American News

General Petraeus and the Question of Torture

Everyone knows war is hell, but as Sartre implied and General Petraeus now affirms, hell is what other people think of you.
David Petraeus, US news, war on terror, US torture, Abu Ghraib, Iraq, Bush administration, America, Iraq war, Peter Isackson

© SanchaiRat / Shutterstock

September 15, 2021 11:09 EDT

The end of the US engagement in Afghanistan has produced a moment of reckoning for the nation. Everything to do with that war will inevitably be reviewed by commentators. Its origins in the 9/11 attacks of 2001 are already the focus of everyone’s attention. So is its crucial role as the intended prelude to the real war in Iraq. There are other important considerations, such as the evolution that led to replacing the previous generation’s carpet bombing strategies with drone warfare or the far more complex question of how the tragedy of war serves the interests of the military-industrial complex.

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Then there is torture. The Bush administration preferred to call it “enhanced interrogation” and considered it essential to the success of all their overseas missions. Last week, Tyler Weyant, Politico’s deputy operations director, sought the views of a retired general and former CIA director, David Petraeus, on the topic of “what went wrong after 9/11.” Weyant specifically raised the question of enhanced interrogation. The general responded with this simple assertion: “That very much damaged our reputation.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:


The entirely superficial impression of possessing good standing in society closely linked to success, which, in the modern era, has definitively replaced the discarded notions of honor and moral quality former civilizations used to judge a person’s integrity

Contextual Note

Reputation wasn’t the only casualty of the US military’s practice of torture. Petraeus added that on the diplomatic level, “it damaged our relationships with countries in which we had black sites.” This is a secondary effect the media rarely mention in their reporting about the US military’s practice of torture. Petraeus appears to assert that the black sites are not problematic in themselves or would not be if they remained black, which means obscured from view. 

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Black sites only become problematic when the media gets wind of them, as happened in 2004 when the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke. What Petraeus finds regrettable is the effect on the allies the US asked to host such sites. After all, these nations too have reputations to defend. Being associated with sadistic foreign criminals may not play too well among their own people. Their complicity in hosting US sites dedicated to torture is simply damaging for their PR. That in turn becomes detrimental to the interests of the US itself, since it might in the future cool the appetites of those governments to cooperate with Washington on other illegal operations. At least Guantanamo is in a country the US doesn’t care about and with whom it refuses to cooperate. 

This line of reasoning demonstrates another feature of today’s political morality. In earlier times, political entities, whether governed by kings or princes, used torture not just to extract information, but also and perhaps primarily to intimidate and inspire fear. Machiavelli identified that goal as a basic need of any successful ruler. It was more important that the use of torture be known than hidden. 

Times have changed. Reputations are now created and maintained exclusively through the media. The fear and trepidation governments can create today derives from the expensive, visibly impressive and instrumentally oppressive technology they use to establish and enforce their control over their own population as well as inspire fear in their potential enemies. The technology includes weaponry used by the army and the police, but also increasingly powerful and pervasive surveillance technology.

In other words, torture as an official means of inspiring fear has become obsolete and is even seen as shameful. It has developed a public image identified with barbarity and the evil practices of primitive societies. If a government resorts to torture today, its interest is to avoid bringing it to the attention of the media.

The official moral status of public institutions and personalities, as well as the range of values that contribute to an individual’s or an institution’s moral status, no longer derive from the values promulgated by recognized moral authorities, whether religious or philosophical. The media alone holds the power to determine whether its public approves or disapproves of certain types of action.

Historical Note

With the advent of the global war on terror, the Bush administration invented the term enhanced interrogation simply to distract the public from perceiving it as torture. The fact that war was no longer conducted against an army but against the abstract notion of “terror” meant that it wouldn’t be the tortured people who suffer but terror itself.

The movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” released at the end of 2012, less than a year after the Navy SEALs’ killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, exemplifies Hollywood’s habitual collaboration with the CIA and the Pentagon. With the same earnestness as many other media productions designed to influence the public’s perception of the necessity of resorting to aggressive tactics in the interest of stifling terrorists, the film specifically sought to make enhanced interrogation appear as useful and productive, and therefore morally acceptable. 

In 2016, Slate reported that David Petraeus, who had resigned from the CIA only a month before the movie’s release, was at the time opposed to torture and might have spoken out about the movie. “When the film Zero Dark Thirty was released in December 2012, some of Petraeus’ friends encouraged him to speak out against its claim that information gleaned through torture led the way to finding Osama Bin Laden—a thesis he knew to be untrue.” At the time, however, Petraeus was embroiled in the scandal around an adulterous affair with his biographer that provoked his resignation. He said nothing. The film critics praised the film. Torture maintained its positive reputation.

On the subject of the Democrats’ judgment of the practice of torture by the Bush administration, Adam Serwer writing for The Atlantic in 2018 noted that Barack Obama summed up his position on torture before taking office, maintaining that “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” Throughout his eight years in the White House, Obama maintained a policy of refusing to hold anyone accountable for torture. Enhanced interrogation was no longer encouraged or celebrated, as it was by the Bush team. It was tolerated and even secretly admired.

With Donald Trump in the White House, the tide began turning against the practice of torture, even in Hollywood. Democrats realized that if it was left in the toolbox of someone as odious as Trump, there was reason to be worried. In 2018, Fox News brought back George W. Bush’s former vice-president, Dick Cheney, to explain that there was no reason to worry. “I think the techniques we used were not torture,” Cheney said. “A lot of people try to call it that, but it wasn’t deemed torture at the time. People want to go back and try to rewrite history, but if it were my call, I’d do it again.”

No longer mired in scandal and with Trump out of the picture, Petraeus can now speak openly about the nefarious effect of torture on the nation’s PR. “The use of enhanced interrogation techniques in other places then found their way into, in a way, Abu Ghraib,” he noted. That was indeed a shocking moment when the public could see what enhanced interrogation actually looked like. Without the investigative reporting of Seymour Hersh, Abu Ghraib would have remained a secret. But even after that monumental scandal, the practices continued and could be justified years later by Hollywood.

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One is left wondering what Petraeus meant by “in a way” when mentioning that torture techniques “found their way into, in a way, Abu Ghraib.” The very idea of torture finding its way, as if it was some kind of sentient being should surprise the reader. But “in a way” sounds as if he believes that it would have been better if Hersh’s reporting had never happened.

Petraeus added another observation, noting that the US military “‘overly relied on drones in the effort in western Pakistan in 2009 to 2011,’ in some cases creating more enemies that the drones eliminated.” Once again, it isn’t the lives lost or damaged that merit his concern, but the fact that such acts may create new enemies. 

Whether it’s an individual or an institution, managing one’s reputation has never been easy. It’s something generals and CIA directors fully understand.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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