"My will had gone and I feared to be alone, lest the winds of circumstance blow my empty soul away."
~ T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
This quote has a haunting quality of despair that even a Russian novelist would be hard pressed to elucidate better. While Lawrence was a "guest" of the Turks in 1916, he was subject to interrogation techniques most indelicate. The current prison/torture scandals and the Bush regime’s disdain for the Geneva Convention and international law have further reinforced the idea that America is a rogue nation. Plenty of Middle Americans are asking how could our armed forces do this? Like my colleagues Karen Kwiatkowski and Michael Pierce, I served in the US armed forces for most of my adult life and witnessed the reasons they can do what they do. Others have considered the famous student experiments in captor/prisoner relationships and the good German hypotheses but the crux of the matter for uniformed soldiers is the value of recognized ordinances of civilized warfare. This is not an oxymoron. I think the peace mankind experiences is merely a pause between conflicts generated the lion’s share of the time by government. These formalized protocols are what separate the soldier from the serial killer. Now we have the US armed forces pushing the edge of the legal envelope as it were at the behest of their civilian masters. It turns out that the intelligence organizations in the Army may be the catalyst for the prison abuse scandal. These are the "mandarins" of the intellectual caste. The Military Intelligence Corps prides itself as the "smart" branch of the US Army steeped in a culture of intellectual ferment and the ability to think like the enemy. Nothing could be further from the truth but I discussed that in an earlier essay. They share the same dysfunctions as the rest of the US intelligence apparatchiks: a signal inability to think outside the box, an absolutely ironclad lack of deference to different cultural norms and a rudimentary hostility to any other intelligence agency or branch.
The Cold War honed a system of intelligence which faced a monolithic threat and relied on a static empirical model of counting weapons, soldiers and materiel and trying to divine intent on the part of the enemy. An enviably simple task on reflection given the inputs from satellite data, observation and technical extrapolation of means and ability, although even that was flawed. Inevitably, the same qualities which animate most journalists — being stupid, venal and lazy — managed to permeate the bureaucratic rat’s nests of the US government. Intelligence at its distillate is the ability to reliably predict how other national actors will behave to stimulus whether it is a provocation from us or a response to weaker or stronger opponents. Match this with the bureaucratic imperative to risk aversion and the cultivation of a culture of obedience to political masters and you have a recipe for disaster. The CIA and the alphabet soup of other bunglers that comprise the pantheon of entrails readers for the Feds stumble all over themselves NOT to seize bold and innovative conclusions to intelligence puzzles. The intelligence products made for the National Command Authority will inevitably make sure their conclusions please the expectations of their masters at the top no matter the logical contortions necessary. As I’ve stated before, the US intelligence apparatus cannot conduct human intelligence (the coordination and maintenance of clandestine agent networks) because we are culturally and institutionally incapable of it; so we rely primarily on technical means that do not fare well against the relatively low-tech host of adversaries we’re now facing. Do you suppose Joe Q. Citizen, untrained in intelligence arcana, would purposefully sign off on destroying religious structures (with the worshipers inside), use Israeli-style helicopter gunship methods to "surgically" remove hostiles in urban areas or go medieval on prison inmates to soften them up? None of this took place without a finding or thumbs up from the associated intelligence activity. It never ceases to amaze me how the American brand of bureaucracy can sometimes out-Soviet the Soviet system when it comes to a penchant for micromanagement of details that in the end don’t matter but still manage to make things worse in the aggregate….
The intelligence system suffers from the same problem the rest of the Federal government suffers from: a consistent reward for failure and a perverse incentive to ensure a solution is not found and if it is, it remains well hidden. Additionally, a tendency to centralized decision-making, administrative bloat and sheer incompetence. One clear example is the abysmal lack of analysts’ language capabilities in their areas of expertise. Can you read translated reports or newspapers from a targeted country and get a true feel for the culture and driving factors in behavior? Does the frisking of Iraqi women and children at checkpoints and mass disarmament of the Arab male culture betray sensitivity to cultural hot buttons? I could go on with legions of examples but you get the picture — the US intelligence agencies are like a blind and naked man batting at a piñata, which is actually a hornet’s nest. Our pasty-faced, well-fed and squeaky clean analysts (are we sure they don’t have a labor union?) comfortably ensconced in Central Intelligence Agency or Defense Intelligence Agency cubicles will spend hours perfecting typos in full-color PowerPoint presentations for their bosses and maybe mere moments on the substance of the intelligence puzzles they are working on. Of course, much like the scene in the brilliant "Life of Brian," the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea are mortal enemies bent more on each other’s destruction than the common threat. There is no more fit analogy for America’s current intelligence woes.
Is it true the Abu Ghraib prison scandals were as bad as is now claimed? I suspect the worst is yet to come. You combine the sheer obsequious idiocy of contemporary intelligence, the institutional proclivity of cops to dehumanize their assigned targets and the natural barbarity of prison confinement. I happen to think American prisons are much the same, given the number of political prisoners (unconstitutional laws), non-violent offenders (Drug War) and the overlooked pathology of prison rape (a wink and a nod by the corrections industry). The lethal combination of the feminization of the military, American exceptionalism to the Law of Land Warfare, the Israelization of American military tactics in Iraq, dehumanization of Iraqi civilians and sheer exhaustion of the only combat organizations the US can field in the world is setting the stage for a US debacle in which if we don’t leave soon, we will revisit the march of Xenophon but with much more unpleasant results. Remember what Lawrence achieved after he escaped the Turks? I wonder how many of the Abu Ghraib prisoners who are paroled alive will return with a vengeance.
William Buppert [send him mail], a retired Army officer, lives on a ranch in the Inland Northwest with his wife and their three homeschooled children.