I've stayed off the torture debate because to talk honestly about torture, you have to rip open so many layers of bullshit, it's like trying to get eighty years of bad wallpaper off a bedroom wall. Ever help a "friend" get a dozen layers of old wallpaper off? You don't need to fear Hell if you've done that.
But readers keep wanting my take on the whole Abu Ghraib mess, so put on your Beijing surgical masks and stand back while I start stripping the lies. The first and biggest lie is that you can do counterinsurgency (CI) warfare without torture. Bullshit. No army ever fought a CI campaign without resorting to torture. Goes with the territory. At most, it's like holding by your offensive line: you don't want them doing it where the ref can see it, but if you had an OG or tight end who refused to do it, you'd fire his ass.
Because you can't win without it.
So why did everybody from Bush on down act surprised? Well, the key word is "act." And the answer is: they were lying. After all, lying's a big, legitimate part of warfare. It's the President's job to go on TV and act shocked when pictures like the ones from Abu Ghraib come out. Nobody with a grain of sense believes he's actually lying awake at night worrying that we might have violated the Geneva convention by dunking some Jihadi's head in a bucket to give him time to rethink his whole position re: drowning for Allah vs. telling us where his friends are hiding out. Maybe Jimmy "the Parson" Carter would've been really, truly upset, but the less said about that pansy-ass mama's boy, the better.
The only thing Bush did wrong was mess up the lie. He was supposed to do the interview with those two Arab TV networks and say, "I'm just so sorry we brutalized those poor Iraqis." Only he messed that up like he messes everything up. He didn't manage to say he was sorry, so that was the headline all over the world: "Bush refuses to apologize."
As for all this stuff about how America was shocked -- well, as far as I could tell that's another lie. I listened to a lot of conversations at the office about those pictures, and most people said they were totally OK with us torturing Iraqis, but they were upset by the whole gay sex thing with those pictures of naked Iraqi guys piled up in mounds. That bothered them more than Janet Jackson's saggy Superbowl tit. "My children read that paper," that was what one lady said.
To understand why torture is so fundamental to CI warfare, you have to remember that in guerrilla wars there are no battles, there are just ambushes. And an ambush is totally different from a battle. Let's say your squad is patrolling through a village just like it's done for the past two weeks, right? Everything's hunky-dory: the little old lady who sells veggies waves and smiles when you go past, the kids ask for gum, and you start to feel like a liberator. You're just turning a corner when there's a big boom and two of your buddies are on the ground screaming, two others are dead. You look around -- where's the old lady? Where are all the smiling kiddies? A blast that big should've killed a dozen locals, but somehow the only casualties are your buddies.
Somehow the smiling locals magically disappeared two seconds before the IED went off. So either they all have some pretty effective ESP...or they knew it was going to go off. In fact, they were part of the set-up. The smiling kids, the friendly grandma -- all a set-up to relax you, make you walk into the kill zone.
That's how torture starts. You know they know. They're weaker than you. But they won't tell you anything. You start hating them more and more. Sooner or later the idea of grabbing some of them and making them talk is going to occur to you, or somebody higher up.
If you've got good NCOs, they'll try to keep you under control, because you're likely to pick the wrong people to start whacking around. That's the nastiest part of the whole CI picture: the villagers may not be involved by choice. They may not want to mess with you at all. Most people, even crazy tribes like Chechens, just want to get by. But they have to deal with the insurgents, who are putting as much pressure on them in the nighttime as you are during the day. Maybe the little old lady's grandson is being held with a knife at his throat to make sure she goes to her usual veggie stand and looks cheerful, just to make the set-up more convincing. You can't know.