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Guantánamo: The Subject Was Linens

“Whoever battles monsters should take care not to become a monster too, for if you stare long enough into the Abyss, the Abyss stares also into you.”
                                    — Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

“Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us — and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.”
                                    — John F. Kennedy, January 9, 1961

Hunger strikes, restraint chairs, forced feedings, beatings, sexual humiliation, sensory bombardment and deprivation, and three Guantánamo detainees commit suicide.  And the United States accuses them of not playing fair.  A PR stunt, snapped one official.  Another called it “an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.”  A ruse, headlined the ever-compliant, never-embarrassed New York Times.  The men had hung themselves with their own bed linens, giving immediate and horrific resonance to the term “winding sheets,” not that anyone noticed.  The general in charge, a Rumsfeldian poodle named Bantz Craddock, focused on perhaps having provided the three unfortunates too many “comfort items.”  He noted the importance of “striking a balance between the comfort items that we would like to provide . . . and the comfort items . . . that could contribute to taking their lives.”  He made no mention of such “comfort items” now so faintly redolent of a civilized society as legal representation, due process, humane treatment of human beings, or protection under the Geneva Convention.

There yawns the gap between what was (or should have been) taught to military commanders and their fighting forces regarding the rules of war and what has been relentlessly impressed upon them by the Bush administration.  The Pentagon, to wit, Rumsfeld, has even removed language banning “humiliating and degrading treatment” of prisoners from the Army Field Manual.  The while, the vice president of the United States continues to champion the importance of not specifying the limits of interrogation techniques since it would give an advantage to the enemy.  One wonders the degree to which Cheney would darken the already macabre behavior and language of the American military presence in Iraq.  All this adds yet another nail into the quaint coffin of the Geneva Convention, therein residing the decaying honor of the United States of America.  For the curious, our website ( details the various laws, conventions, protocols, resolutions, charters, and principles violated by order of the Bush administration, a grotesque laundry list indeed.  We have invaded countries and killed their citizenry for far lesser offenses.

Among the principles buried with the Geneva Convention is the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which deals with the obligation of military personnel to follow “lawful” orders.  Therein, Sections 891.ART.91 (2) and 892.ART.92 (1) and (2) are (or should be) of particular concern for our military, since it presumes a similar obligation to NOT follow “unlawful” orders.  For information on unlawful orders (and it is copious), Army Field Manual 27-10, The Law of Land Warfare, is chillingly relevant.  See sections dealing with the bombardment of a civilian population and “grave breaches” that include willful killing, torture, and inhuman treatment.

Similarly interred must be the Articles of the Code of Conduct, the behavioral guidelines of the American fighting forces.  Article III is of particular interest, both immediate and ironic, for it warns of the ruthless enemies of the United States who have “regarded the POW compound as an extension of the battlefield” and “used physical and mental harassment, general mistreatment, torture, medical neglect, and political indoctrination against POWs.”

“We have met the enemy and he is us,” once opined Pogo, the philosopher-possum of long pastcartoon fame.

Today, the abyss stares into us.

James C. Ryan
James C. Ryan, USMA, 1962


James C. Ryan is a co-founder of West Point Graduates Against The War.  He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy, class of 1962.  Ryan spent five years in the army artillery with assignments in the United States and Europe.  Thereafter a businessman, he subsequently became a writer.  He divides his time between Istanbul, Turkey where he lives, and New York City where he teaches in the summer at Columbia University.  Father of four, Jim has eight grandchildren.

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