I saw the gripping New York Timesdocumentary on Hulu this past week about the case of Navy SEAL Commander Eddie Gallagher, a rogue soldier who routinely shot civilians in Iraq for the hell of it, and finally stabbed to death a barely conscious captive young ISIS fighter who was the lone survivor of a missile hit on an enemy house. The documentary has video of the testimonies of his fellow SEALs, all of whom were in obvious anguish and pain as they told the truth to investigators. It also shows a photograph of Gallagher holding up the murdered kid’s head like a trophy in a wild-game hunt. The image is difficult to put out of your mind.
This kind of dehumanizing barbarism started, of course, with a euphemism. “Enhanced interrogation techniques,” we were assured, were nothing like torture. They were just a very intense form of questioning. “I want to be absolutely clear with our people and the world: The United States does not torture,” president George W. Bush insisted with a straight and serious face.
And then we discovered that these “enhanced techniques” were actually extremely similar to the verschärfte Vernehmung (intense interrogation methods) that the Gestapo once used. Human beings were locked into tiny coffins for days, hung by their wrists from ceilings, hooded, stripped naked, slammed violently against walls, deprived of sleep for days, frozen to the brink of hypothermia, suffocated repeatedly with water, and in one case, accidentally tortured to death. Nor did we have to imagine these horrors: Many of these techniques were ubiquitous at Abu Ghraib prison and photographed. The administration insisted that all of this was invented by a few rogue grunts on the ground, even though we now know that what we saw was the very low end of the abuse of prisoners that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney directly authorized.
The official black sites were dystopian torture chambers. When the torture started, many U.S. personnel, at first, couldn’t watch. Seeing human beings treated by Americans the way they had been treated by the Nazis sickened them. Cables were sent, and ignored. Tapes of the grotesque torture sessions were destroyed. At Gitmo, an elaborate and secret detention center, these experiments on human beings continued. The conclusion of the Senate’s magisterial report on torture — endlessly stymied and obstructed by the CIA — is that none of this barbarism gave us any information we could not have gleaned (and did glean) using traditional interrogation methods. (The new movie The Report tells the story of my friend Dan Jones’s long struggle to get to the truth.)
In short, the United States abandoned the Geneva Conventions it had once been instrumental in creating. And this continued under the Obama administration. Yes, the torture program, mercifully, was ended by executive order on Obama’s second day. But Geneva also requires member states to investigate all claims of war crimes and prosecute the perpetrators. The new president, leery of the divisive and emotional issue as he began his term in an economic crisis, decided to ignore them. In fact, for eight years, no one was even fired or demoted for war crimes, let alone prosecuted, and some were even promoted within the CIA. The message was clear: Americans who torture are essentially immune from prosecution. Torture thereby became normalized.
So it was not surprising that in 2016, a presidential candidate emerged who openly espoused torture as something he would bring back if he were elected. Suddenly, this felt like a legitimate debate. And it was unsurprising that this position won support from Republican primary voters, as if it were just one of many policy proposals, and not an unthinkable violation of domestic and international law. And Trump’s position was not a reluctant one. He exulted in it, telling war crime stories on the stump, in particular the apocryphal one of General Pershing killing Muslims with bullets dipped in the blood of pigs to terrorize others.
Only Jim Mattis was able to restrain the commander-in-chief from restoring the torture program, even if it is clear that Trump still regards war crimes as a sign of strength. But signs were sent to the military and the world that this president admired the tactics of dictators and found democracies pathetic in comparison. Trump nominated and the Senate approved Gina Haspel, who was deeply involved in the torture program, as the director of the CIA. The U.S. had gone from ignoring torture to symbolically legitimizing it.
This is how liberal democracies disintegrate. A violation of core moral norms happens in one specific, exceptional case, such as after 9/11. Some even find reasons to justify it as an emergency measure (something Geneva rules out as a legal excuse). But torture then entrenches itself into the government apparatus and bureaucracy. There’s a record. There are government employees involved and doctors and psychologists. And any president has a choice. You know these people and rely on them. Do you prosecute these people or decide to pretend they did nothing wrong? Obama chose to do nothing to hold anyone accountable.
Trump took the new normal and boosted it. “Torture works!” he declared. In the 2016 campaign, he was asked what he’d do if a military officer refused to obey an illegal order from him, and he responded: “They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse, believe me.” He has routinely said he wants to “keep the oil” in parts of Iraq and Syria American troops occupied, another breach of the laws of war. And he has stood by his embrace of war crimes, in particular in the case of Eddie Gallagher.
After a group of six Navy SEALs decided, in great anguish, to report their murderous platoon chief for war crimes, and Gallagher was arrested and arraigned, Gallagher’s brother, Sean, went on Fox & Friends and appealed to Trump to step in. Trump first said he might pardon him after the trial. In that trial, one witness, given total immunity, reversed six previous testimonies and said he — and not Gallagher — killed the prisoner, by asphyxiating him by blocking the ventilating tube. The witness, asked why had suddenly changed his story, said he did not want Gallagher or his family to go through a life prison sentence without parole. That very day, for the first time, Gallagher came to court with his family.
Gallagher was acquitted, except for the charge of arranging the photograph of what he called a “deer kill,” holding the dead kid’s head up as a trophy. When the Navy, in a final weak attempt to punish him, tried to take Gallagher’s SEAL pin away from him, Trump personally intervened and insisted this war criminal would keep his pin, and that he was one of the “great fighters” in the U.S. military. Fox News celebrated, and Gallagher brazenly called those with the courage to turn him in cowards who fled from combat. Gallagher is now a celebrity in the Trump cult, and hawks T-shirts online with the slogan “Waterboarding Instructor.”
A president who believes a war criminal is among the finest fighters the U.S. has and suggests he will pardon him after his trial is, quite simply, unique in the history of the U.S. So too is a president who threatens another country with the destruction of its cultural sites in revenge for any response to the assassination of one of its military and political leaders. In mere decades, we went from the architect and guardian of the Geneva Conventions to their nemesis. The professional military, who serve with honor, are doing their best to resist, as those honorable SEALs did in the Gallagher case. The Pentagon quickly contradicted the president: “We will follow the laws of armed conflict,” said Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday.
The world once knew that the U.S. government would do its best always to follow those laws. There are likely to be war crimes in any real-world conflict, and the U.S. has committed its share of them. But George W. Bush was the first president to directly authorize something that George Washington had ruled out of bounds in the Revolutionary War. Washington’s words ring ever more tragically in the age of Trump: “Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any prisoner … I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause … for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.”
Military honor and the laws of war are the mark of civilization, and something that takes centuries to build and one feckless decision to destroy. For an American president actually to celebrate such crimes, and even personally threaten to commit them, was unimaginable before now, before the shame and disgrace of Trump.
There’s a line in Robert Bolt’s play, A Man For All Seasons, that has long haunted me when I think of this precious civilizational norm this president had broken. It’s when Thomas More tells his daughter about the nature of an oath. Once breached, he argues, it’s gone. I feel that way about America’s centuries-long eschewal of torture and war crimes more generally. “When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands, like water [he cups his hands] and if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.”
A Tyrant’s War
There were a few hours this past week when we were shaken out of the denial that comes with exhaustion. There we were, risking a real outbreak of war, and all we had was him. And this was not an exception in this presidency — just the most extreme example we have yet had of our collective helplessness in the face of one man’s fecklessness.
There are cases where there is enormous leeway for a president under the Constitution to respond to a national security emergency swiftly and decisively. But this was not such an emergency. Iran is not a real threat to the United States, although it harasses and targets U.S. service members and bases in its own backyard. The administration has been incapable of providing any evidence for the “imminent” attack they used to justify the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani. It appears to me to have been invented. Regardless, there was time to consult allies, and to seek authorization from Congress for what was plainly an act of war.
But, of course, that didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen because we have long constructed an all-powerful executive branch the Founders would recognize as a pseudo-monarchy and now occupied it with an unstable, belligerent, and irrational demagogue. The word for this is tyranny, as I noted three and a half years ago. Not tyranny in the sense that we do not still live in a free country, but tyranny in the classic sense: one-man, strongman rule.
In his defense, Trump has never been shy about this. Throughout the campaign, this is the president he said he would be. “I alone can fix it!” he told us. At the beginning, there was some semblance of an administration around the demagogue who believes his Article 2 powers give him the power to do “whatever I want.” Some grown-ups with some experience were around; some even wrote op-eds in the New York Times anonymously, reassuring us that they were in charge. Occasionally, Trump was talked out of impulsive or incendiary ideas, or had them slow-walked into nothing. But Trump remembered those who opposed his impulses, as well as those who didn’t jump immediately to attention, and, usually within a few months, they were gone. In Plato’s words, when describing how a strongman’s rule unfolds: “Some of those who helped in setting him up and are in power — the manliest among them — speak frankly to him and to one another, criticizing what is happening … Then the tyrant must gradually do away with all of them, if he’s going to rule.”
And he has pretty much done away with all of them. We’re left with a new and weak defense secretary, Mark Esper, constantly contradicted by his boss; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a toady obsessed with Iran; and a war criminal as CIA director, Gina Haspel, who owes her job entirely to a torture-loving president. With this supine clique, Trump ordered the assassination of the top military leader of a country with which we are not at war. Congress was sidelined almost entirely; allies were blindsided. This was not a sane process of deliberation about potentially starting yet another war in the Middle East, considering its consequences, and calibrating a strategy. It was a strongman’s impulse.
After Trump threatened, like the Taliban might, to destroy ancient cultural sites in Iran, he eventually softened his tone — but the way he did it was deeply revealing. “If that’s what the law is,” he told reporters with respect to the Geneva Conventions, “I like to obey the law.” Not: “Of course I will obey the law.” Rather: “I like to obey the law.” It is something he regards as optional for him, as he always has in his business enterprises and tax returns. It is something he says he likes to do but isn’t compelled to. The idea that he is, in fact, constitutionally required to defend the rule of law in all cases hasn’t even begun to occur to him.
And he has found a way within the presidency to make the rule of law optional for himself: by firing officials tasked with investigating him; politicizing the Justice Department so as to exonerate him; using the pardon power to circumvent justice and tamper with witnesses; refusing point-blank to obey any congressional subpoenas in a legal and constitutional impeachment; suing endlessly to postpone complying with the law; telling his own officials to break the law because he’ll pardon them retroactively; and ordering war crimes if he so wishes (by tweet, no less).
This relentless embrace of more and more personal power is all there in Plato’s Republic. But there has been one thing Plato said about the progression of tyrants that did not seem to apply easily to Trump: “He is always setting some war in motion, so that people will be in need of a leader,” Plato explains. In fact, “it’s necessary for a tyrant always to be stirring up war.”
We have already had Trump’s trade war, which is ongoing; we have his war with European allies over defense; we have his war with the media; we have his Twitter wars against his foes; we have his war against any dissidents in his own party; and we have his war against the truth. All these aggressive, belligerent stances have helped him with his base, and sustained his support, as Plato predicted. This week, we risked a hot war with a country we have already crippled with economic sanctions, even as it had fully complied with the nuclear deal negotiated with all the major powers.
Finally, as the full import of one-man rule sank in, the Congress has begun to push back. Nancy Pelosi’s proposal for a legal limit on Trump’s war powers with respect to Iran is a start. More promising are those Republican senators, Mike Lee and Rand Paul, who actually appeared shocked by something they should long have known by now: that this president rules alone, and for all intents and purposes, Congress has become irrelevant. Here’s the money quote from Lee:
As I recall, one of my colleagues asked a hypothetical involving the Supreme Leader of Iran: If at that point, the United States government decided that it wanted to undertake a strike against him personally, recognizing that he would be a threat to the United States, would that require authorization for the use of military force? The fact that there was nothing but a refusal to answer that question was perhaps the most deeply upsetting thing to me in that meeting.
Welcome, Senator Lee, to reality. We now operate in a political system in which one deranged man can take an entire country to war in a fit of pique, the legislative branch has been sidelined, and none among the toadies in the president’s own party will stand up to him. We live in one in which regular constitutional processes — like an impeachment and congressional approval for a war — are treated by the strongman with contempt. We have two remedies: a War Powers Resolution to rein Trump in on Iran, and conviction in the Senate impeachment trial for rank abuse of power. And the president’s cult of a party may well deny us both.
Hospital As Airport
I’ve never stayed overnight in a hospital before, but I did this week for some sinus surgery. My septum is as deviated as my politics, it turns out, and my sinuses in general are gummed up to the eyeballs. It’s a minor but grueling surgery, and they kept me overnight to monitor my sleep apnea and oxygen levels. I have zero complaints about how I was treated –— everyone was super-kind and professional — but I had no idea how similar the whole experience was to being in an airport.
First off, I had to get up at 4:30 a.m. for a surgery at 7:30 a.m. (4:30 typically happens only once a day for me — as does 7:30, for that matter). The Uber in the dark was very much like catching an early international flight. Security check after security check followed at reception as I was asked the same health and identity questions again and again. Then I checked my personal belongings, and was wheeled into the operating room.
Some of the superficial similarities ended there: After the two-hour surgery, I woke up strapped to a mobile bed in the post-op center, with dressings on my mustache and wads of cotton in my nostrils. Then I had my first experience with fentanyl, which was something I’d thought about doing before writing an essay on opioids, but of course didn’t risk at the time. It was quite lovely feeling this cold fluid flush into my left hand and arm as the world suddenly felt light and floaty.
Still, I didn’t move for 12 hours straight, waiting for a room to open up.
I naïvely thought I’d sleep all day, but that was impossible with all the lights and noise and conversations (and what conversations!) going on behind those curtains. I thought I’d work instead, which was an even more stupid idea. I’d brought my laptop and this column was due but … well, you know, fentanyl, and the fact that my hands were all connected up to various tubes and wires.
When I got a room just before midnight, I was psyched. Quiet! Sleep! Rest! But no. My roommate had the TV on, my lovely nurses had to prick and poke and wake me every couple of hours, and I only managed a couple of hours with my earbuds plugged into my iPhone with ocean-wave sounds on it. I’m not complaining — but being stuck somewhere propped up awkwardly, waiting in a public space for hours on end, with lighting like you get in Target, it did all feel like some airport nightmare dream with the added feeling of having been punched hard in the face a few times.