By Eli Hastings, author of Falling Room
hen the news of the triple suicide at Guantanamo Prison came through my earphones, I stopped in the middle of crossing the street. I live in Barcelona—in Barcelona, this is a bad idea. I’m from Seattle (where it’s ok to stop in the middle of the street), and there was a part of me that wished I were home, so I would have a crowd of similarly upset Americans to pick this apart with. But there was the other part of me that was glad I was nine thousand miles away from the Orwellian fever dream that America is tilting toward.
I jumped out of the way of a handful of beeping Vespas in time.
Allow me to clarify: I wasn’t stopped in my tracks by the mere fact of
suicide at the gulag. I was stopped in my tracks by the military’s
statements: this was “an act of war” and “a publicity stunt.” The
levels on which this response is appalling, absurd, and offensive are
many, most of which I’m not qualified to comment on.
Let me leave aside the wounds that this language might cause to someone
who’s suffered the suicide of a loved one. Let me leave aside
discussion of the Geneva Conventions, human rights, the Constitution or
any other compromising institutions that might have something to say.
Let me leave aside the fact that one of the dead men was due to be
released—and thus presumably innocent—and no one had bothered to tell
him; let me leave aside the fact that he was a child when he arrived at
Guantanamo. In fact, let me leave aside all discussion of the
practices of mass, illegal detention, extraordinary rendition, torture,
etc., lest I be dismissed as a bleeding heart. There are more than
enough qualified bloggers on both sides of the issue to puree all of
are saddled with two very different and equally awful explanations for
these deaths: if we believe that they were acts of desperation and
despair, the only exit that these men saw from the hell of their lives,
this indicates a horribly high degree of cruelty on the part of the
United States military. If, on the other hand, we take this as the
U.S. military would like us to, as a political act, an “act of war,”
then we confront an even more chilling reality.
reasoning here—which one military spokesman made explicit—is that these
men and those like them simply value human life less than “we” do.
That they are willing to capriciously and maliciously throw away even
their own lives for a little sharp-elbowed PR. My Vietnam Studies
course came bullwhipping back into my mind and I dug up the quote that
this recalled, by General William Westmoreland in 1974, at the close of
his tenure in the Vietnam War:
”The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient."
This statement shocked and scandalized people when they heard it in
its day. Fewer noticed its echo in 2004 from our Commander in Chief on
the campaign trail:
”We’re dealing with an enemy that has no conscience.… These people
are brutal. They — they’re the exact opposite of Americans. We value
life and human dignity. They don’t care about life and human dignity.
We believe in freedom. They have an ideology of hate. And they’re
tough, but not as tough as America."
Our President is at least half-right: they are tough. And he’s
raised the question: are they tougher than us? Is it possible—and
simply too terrifying to confront—that they are, perhaps, tougher than
us? Were the North Vietnamese tougher than us? After all, we’re a
nation of comfort food and leather interiors, Lazyboys, hundreds of
television channels, stretch pants and waterbeds. Whatever one may
feel about our amorphous “enemy,” it is rather inarguable that the foot
soldier legions (if that’s even who those three men were) hail from
hot, dusty places of hardscrabble poverty (or absolute destitution),
and vicious repression. This might, arguably, make one “tough.”
But maybe “tough” isn’t the right qualifier; maybe what we’re really
talking about is dedication. We can call prisoner suicides—and suicide
bombers—“insane” and “brainwashed” (a bit hard to buy when someone has
been in our custody for years) and “madmen” till the troops come home.
But be that as it may they also happen to be willing to sacrifice their
lives for their cause. But wait—isn’t that what we’re asking of our
young men and women bleeding their blue blood all over the desert?
That they sacrifice for what “we” believe in? For “Democracy” and
“Freedom?” Tricky, ill-defined objectives, sure—but how do they
compare to those of our “enemies” who cry out for an end to American
military presence in the Arab world? For a homeland for the
Palestinians? For the right to a theocracy on their own terms?
Clearly, I’m left with many questions. But what I’m sure of is that
the flippant sneer that the United States military offered in front of
those swinging corpses is emblematic of the disastrous depth of our
ignorance, myopia, and is precisely why we are, everyday more, in grave
danger. It would seem that the U.S. military has chosen to, through
the clumsy alchemy of their spokespeople, turn people who would rather
die than suffer our will into either madmen or nefarious publicists.
And in doing so the military fights what they see as the PR war. And
who knows? Maybe they’ll get better at it.
But at the end of the day, PR doesn’t win wars, if that’s indeed what
we’re fighting—and fighting it against an ever-swelling segment of
humanity. What wins wars are dedication and sacrifice and the simple
willingness to die in great numbers—if we didn’t learn that from
Vietnam, what did we?
This sacrifice that our “enemies” are willing to make has a strategic
companion beyond the fact of death, another element that fuels any
struggle onward: martyrdom. And over there on the island gulag, we
just witnessed the U.S. military midwife three more gigantic symbols of