Michael's Dispatches

On Joe Galloway


Last week, I was invited by Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, one of the world’s leading experts on al Qaeda, to speak to a group of about two dozen experts and graduate students at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore. This was a closed-door talk, and I was speaking alongside a close friend of mine who is an expert on Afghanistan. The room was filled with people from countries like India, Singapore, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. None of these countries enjoy the freedom of speech that we have in America. No writer from any of these countries could dare publish the things that I can freely publish, or that readers can freely publish as comments. Singapore is a great ally of the United States and one of my favorite destinations. The people are well educated, peaceful and diverse. Still, our friends in Singapore do not have freedom of speech. Despite the limits of expression that they live under, this group of experts and graduate students in Singapore asked some of the most well-informed questions I have heard about the war in Iraq. No doubt, there were some who disapproved of America’s involvement in Iraq, but how can we challenge our own views if we do not listen to others who disagree with us? One of the main reasons we made so many mistakes in Iraq was that high officials in the Bush Administration were often afraid of the truth and viewed a serious foreign policy question with ideological blinders. Instead of honestly appraising the facts on the ground, they saw only what they wanted to see. And instead of encouraging candor and even dissent, they ignored or attacked those who disagreed with them.

Groupthink can be deadly. In my book Danger Close I wrote about the Special Forces Qualification Course (Q-Course), which had a land navigation section so difficult that it caused many people to fail the course. I saw Vietnam combat veterans get lost on land navigation. They flunked the course. Sure, it wasn’t easy to make your way through swamps during heavy rains at midnight while freezing and carrying a heavy load. But worse than the physical challenges were the mental hurdles. Soldiers were strictly forbidden to cooperate with each other on this particular section. But they did it anyway, thinking that they would have a better chance as a group. And they were wrong. I saw soldiers form into groups. The most confident soldier would embark on an azimuth and the others would follow behind. They would all get lost because they were following a leader who was wrong. The soldiers who passed the course tended to be those who thought for themselves. Combat veterans get lost on land navigation.

Even though most of us seem to recognize the perils of groupthink, we still constantly fall into its trap. That’s human nature, our herding instinct, perhaps. Yet one thing that makes America so strong is our ability to break from the herd, or even turn it around. Back in 2005 I wrote what no one else dared to say, or didn’t see – even if it was painfully obvious – that Iraq was falling into civil war. During a period of peak casualties in mid-2007, when folks were saying the Surge had failed, I wrote and said on radio that the Surge appeared to be succeeding. In 2006, when I was in Afghanistan reporting that the war was being lost, many readers were angry. Now we have greater casualties in Afghanistan than in Iraq, while we have far fewer troops deployed to Afghanistan. I believe the war in Iraq is nearly over - knock on wood - while the war in Afghanistan is just getting started.

One way to foil groupthink is to listen to others. Really listen. Not just think up counterarguments while waiting for them to run out of breath. Listening to others does not mean we have to agree with their words. But it does mean respecting them enough to take what they say seriously, especially when we disagree with them. Honest and serious people do this. Meanwhile, there is a lot of noise on both ends of the American political spectrum that deserve our attention even if it is biased and wrong. Read the websites of the far-Right and Left-wing. These groups rarely, if ever, give a dissenting voice the chance to speak. Their sites are examples of groupthink run amok. That doesn’t mean the participants are dumb or bad. Often these sites are created by very smart people who got their brains caught in the ideological bear trap. Getting caught in a trap doesn’t make a bear dumb or deserving; traps tend to be well camouflaged. I saw a bear caught in a trap one time. Boy, was that bear mad. And it sure did stink. It crawled into a trap, right behind our tent in Cataloochee up in the mountains. We kids ran out with a flashlight and peered in at the angry bear. The rangers hauled it off the next day, saying they would release it far away. Some of these far-Right and far-Left websites are like bear traps, only we cannot release those people far away. We live with them, and often they are our friends and family, victims of ideology.

Ideologies traffic in received ideas, which give people the illusion of thinking, without actually having to do the hard work of thought. Received ideas, like some religious and cult beliefs, are not challenged, merely accepted, and repeated until they become so important to those who hold them that to challenge these ideas would be to question one’s very identity. People who hold received ideas seem to feel personally threatened by the prospect of being wrong. Instead of reading and listening to possibly change their minds, they seek to reinforce the received ideas they already hold dear. On the Left, one received idea is that the Iraq War is lost. On the Right, one received idea is that torture is acceptable. The Left is wrong. We are winning the war in Iraq. The Right is wrong. Torture is unacceptable.

There is no way to know how many American lives were lost in Iraq due to the tortures we inflicted upon Iraqis at Abu Ghraib and other places. This is no argument of moral equivalence. I have seen the atrocities committed by al Qaeda and other terrorists, and I am not saying that Americans have ever come close to those acts. New Yorkers saw the atrocities of al Qaeda, as did many others.

Yet, when we tortured detainees, we lost something very important, something that America and its allies need in order to prevail against terrorists, not just in Iraq, but all over the world. We scarred our honor.

Torture works. There is no doubt that we can squeeze information from people. A lot of people say that information derived from torture is useless and suspect, and, of course, torture can make someone say anything just to stop the pain. But the fact is, torture does work. That does not mean we should do it. While torture might provide tactical gains, it delivers a strategic blunder. Let’s not argue whether it works or not. Let’s have the hard argument – whether or not it’s consistent with our values. We can obtain short term benefits from using torture, but in the long run we inflict far more pain on ourselves. The scars of torture never heal. Conversely, when detainees are treated with respect, they never forget it. Obviously, there are some hardcore prisoners who should be kept locked away until they die, but there is a much larger part who just want to go back to life without war.

While stationed in Germany with the 10th Special Forces Group, I spoke to many older Germans. I speak German and many of the older Germans did not speak English. These men and women lived through World War II. They often apologized for the younger generation of Germans who did not respect the United States. They told me stories of their days as POWs under American control, and described the honorable and respectful treatment they received. One of my grandfathers was a guard on a ship that brought German prisoners to the United States. My grandfather said they treated the Germans well. When the ship steamed into New York, the Germans were astonished to see the city lights. They had been told that New York City was being bombed and was blacked out. When those young German soldiers were eventually released, they went on to become thousands upon thousands of ambassadors for the United States. It is difficult to convey how good it made me feel when old Germans would tell me that Americans, our grandparents, were honorable people, far more honorable than the Nazis who committed industrial-sized genocide. The Nazis broke all the rules, and we beat them, not only because of our superior resources and fighting abilities, but the strategic advantage of our values. Atrocities occurred on all sides, but at least we considered atrocities to be war crimes, even when committed by our own people. When our soldiers were convicted of rape, they were executed. Still, our “Greatest Generation” harbored ill feelings toward the “Japs.” These feelings lasted long after the war was over. Why? Because, the Japanese had tortured and murdered our people after they were captured. And no doubt partially because of these crimes, we detonated two nuclear weapons over Japanese cities.

But once we defeated the Axis, we helped rebuild their countries. Our Greatest Generation acted with honor and great wisdom. It was the right thing to do, but also the strategically intelligent thing to do. Now Germany and Japan are stable, prosperous democracies and close allies.

When this war is over in Iraq, we do not want a generation of Iraqis thinking that all we did was invade their country and torture and kill people. We want them to know that, despite whatever mistakes we made, we have no ill-feelings toward Iraqis. A lot of people call this type of thinking “naïve,” but I would argue it is the opposite of naiveté. We recognize that there is good and evil in every man. We seek to fight the evil while nurturing the good. We want the Iraqis to know that Americans are warriors, but not barbarians. They already know that our young folks will fight like wolverines. The Iraqi insurgents learned that lesson the hard way. American soldiers and Marines have died fighting, with great honor, to bring the region a step forward. By contrast, al Qaeda has murdered tens of thousands of Iraqis, and committed atrocities that have turned the people against them. Al Qaeda and other terrorists fight without honor. And simply put, that’s why we’re winning in Iraq. We recaptured the most important strategic territory in guerrilla war – the moral high ground, while never laying down our sword. Wars like Iraq and Afghanistan are fought not over land, but for the will of the people. If it was the land we wanted, and if we lacked goodwill and honor, these wars would have been simple matters. Yet we want something better for these nations and the world, as we did following World War II. Honor is never easy to uphold and savage behavior begets savage behavior. That’s why it’s important to remember that when we give up the moral high ground, we lose a fantastically important battle. And we have defeated ourselves.

Ask Colonel Ricky Gibbs (U.S. Army) about high ground. Colonel Gibbs told me the story of an Iraqi man who brought his sons to American soldiers, saying that he knew justice would be served. After an investigation, Colonel Gibbs kept one son and released the other. I have seen so many instances of Iraqis being relieved that American soldiers were holding their sons and not Iraqis, because Iraqis too often mistreat and even torture prisoners. And so, by the hand of his own father, an insurgent was taken off the streets. To defeat the terrorists, we need intelligence, which the people have and will only provide if they trust us. That father likely would never have turned in his sons if he thought we were dishonorable torturers.

Back in 2003-2004, when we were conducting mass arrests and torturing prisoners, al Qaeda and other enemies grew very strong, and our people suffered at the hands of an enemy that we were at least partially responsible for creating. We locked away huge numbers of Iraqis simply because they were “military aged” males (basically, anyone who had reached puberty) at the wrong place at the wrong time, which could be in their homes in a suspect village. I’ve seen men flex-cuffed without the slightest evidence, thrown to Iraqi “justice” and essentially lost. Now imagine that you or your son or husband or brother were arrested and tortured. You might have been neutral to begin with, but you and your entire family might soon learn to hate. Instead of picking up the phone when you saw an ambush being laid, you might simply call the kids inside and go back to washing dishes. Or you might set an ambush yourself.

That’s why I agree with Joe Galloway. He might be a mean old man, and he might be wrong about some things. Wrong in my mind, at least. But he’s right about torture. Now it’s time that our government make a clear and unambiguous promise to the world that Americans will not torture. If President Bush is concerned about a possible scenario where a terrorist under interrogation has precise knowledge of an imminent catastrophic attack, then he can always offer a presidential pardon to an interrogator who, resorting to torture, got accurate information that led to the thwarting of such an attack. In every other case, American government personnel or contractors who commit torture should be prosecuted under American law. And the President should make that clear. If the President believes torture is okay, then he should put his fingerprints on every approval he signs.

We can win without torture. President Bush saw the strategic advantages of the Surge when many thought the Iraq War was lost. Yet he refuses to categorically condemn and outlaw torture. His unwillingness to do so has put the United States and its allies at strategic disadvantage, one that will take us a long time to overcome. And it has cost American lives.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Carol · 13 years ago
    Just saw a new headline this morning: ISLAMABAD, Pakistan ƒ?? A gang of Pakistani militants executed two alleged U.S. spies in front of thousands of cheering supporters Friday as a top U.N. official expressed fears that Pakistani government peace deals with the gunmen were sparking a wave of human rights abuses.

    It's sad that you claim those of us on the "Right" are all about "groupthink" and "supporting torture". I don't read it that way. I read comments from human beings who are downright angry and sick of the daily stories of beheadings and murders in the name of Allah all over the world. Because so few positive stories come out in the mainstream media about our troops' successes in addition to seeing articles like Galloway's on your website, many in this country continue to this day to believe that we are torturing our enemy at this moment and we're losing this war. They continue to lose faith and are hating the war more and more each day. I will always wonder how different it would have been if the politicians who voted for the war would have continued to support our president and our troops throughout this war, especially when he made mistakes and when it wasn't going so well.

    I believe history will prove you wrong. All the politically-correct actions you want our brave men and women to take to somehow prove "we're better than them" may never stop the killings. No matter how well we treat the enemies, it may never change their ideology. It's embedded in their psyche for generations to come. I look forward to your dispatches after Obama takes office ... if he wins.

    It's interesting to read the comments from the "groupthink Right" angry with the murderers and then compare that with the comments by you and those who are angry/dissappointed/disgusted with our president, his administration, some of our troops and even people like me. Big difference.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Sarah F. · 13 years ago
    One of the best arguments I've read yet against an official policy of torture.

    In response to some of the subsequent comments, I would only point out this.

    Humans gravitate to the lower denominator, whether they're American or not. No war is perfectly ethical, and every circumstance is different.

    So there's a very big difference between understanding that in a time critical situation a gunny might smack a person to discover where an IED has been placed, and a specific POLICY allowing rough treatment. No one will condemn a gunny in that particular instance, so the policy is superfluous. But the policy will guarantee that other troops elsewhere will smack around people for sport, whom they know to be innocent -- and THAT works directly against us.

    There are people who have died from rough treatment in American hands, people who even military investigations show were not only innocent, but that were KNOWN to be innocent. I pray it is only a few, because I am assured that their families and close friends cannot be sympathetic to American goals. In those instances, instead of discovering information to lead to extremists, we actually created them.

    I write this, firmly convinced that in most circumstances, most of the time, American forces have behaved with restraint, and it was this demonstration of tough but ethical behavior which is turning the tide in Iraq.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jacob Linn · 13 years ago
    I don't think any rational person thinks any action we could take - short of mass conversion to Islam, maybe - will bring the hard core terrorists around to our side. The battle is not for their hearts and minds - it's for the hearts and minds of the regular people, the people who don't hate us. The people who will form their opinions of us based on how we act.

    They're the people who could be persuaded we're better than the enemy, and that we just want to live secure and free, and would like the same for them. They're also the people who could become convinced we're just another bunch of murdering scum, trying to use them to our advantage or force this or that ideology on them.

    That's what Michael and others mean when they say torture is bad strategically - if it convinces the average person that we're just as bad as AQI - or, in the days before AQI became known for the evil is is, worse - they'll either help AQI (or other terrorist groups in future conflicts) or, at best, sit the thing out. Either way, we lose. The only way to kill an insurgency with popular support is to get the populace to end their support - through persuasion, through our own terrorism, or through wiping them off the face of the planet.

    No, refraining from torture won't convince AQI to come over to our side. But it might some average Iraqis to come over to our side. And in the end, that's what we need to do.

    And as far as that father and his sons - yes, he didn't believe Abu-Graihb represented our true character, because it was an and distant incident, and he'd had contact with Americans - a certain group in particular - that had convinced him that that's not what Americans usually did to prisoners. If we'd made "torture", or even "rough interrogation tactics" a regular part of our treatment of prisoners, he might well have declined to turn in his sons at all.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Freedom Now · 13 years ago
    Are you telling your readers that we must be quiet if we disagree with Galloway in order to uphold some greater good?

    I agree that torture should not be used by our country and that waterboarding shouldnt be used.

    Yet I disagree with the majority of Gallowayƒ??s writing.

    Lets take a look at the Democratic Party for a momentƒ?? I agree with them on the issue of abortion rights, welfare, immigration, same sex marriage and as an atheist I am further to the left on the issue of religion than many of them.

    But I donƒ??t agree with almost any of their policies concerning Iraq.


    Michael, you admit that Galloway is a ƒ??mean old manƒ?. That meanness carries over into his writing. I have said in the past and I will say it againƒ??

    I have no problem with the inclusion of such agitprop (as Gallowayƒ??s rants) in this website as long as I am allowed to criticize Joeƒ??s work as harshly as he criticizes our government.

    Thank you for allowing me the opportunity.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    James F. McClellan · 13 years ago
    Wow! You really touched a lot of sore spots with this posting. The thing is, reading through the growing number of comments, I think that many of these folks are in agreement on the large issues but differ on the details. Maybe it was the comments about the "Right" and the "Left" the triggered the deluge.

    As for myself, I'm with you on the Torture issue Michael. Torture is not a choice for us. There is a "line" that we stand behind and shouldn't cross. Like Sarah F said; "...there's a very big difference between understanding that in a time critical situation a gunny might smack a person to discover where an IED has been placed, and a specific POLICY allowing rough treatment."

    Thanks for writing and thanks for posting the Crabby Old Guys stuff occasionally. I don't agree with him in the main but I do agree with some of his issues.

    Hey. Maybe that's the point?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    T Wright · 13 years ago

    In my comment on Joe's article I called him old and mentally unfit. I don't take those observations back. But, it offends me that anyone would assume I support "torture" because I didn't address my comments to that end. The message is understandable and logical--we should do our human best to take the "moral" high ground, I do believe that. However, let me be clear, I find it hard to listen to someone like Joe speak condescendingly about the "moral high ground", when they obviously lack a moral compass themselves and are blinded by hate and spew false accusations--like the President being guilty of torture.

    Conservatives do NOT say torture is okay--I too have NOT heard that from any conservative websites. I've heard it from Liberals who try to paint us Conservatives as barbaric. I agree with what others have mentioned here: what Republicans struggle with is the question of WHAT is torture. You yourself mentioned Michael that the ends justify the means (torture) if an imminent attack is averted. However, that line of thinking begs multiple questions, like:
    1. What if a series of intelligence obtained via torture helps avert imminent disaster--is the torture that led to a preservation of lives and peace via several incidences of torture (of possibly several individuals) still amoral then?
    2. What is the TRUE definition of torture--not the definition deemed useful for political purposes?
    . What if we take the "moral high ground" and don't "torture" at all and consequently we are attacked on our own soil again? What then? Would torture be temporarily okay then? If so, for how long?
    4. Are we fighting the same war as was fought during WW1, WW2, Korea, and even Vietnam? (No!)

    I'm asking questions that require a lot of thought and hopefully distill to the reader the complexity of the situation we face in fighting the war on terror. Anyone have ALL the answers? I think not--least of all myself. All I know is I want myself, my spouse, and my children to be safe. They are MY first priority. I respect and even love people of differing faiths, ethnicity, and moral codes but I know where my priorities lie. Perhaps, could this be what President Bush and the other leaders of his administration are doing--aligning their priorities and their top priority being the safety of the American people? Some times it is okay to draw a line in the sand, especially when there is REAL evil in the world and that evil threatens our families and our way of life.

    K, my 2 cents or 2 dollars, whatever it's worth.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    WebMaster · 13 years ago
    Comment #56 states: "You yourself mentioned Michael that the ends justify the means (torture)..." Mr. Yon did not write or say this.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    anon · 13 years ago
    Michael, while you are correct that we (in Singapore) do not have the equivalent of your First Amendment, speech is still relatively free here, compared to say, Saudi Arabia. Information is certainly mostly free. There are no obstacles to accessing news about non-domestic affairs -- for example, the Iraq war.

    Domestically, the usual caveats apply: no religious or racial incitement; the rules of common law defamation apply. Some would say that defamation suits are used by the government to chill political speech by opposition politicians, and I would agree. But that occupies only a fairly small sphere of public life and public speech here. To the extent that people engage in self-censorship because they fear broaching subjects of "sensitive" provenance, I would say that it is only slightly worse than the atmosphere of stiflement -- namely, political correctness -- that obtains in the West. Since nothing of global significance ever happens domestically, it doesn't really bother me. I hardly even read the local press, since news of interest is available online; and when I do read the local press for local news coverage, I take it with a fairly appropriate dose of salt.

    That said, the local press coverage of Asia, East Asia, and China especially -- is superb. None of that China-phobic nonsense we get from most of the Western press. Unfortunately, its coverage of the U.S. and the Middle East is unavoidably tainted by what it chooses to syndicate -- organs of the MSM in AFP, AP, and the like.

    I hope this explains how it is possible for people here to be more or less "informed" about foreign affairs while living in a relatively arid, constricted domestic speech environment. It's not such a paradox if you view this country as essentially open and porous to the world yet relatively uptight within its own borders on questions of local consequence.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mike O · 13 years ago
    The problem is the definition of torture is shaded and variable by culture. Is sleep deprivation torture? If so, I know a number of college professors who could be jailed for life.

    But I do like your idea in general. Every case of 'vigorous interrogation' could undergo independent military judicial review, with the potential of trial and conviction. Myselfy, I'd glady work over KSM and serve to 5 if need be to get what we got from him. The people in our military face death for intel; risking jail time if the information is critical enough should be a considered risk.

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