THE BUCK stops here. - Quote attributed to President Harry S. Truman, expressing the notion that ultimate accountability rests with the chief executive of the United States.
The buck doesn't even begin to slow down here. - Anonymous quote, but one which, if there were truth in governing, should be constantly on the lips of President Bush.
Josuel Queiroz, the tour guide responsible for taking me to various parts of Salvador, the capital city of the Brazilian state of Bahia, had a question for me as we ate lunch one day last week. The topic of U.S. military personnel abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison had come up, although I was praying it wouldn't.
"How can Americans go to Iraq and claim to fight for democracy," Queiroz asked, "and do these things?"
"Ya gotta love the irony, don't ya?" I answered.
Actually, "irony" isn't quite the issue in the national angst, hand-wringing, finger-pointing and guilt-tripping that Americans have engaged in since the photos of naked prisoners in abusive and humiliating poses were first aired. The issue is what, exactly, did the hand-wringers expect? Were these folks born at night and, more specifically, last night? Just what did they think a "war on terror" would involve anyway?
They should have been thinking about how a war on terrorism was depicted in one particular film - Gillo Pontecorvo's 1966 masterpiece The Battle of Algiers - which graphically detailed how French paratroopers fought Algerians in the Front de Liberation National.
When the commander of the paratroopers tells his men that the method for breaking up FLN terrorist cells will be "interrogation," they all know what he means, especially because he followed it with this caveat: "Interrogation is a method only when it guarantees a reply. To succumb to humane considerations only leads to hopeless chaos. I'm sure our units will understand and act accordingly."
The paratroopers "acted accordingly" by torturing FLN guerillas into giving up information about other members of terrorist cells.
According to French Gen. Paul Aussaresses, in his 2002 memoir The Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in Algeria, 1955-1957, the methods worked. Within two years, all FLN operatives in what was then the capital city of France's North African colony were dead or in prison. Of course, history tells us that despite the dismantling of terrorist cells, the French lost Algeria.
But let's be clear why those terrorists ended up dead or in prison. They killed French soldiers, policemen and civilians. Pontecorvo's film depicted the Algerian FLN fighter Omar Ali, a.k.a. "Ali la Pointe," as a hero. Aussaresses said he was nothing more than a common murderer and thug.
Deroy Murdock, a columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service and a contributing editor with National Review Online, recently talked to Capt. Mark Doggett, a member of the Australian Army that is part of the coalition forces fighting in Iraq. According to Murdock, Doggett said the photos of the abused prisoners came from cellblocks 1-A and 1-B, which house those prisoners who've killed soldiers in the coalition forces and Iraqi civilians.
So it's not innocent farmers laboring in poverty who were in those pictures. Many of these people were the bad cats, the ones who've murdered and maimed and who, if they didn't have valuable intelligence information to provide, may have simply been lined up against a wall and shot.
(Think twice before you emit any gasps of horror. A recent History Channel program on the Werewolves - the Nazis who attacked Allied Forces after World War II ended - said many of them were lined up against the wall and shot. I don't hear anyone complaining about the results.)
The entire point of the abuse was to get some of these guys to talk. I can't say I'm surprised by what happened at Abu Ghraib. What surprises me is the willingness of President Bush to throw the soldiers involved in it to the wolves and absolve himself of responsibility. The "buck doesn't even slow down" at his desk.
The entire Abu Ghraib affair is taking on a Breaker Morant quality. That's another film, which, like The Battle of Algiers, is one where art imitates an all-too-terrifying life.
In Breaker Morant, three British soldiers fighting in the Boer War execute some Boer prisoners. The soldiers claim they were following a policy handed down from higher up. The higher-ups deny it, of course, much as the generals and our secretary of defense and our president have run for cover.
What Bush should have done is to tell the American people exactly the kinds of despicable actions we, as a nation, would have to take to win in Iraq. Then we could go to the polls in November and vote based on some information given to us 140 years ago.
War, it turns out, is exactly what William Tecumseh Sherman said it was.