Exposé Reveals Little

Larry Siems, The Torture Report: What the Documents Say About America’s Post-9/11 Torture Program

OR Books, 460pp, £15, ISBN 978-1-935928-55-3

reviewed by Hugh O'Shaughnessy

As the real history of the last years of British rule in Kenya has been seeping out recently with the cases of the victims coming at last to the British courts, I have been forced to think of what my own position as a junior infantry officer would have been if, as could well have happened, I had been sent to that country during my two compulsory years of National Service in the mid-1950s. Would I have been ordered to take part in any of the atrocities against black Kenyans that evidently took place at that time? If that had been the case, would I have a carried such orders from my superiors out uncomplainingly? Would I have refused to do so, and so run the risk of being ostracised or punished?

In the event my last months in the army before I went up to Oxford were passed uneventfully enough on security duties at Hounslow on the outskirts of London. I lived not in barracks but in lodgings with a landlady a few hundred yards away at the end of a trolleybus route which, when needed, took me rapidly back to my parents’ home near Kew Bridge. Yet I remain unutterably curious about the affair and can’t stop thinking about it. So I was naturally interested to hear of the recent publication of The Torture Report: What the Documents Say About America’s Post-9/11 Torture Program by Larry Siems, who is the director of the PEN American Centre’s Freedom to Write and International Programmes. Though packed with information, Siems’ study offers disappointingly little in the way of fresh insight.

The books’s lumbering and inelegant title gives a clue to the lumbering and inelegant prose within the covers. Despite its well-intentioned purpose it will tax the determination of all but the most devoted readers, committed though we might be to the pursuit of torturers. Its 466 pages consist of a formless and rather haphazard interpretation of the trail of illegality on which the author’s country set out, with aid from the ineffable Tony Blair, the British prime minister, after the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York. Their aim was to break and annihilate those who had anything to do with the attack. The first heights that the two governments set out to capture were linguistic: they appropriated the word ‘terror’ exclusively for their opponents’ actions at the same time as they tried - and, before the revelations about the torture centre at Abu Ghraib, succeeded in - giving the impression that ‘the allies’ were never guilty of ‘terror’. In such a struggle for linguistic hegemony it is not surprising that Siems’ text is strewn with official messages in which much is censored – or, in the euphemistical US parlance, ‘redacted.’

What the author does do frighteningly well is to emphasize the self-absorption of the US officials in their task. Not only do they seem careless of the effects of the techniques of downright bestiality they were employing, they appear genuinely unaware that they were committing any crimes at all. This US attitude was powerfully brought home to me in the context of my study of Cuba and its struggle against Washington. There I found that the whole weight of US descriptions of and commentary upon the illegal attack in 1961 on the island at the Bay of Pigs had to do with the reasons for its failure. There was little or nothing about the legality or otherwise of an operation which blatantly was against the most fundamental tenets of international law. This set of circumstances is brought out clearly by Anatol Lieven in his America Right or Wrong (Oxford University Press, 2004) and masterfully in Philippe Sands’ Lawless World (Viking, 2005).

Regrettably, Siems chooses not to explore these avenues: instead, he gives us a slew of biographical information about the political and military figures who were the architects of this time of torture, the Bushes, the Rumsfelds, the General Millers and the Yoos. At one point Mr Siems dismissively cites a US captor’s remark about his prisoners: ‘Some of these guys literally don’t know the world is round.’ Sadly the same could be said of the author of this book, who shows little indication of any real familiarity with the world outside the United States; or indeed, outside the Washington Beltway.
Hugh O'Shaughnessy contributed for decades to the Observer and the Financial Times. He is the author of Grenada: Revolution, Invasion and Aftermath and Pinochet: the Politics of Torture.