture because you isolate each event from its long-term consequences. Looking beyond this artificial time-horizon is how utilitarians argue against torture: "The ultimate utilitarian objection to torture, therefore, is that it corrosively delegitimizes the state." This delegitimization harms the United States more than most other countries, as I'll show.

Chet Richard's most recent post reminds us of Boyd's conception of strategy as "pump up our morale, degrade that of our opponents, attract the uncommitted to our cause, and end the conflict on favorable terms without sowing the seeds for future (unfavorable) conflict." The use of torture alienates our allies, helps our enemies in their recruitment campaigns, and in so doing helps sow the seeds for future conflict. But how does torture affect efforts to "pump up our morale", or as Boyd puts it in his "Patterns of Conflict" briefing, "amplify our spirit and strength"?

For the United States especially, promoting internal harmony and strength within society should be the paramount goal of American strategy. The destruction of inner harmony damages the United States much more than it does other countries. Unlike other political communities, the United States does not have a specific shared heritage, ethnicity, religion, or race to fall back upon to unify the country. Instead America is based on a shared political culture, based around the Constitution.

America is perhaps unique among nations for the ability to commit suicide bloodlessly (I suppose the Vatican could as well if the Pope renounced Catholicism). If, for example, Japan were to engage in widespread torture, Japanese would still remain bonded to each other through cultural and ethnic ties. If the United States was to engage in widespread torture, it would represent a break with the fundamental values the country was founded on, and the political community would have less of a reason to exist. Simply stated, Japan does not become less Japanese if its government tortures, however America does become less American if its government tortures.

Even if it's true that we "only" tortured three Al Qaeda members, as Col. Davis says:
Saying a man is honest is a compliment. Saying a man is “generally” honest or honest “quite often” means he lies. The mistreatment of detainees, like honesty, is all or nothing: We either do stuff like that or we do not.
Whether you call it "morale" like Col. Richards, "spirit and strength" like Boyd, or "legitimacy" as Morgan does, it's the same thing. Stephen Colbert might call it "America-ness". Torture destroys it.


Arjun said...

“Torture destroys America-ness”

This concept fascinates me. In this post you have clearly and simply articulated the idea that people in this country are bound by a set of values, as opposed to chains of ethnicity. I firmly agree to you, but I wonder in what other ways we have broken this America-ness.

This question presupposes that something is broken. And when I consider the growing numbers of disillusioned young people, of college students determined to become expats, of people who scoff at the notion of patriotism, I am forced to consider that the systematic breaking with our stated values by the current government has destroyed the remnants of our civil and civic religion. If America-ness is broken, can it be fixed?

Adrian said...

I think it can be fixed. Look at how many young people are going nuts over Obama (or Hillary) and figuring out the arcane details of Texas' primary system - it's still possible to create excitement over democracy and America-ness. In every generation people emigrate and become expats for various reasons. It's like the old curmudgeon saying "kids these days..."

I think what makes this qualitatively different is that its the government that is destroying America-ness (need a better word for it). But I think if we were to have accountability, and have someone with the credibility (i.e. any of the 3 likely next presidents) to publicly renounce torture and get some actual oversight over the intelligence community to restore trust between the IC and the Congress/people, I think that would go a long way towards fixing the situation.