By Michael Davidow, Radio Free New Hampshire
A decent young man named Eugene Sledge joined the Marines during the Second World War and fought in several stunningly violent campaigns. He noticed that his fellow Marines had developed the habit of mutilating the enemy corpses they came across in different ugly ways. The Japanese did the same to American corpses. The level of hate between those two armed forces could not have been higher. In the aftermath of one engagement, he decided to join in. His unit’s corpsman watched him warily as he pulled out his kabar knife and prepared to chop out a dead combatant’s gold teeth. “Don’t do that,” his friend told him quietly, to which he replied, “why not?” “Because you don’t want to,” came the answer. “And what would your parents think if they knew?”
Sledge decided to stop. You can read the whole story in his memoir, “With The Old Breed,” first published back in 1981.
I thought of him the other day, anyway, when Gina Haspel was confirmed as the CIA’s new director. Earlier in her career, Haspel oversaw a torture facility. Later in her career, she oversaw the destruction of the evidence of the torture she had previously overseen. At her confirmation hearings, she gave some mealy-mouthed promise to not torture people the next time, and when that didn’t fly, she gave a slightly less mealy-mouthed promise that she really meant it. So now, Ms. Haspel has the helm. Three interesting things about this business:
First, be aware that an inmate at Guantanamo who had personally been tortured by the CIA kindly offered to give testimony to Congress about Ms. Haspel’s qualifications. He was rebuffed. But don’t you find his faith in our system to be touching? That Guantanamo still exists, of course — that running sore in America’s side– is proof enough that Ms. Haspel is right where she belongs, but we’ll get there in a minute.
Second, Arizona Senator John McCain made news in this debate for strongly opposing Haspel, in the apparent belief that a former torturer should not be chief of the CIA, regardless of whether she can come up with a mealy-mouthed non-apology or not. Few other Republicans joined him, but still. It was news.
And third, Haspel explained that she herself could not “second guess” those who made the big decisions in this regard, because that would be unfair.
I think she’s right. Our country has a formal procedure for second-guessing things like that. It has several, in fact. In the military, it’s called the “court martial system.” In the civilian world, it’s called “the criminal justice system.” And in the CIA, it’s called “promotion.”
We have not always been so shy. When McCain was young, for instance, we took another young officer named William Calley to task when he and his unit killed an entire village, in what came to be called the My Lai Massacre. He was convicted of being responsible for those deaths, and the investigation into that incident went up the chain of command, too. Others were tried, some were convicted, some got a reprieve, and speaking generally, nobody seemed to have had their careers boosted by the publicity. What can I say; it was a different day. I would also note that Calley’s sentence was eventually commuted, so he never did much time. He was widely seen as the tool of others. People suspected he was following orders.
Haspel, of course, was helping to give orders. She herself did not turn the water taps on and off, when her goons were fake-drowning people. She was just watching; clearly approving; and we’ll never know if she was smiling, too, because she made sure to destroy that evidence. But again, this a different day.
Moving along, Senator McCain also made news the other day for inviting friends over to watch his favorite movie, which turned out to be The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a western from 1962 directed by John Ford, with John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Lee Marvin. It follows one of the classic story-lines of this genre: lawlessness reigns in a frontier town; progress is making inroads, with churches, and farms, and womenfolk, and the townspeople want progress, but their goals are threatened by that lawlessness; and it takes a lawless man who sympathizes with the progress-lovers, to finally rid the town of its enemy. With a tone of sorrow predominating, because there is no place left for that lone hero to go, after he does his job. Because progress can’t thrive in the presence of his kind. See also (among many other variations on this theme) Shane, High Noon, and The Wild Bunch.
Now perhaps McCain sees himself as that iconic straight-shooter, the man of violence who is capable of gentleness, on whom the others all depend, whether they want to or not. Or perhaps he knows better, and sees himself instead as the product of generations of gentleness– which no longer needs to be protected with violence, but instead requires order, and respect, and firmness of purpose. Either way, we can wish the senator well. And either way, we can see Gina Haspel playing her own role, too: contentedly pulling out an enemy’s teeth.
Michael Davidow is a lawyer in Nashua. He is the author of Gate City, Split Thirty, and The Rocketdyne Commission, three novels about politics and advertising which, taken together, form The Henry Bell Project. His books are available on Amazon.