Fighting Words

What Went Wrong

The flaw in Seymour Hersh’s theory.

The most surprising thing about Seymour Hersh’s latest New Yorker essay on the Abu Ghraib depravities is surely its title. It is headed “The Gray Zone.” Can that be right? It seems to be generally assumed that the work of the sniggering video-morons is black and white: one of the very few moral absolutes of which we have a firm and decided grasp.

But Hersh’s article wants to argue that the fish rots from the head, as indeed it very often does (even though, metaphorically speaking, one might think that the fish’s guts would be the first to decay). And in order to argue this top-down process, he decides to propose that it began with Sept. 11. “In a sense,” as he himself cautiously phrases it, this could arguably be true. As he reports:

Almost from the start, the Administration’s search for Al Qaeda members in the war zone, and its worldwide search for terrorists, came up against major command-and-control problems. For example, combat forces that had Al Qaeda forces in sight had to obtain legal clearance before firing on them. On October 7th,the night the bombing began, an unmanned Predator aircraft tracked an automobile convoy that, American intelligence believed, contained Mullah Muhammed Omar, the Taliban leader. A lawyer on duty at the United States Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, refused to authorize a strike. By the time an attack was approved, the target was out of reach.

Hersh has reported this tale before, along with the furious reaction that Donald Rumsfeld displayed when he heard the news. And, as he further reminds us, the Washington Post “reported that, as many as ten times since early October [2001], Air Force pilots believed they’d had senior Al Qaeda and Taliban members in their sights but had been unable to act in time because of legalistic hurdles.”

These, and many other bureaucratic and butt-covering obstacles, according to Hersh and others, engendered such frustration at the top of the Pentagon that ruthless methods were discreetly ordered and discreetly applied. Thus, from the abysmal failure to erase Mullah Omar comes the howling success in trailer-porn tactics at Abu Ghraib.

More than one kind of non sequitur is involved in this “scenario.” And very obviously, the conclusion can exist quite apart from the premises. (There would have been sadistic dolts in the American occupation forces in Iraq, even if there had not been wavering lawyerly fools in the Tampa center that was monitoring Afghanistan.) One needs to stipulate, once again, that the filthy images from Abu Ghraib are not bad because they look bad, but bad because they are bad. Yet is it as obvious as it seems that only the supporters of the war have any questions to answer here?

I ask this because, in the news cycle that preceded the Iraq atrocities, the administration was being arraigned from dawn until dusk for the offense of failing to take timely measures against the Taliban and al-Qaida. I hardly need to recapitulate the indictment here. We had our chance to see it coming, and to see where it was coming from, and the administration comprehensively blew all these chances, from the first warnings of suicide-hijacking to the cosseting of Saudi visa applicants. I might add that I completely agree with all these condemnations and wrote about many of them (including the spiriting of the Bin Laden relatives out of the country during a “no-fly” period imposed upon the rest of us) at the time.

But there is no serious way of having this cake and scarfing it. I remember a debate I had with Michael Moore—the newly crowned king of the Cannes Film Festival—at the more modest location of the Telluride Film Festival in 2002. Ridiculing the Bush administration’s policy, he shouted that it had gone into Afghanistan to get Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar. “Mission NOT accomplished!” he added, to roars of easy applause. I asked myself then, and I repeat the question now: Would the antiwar camp have approved the measures necessary to ensure those goals? If they will the end, will they will the means? Would they taunt that lawyer in Tampa, as they taunt the supporters of regime change, with living a quiet life at home while others die in the field? Isn’t the refusal to take out the leaders of al-Qaida a bit of a distraction from the struggle against al-Qaida?

As it happens, dear reader, I know the answers to those questions as well as you do. And that is partly why the Abu Ghraib nightmare is such a source of demoralization and despair. Thugs and torturers, who are always on tap in limitless supply, do their work in the dark and, when caught, plead exceptional circumstances. It’s as if they are on an urgent self-appointed mission. But the battle against Islamic jihad will be going on for a very long time, against a foe that is both ruthless and irrational. This means that infinite patience and scruple and intelligence are required, as well as decisiveness and bravery. Given this necessary assumption, all short-cut artists, let alone rec-room sadists, are to be treated, not as bad apples alone, but as traitors and enemies. If Rumsfeld could bring himself to say that, he could perhaps undo some of the shame, and some of the harm as well.


So a Sarin-infected device is exploded in Iraq, and across the border in Jordan the authorities say that nerve and gas weapons have been discovered for use against them by the followers of Zarqawi, who was in Baghdad well before the invasion. Where, one idly inquires, did these toys come from? No, it couldn’t be. …