Harry Truman’s Choice and the Defenders of Torture

The fact that people are seriously arguing that the US can torture prisoners is deeply troubling.  It occurred to me that we can look at our own history – sending Japanese Americans to internment camps during World War Two, centuries of stealing Native American’s their land and sending them off to reservations and stealing their children and sending them to “Indian Schools” – and identify actions which are unambiguous historical and national crimes, but we can also identify far more ambiguous examples of a difficult, even horrific, moral calculus.

By 1945, it was clear that Japan was not going to emerge victorious from the war – there were simply too many factors working against them.  However, it was also clear that a victory would come only after long and difficult battles.  Harry Truman, thrust into the presidency unexpectedly and frankly unprepared (FDR never much cared for Truman but accepted him as VP to maintain party unity) was faced with horrible options.

The obvious option was an invasion of Japan.  Despite heavy bombing, the Japanese mainland had been left relatively functional (for instance food continued to be shipped internally). In preparing for an invasion, the Allies would have stepped up attacks on transportation systems in the Japanese islands.  Breaking the back of Japan’s national transportation infrastructure, would have plunged the Japanese population into mass starvation (as it was, there was widespread famine in Japan in 1946).  Japan’s governing junta was prepared to put citizens on the frontlines of an invasion.  An invasion of the Japanese homeland could easily have cost a million Allied soldiers and millions of Japanese citizens (I’ve read one article that estimated as much as 10% of Japan’s civilian population killed in battle – not counting those killed by starvation and bombing raids).  In addition, an invasion of Japan would have almost certainly have resulted in the deaths of all POWs being held by the Japanese.  Even faced with such a scenario, Japan’s leaders were convinced they could win a negotiated settlement that would leave them in power.

Truman could have informed the Japanes the US possessed atomic weapons and arranged a demonstration; I’ve never fully understood the reasons for not choosing this option but I also understand that such an option might easily have spurred the Japanese to develop nuclear weapons and then deploy them against the US (IIRC, Japan had two separate efforts to develop atomic weapons but they were hampered by bureacratic infighting).

Truman was concerned about the Soviet Union’s military and territorial ambitions in both Europe and Asia. A quick end to the war with Japan would present opportunities on that front.

Truman opted for the one scenario that seemed most likely to save the most lives: drop atomic bombs on a Japanese city.  I once read a description of all the strategic reasons for choosing Hiroshima and Nagasaki but I’m not sure they matter at this point.  Truman authorized the use of the atomic bomb against a Japanese city, with plans to drop a second bomb a few days later if the Japanese did not surrender.

As I undersatnd it, Japan’s leaders didn’t fully realize what they were facing; initially they suspected the city had been subjected to an attack using incediary devices or some new bombing strategy and discounted reports that a single bomb could have inflicted the damage the city suffered (their belief concerning the incendiary attack made sense given the massive conflagration that consumed much of Hiroshima).  After Nagasaki, Japan’s leaders realized that continued war meant not just military loss but national suicide.  Internal Japanese politics – including an attempted military coup – delayed Japan’s surrender a few days.  (I never really known but I suspect that the Allies were largley ignorant of Japan’s internal political struggles and circumstance.)

It’s entirely possible that Truman’s choice to use atomic weapons is not morally defensible.  The generally accepted explanation seems to hold – and I agree – that the use of such weapons saved millions of lives on both sides by ending the war more quickly.  The moral value is that the lost of two hundred thousand lives is preferable to the loss of millions.

The morality of using atomic weapons (and that’s not a phrase you ever expect to write) can only be established within a very specific historical context – the context of a war that had already lasted for years, that promised to last for years more and cost millions of lives and many more casualties. 

I’ve chosen this scenario because it really happened and it comes as close to any real world “ticking time bomb” scenario that defenders of torture like to offer.  Literally, Japan and the US were aiming guns at each other.  The suffering inflicted on the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was every bit as bad as the suffering torture would inflict on an individual.  Certainly, if hurting one person is bad, then hurting a hundred thousand is worse.

Torture’s proponents tell us that the use of torture would be limited to circumstances in which it would get information to save lives.  Truman’s use of the atomic bomb saved lives.

So, then, you might ask, am I defending the use of torture?  Not at all.  Even a basic examination of the two situations reveal deep and very differences.  The basic moral arguments concerning the two circumstances are radically different.

The issues of foreseeability and intention are crucial components in assessing the morality of actions.

In Marc Hauser’s book Moral Minds, he explores four scenarios.   The basic scenario is that there is a runaway trolley and the conductor has fainted and the trolley is going to run down five people on the track and kill them. 

The first scenario, a passenger on the Trolley can flip a switch and divert the trolley onto another track. 

In the second, a bystander can push a very fat man onto the track and that fat man will stop the trolley but the fat man will die.

I the third scenario, the fat man just happens to crossing the second track and he will be killed if someone diverts the trolley.

In the fourth scenario, there is a heavy object on the side track – if the trolley is diverted it will hit that object and be stopped but the same fat man from the earlier example has stepped onto the tracks just before the trolley is diverted.

(In what is sometimes called 2a, the very fat man just happens to be your arch-enemy and you realize that you’ll be saving the five lives but you also get to kill your enemy so you intend for him to die.)

Hauser summarizes the moral argument thus:

What emerges from these cases is a key insight:  It is impermissible to cause an intended harm if that harm is used as a means to a greater good.  In contrast, it is permissible to cause harm if that harm is only a foreseen consequence of intending to cause a greater good.

The argument for torture, at its least morally objectionable, generally turns on the notion that it is a regrettable necessity – we don’t want to torture someone, we just have no choice.  Torture, in this formulation, is a desperate response to dire circumstances.  The bad guy has hidden a ticking time bomb and won’t tell us where – we have to find out and must use any and all means necessary.  Torture in this moral outlook is a realistic response to a person so hardened, so hostile, so resistant to interrogation that only the use of torture will make him/her give up information.  It also proposes that torture be used in “extraordinary circumstances”, arguing in essence that some situations are so dire that it negates moral objections to torture – “Some maniac is going to release nerve gas in the subway at rush hour and you’re worried about hurting him?”  In essence, we have to stop something horrific and there should be no limit on what we do to stop it.

Such a scenario demands we examine it further.

The proposal is simple – a bad guy or group of bad guys have engaged in some evil act.  If we stop them now we prevent them doing something even worse.  At some point, one of them is taken in custody – we are racing against the clock and must get information from him; he will only respond to torture so we must torture him.

The exact details vary – in some cases there’s an actual bomb, in another they might be on the verge of gang raping and slicing and dicing some innocent girl, or they might have kidnapped the president’s little daughter and are holding her hostage . . . the details don’t matter.  The basic outline is always the same.

So, we have to examine the scenario.  

The ticking time bomb scenario presumes that the suspected criminal is without motive.  For instance, in the “rape and slice up” scenario, the person we’ve managed to arrest may only be going along with this plot to prevent the rest of the gang from doing the same thing to his daughter.  Of course, that means we won’t have to torture him – if we can credibly claim we will be able to save his daughter, he will probably tell us what we need to know to save the little girl. If for instance, he has a political grievance we can find a way a way to negotiate with him.  The scenario however asks us to believe that the person in question is simply and unquestionably a bad guy and is dedicated to doing bad things; it asks us to ignore that real people don’t act that way.  No one acts without motivation of some sort .

The scenario imagines that the person we have in custody is the right person, that he/she is part of the plot and has valuable information.  The scenario asks us to believe that somehow we know that we got the right guy – that we knew who it was, we were able to catch him before something bad happened.  It’s a huge assumption.  What did someone happen to notice a shifty eyed criminal and arrest him and the criminal mentioned in passing he was involved with the slice and dice plot?

It presumes that torture works – that the person being tortured will not lie, that he/she will tell us what we want to know.  Of course that assumption falls apart – the history of the European witch trials which produced god knows how many “confessions.”  Torture is a notoriously unreliable means of extracting accurate information.  Let’s say, just for discussions sake, we have the right person and he’s dedicated to seeing the crime through to the end.  He’s going to tell us all sorts of things that aren’t true to keep us chasing our tails until the bomb goes off or the little girl has been sliced and diced.

Finally, the scenario asks us to believe that the bad guy in question actually has useful information – he may be a genuine bad guy but he may not have been involved in planning this current plot or he may not have known the contingency plan that would kick in if one of the gang was arrested.

The ticking time bomb scenario is compelling for the same reason we listen to urban legends – its a good scary story.  It doesn’t ask us engage in a meaningful way with the world as it is or humans as they are.  The scenarios misleads us because it presumes the outcome.  If you go back to Hauser’s scenarios, he poses a situation, and then asks “If you do this, and that is the outcome, is it moral?”  The ticking time bomb scenario tries to limit the possible courses of action.

So to use Hauser’s approach:

We have the bad guy, we interrogate him in a nonviolent way, he tells us lies and we aren’t able to prevent the little girl from being sliced and diced.

We interrogate him and make a deal with him, which allows us to save the little girl from being sliced and diced.

We interrogate him a long time, we get no useful information, we resort to torture, he lies, we don’t prevent the little girl from being sliced and diced. 

We torture him, he gives up the information and we prevent the girl from being sliced and diced.

If you go back to Hauser’s summary, the question of intent is central to the moral question – with torture, there can be no doubt about the intent to inflict suffering.  As Hauser summarized it is permissible to cause harm only if that harm if a foreseeable but not intended outcome of doing acting on behalf of a greater good.  The moral argument concerning torture holds that is necessary, that we must inflict harm in the name of doing good.  It clearly violate the core moral notion Hauser identified in his study.

In choosing to drop atomic bombs on Japanese cities, Truman made a terrible moral choice – hundreds of thousands or millions.  Truman’s choice wasn’t nobody dies or lots of people – it was lots of people die or even more people die.  It was a profound and difficult choice but one rooted in the reality of the situation.  Truman was forced to choose the lesser of two evils; it was still an evil choice.  I believe Truman understood the nature of his choice.  He didn’t try to pretend it was a good choice, only a necessary one.

Defending and justifying torture, too many Americans have dishonestly presented it as a regrettable hardheaded necessity – “We don’t want to torture anyone, but we’re being forced to” or “We just don’t have any choice – we’re dealing with people who only respond to torture.  They won’t tell us any other way.”  It’s a disturbing argument because it sounds convincing; it compels us by dressing up torture as a tragic and regrettable necessity; at its least morally reprehensible, the argument in favor of torture grants that torture is morally suspect but that it is a necessary response to people who cannot be reasoned with, on whom other interrogation techniques do not work.  The honest proponents of torture grant that torture is morally reprehensible and pretend at hard-headed realism – we’re forced to engage in this morally reprehensible act as a result of the even more reprehensible acts of the bad guys.

Torture is morally reprehensible; it is the deliberate infliction of suffering – without any guarantee that the outcome will be positive.  In Hauser’s scenarios, even the intentional act (pushing fat Fred onto the tracks to stop the runaway trolley) has a guaranteed positive outcome (stopping the trolley) but the intentional act of pushing fat Fred onto the tracks makes the act morally impermissible.  Torture inflicts suffering without any assured positive outcome, making it doubly morally impermissible.  Under the most optimistic circumstances, torture will produce a positive outcome (stopping the ticking time bomb) but that does not make it morally permissible.

Torture presents us with a systemic problem as well.  An entity employing torture has engaged in a systemic abandonment of morality, it has lost the capacity to make moral distinctions and choices, which implicates each person within that system in moral wrongdoing.  To take the example of Abu Ghraib, torture was inflicted on many people there on the basis of suspicion of guilt – in essence torture delivered the punishment in advance of a finding of guilt.  Even granting the hypothetical that a person found guilty in trial would be subjected to torture, that person would have been found guilty of a crime and the torture would be his or her punishment. m Torture as an  interrogation technique subjects the individual to suffering without concern for their actual guilt.

Having given up the ability to make moral distinctions, any torture regime subjects individuals to intentional, foreseeable suffering without regard to their actual innocence or guilt.  A torture regime is in fact engaging in systemic terrorization of a target population.  Given torture’s well documented lack of effectiveness, it seems reasonable to conclude that employing it in a systemic way serves the sole purpose of terrorizing the population and keeping them compliant.  Torture is clearly a tool of oppression.

Advocates of torture would have  us believe that certain circumstances demand torture – that somehow our current enemies are so depraved that they will only respond to torture, that cannot reason or negotiate with some individuals – our only option is torture.  Such an argument fails a basic examination of human nature – if a person is so depraved that no other interrogation technique works, that person is so dedicated to his/her mission that you are not going to get your answers from him/her – even with torture.  They will hold out or give false information.

As I bring this exploration to a close, I want to examine the potential connection between the bombing of Hiroshima and torture -namely the intentional infliction of suffering.  There is simply no credible claim that Truman could not have known the results dropping an atomic bomb (although the first test had taken place only a few weeks before).  Thus, it’s fair to argue that Truman’s choice was immoral – the deaths in Hiroshima were intentional and foreseeable.  I think it’s safe to argue that using atomic weapons – like torture – is morally reprehensible in an of itself.  

The final component of moral reasoning then is context.  Truman’s immoral decision occurred within the specific context of a total war against Japan – the war in both Europe and Asia had been brutal, bloody, had involved massive attacks on military and civilian targets.  Japan was preparing to defend itself against an invasion through a total mobilization of the its population to fight.  Truman needed to choice between evils – the evil of an invasion versus the evil of using atomic weapons, but ultimately the choice was his and depended entirely on his moral agency.  Truman knew and accepted the consequences of his choices.

The ticking time bomb scenario presents a skewed vision of moral agency – it pretends that the other person is so depraved we have no choice concerning our treatment of him, we have little or no moral agency.  It attempts to absolve us of moral responsibility for our actions by limiting our moral agency; we have no other choice, therefore our action is morally permissible.  By abdicating moral responsibility, defenders of torture seek to legitimize inherently illegitimate acts.  “It’s not our fault, we had no other choice.”  

But that does not absolve us collectively or individually for our actions.  You always have a choice – even if the consequences appear horrific, you have a choice.  Abu Ghraib represents a horrific, systemic failure of moral responsibility. The people engaging in the torture were told the victims deserved their mistreatment; the people authorizing the torture told everyone the victims deserved it and so on.  By engaging in a systemic deception that the victims were first and foremost beyond the moral pale, that they possessed valuable information they were refusing to divulge, that the acts were justified by the extreme and extraordinary circumstances, the system failed utterly to exercise moral accountability.

The failure of torture, as a practical policy and as a moral proposition is obvious to me.  It is presented to us as a necessity but the argument fails since torture is never the only option.  If Truman had determined the using atomic weapons would not end the war and had done so anyway, then he would have been making the same choice the pro-torture Americans want to make today.  The nightmare scenario for Truman would be deciding to use atomic weapons and having Japan refuse to surrender.  Do you continue to use them?  Do you devise an alternate plan?  The pro-torture argument say in effect “Atomic weapons didn’t work so we ramp it up and use even more of them.” 

At some point, it’s difficult not hear in arguments for torture the belief that torture is justified on the basis of inflicting suffering on accused wrong-doers.  Which opens up a whole new area for exploration.  One which I am unwilling to examine today.

  1. #1 by Richard Warnick on December 11, 2009 - 4:59 pm

    I don’t have time to look up the reference, but in 1945 the Japanese did indeed torture a U.S. prisoner in the hope of obtaining intelligence information about the atomic bomb program. It was a real-world ticking bomb scenario, with millions of lives at stake.

    The truth was, we only had two usable atomic bombs. The prisoner did not know that, or anything else the Japanese were interested in knowing, but like everyone who is tortured he made up a story. He told them we had a large stockpile of atomic weapons.

    And thus ended World War II.

  2. #2 by brewski on December 11, 2009 - 11:32 pm

    The sadistic Japs tortured pretty much everyone in one way or another including women and children. It is hard to use the same word to describe what they did as with waterboarding. As harsh as waterboarding is, the subject lives and doesnt have any permanent physical harm. Tell that to anyone in a Japanese prison. Or on the Bataan march. Or in Nanking. Or….

    • #3 by Glenden Brown on December 12, 2009 - 7:32 am

      brewski – I had an immediate and sarcastic response to your comment but I deleted it. Your fundamental argument here is that it’s okay to torture someone if it’s not so bad, if it doesn’t harm them permanently. So I can guess you’d be okay if Americans were waterboarded because there’s no permanent physical harm. I guess you’d be okay being waterboarded, since after all, you wouldn’t suffer any permanent physical harm.

  3. #4 by Richard Warnick on December 12, 2009 - 12:41 am

    Here’s the story, from the New York Times:

    One of the great tales of World War II concerns an American fighter pilot named Marcus McDilda who was shot down on Aug. 8 and brutally interrogated about the atomic bombs. He knew nothing, but under torture he ”confessed” that the U.S. had 100 more nuclear weapons and planned to destroy Tokyo ”in the next few days.” The war minister informed the cabinet of this grim news — but still adamantly opposed surrender. In the aftermath of the atomic bombing, the emperor and peace faction finally insisted on surrender and were able to prevail.

    • #5 by Glenden Brown on December 12, 2009 - 7:20 am

      Richard – thanks for posting the link. That’s an interesting bit of history I don’t recall reading elsewhere. I know the japanese military attempted a coup in the days leading up to the surrender. I shudder to think what might have happened if they’d been successful.

  4. #6 by Ihate History on December 12, 2009 - 4:31 pm

    One thing that is never reported or remarked upon positively is that at Potsdam, Stalin agreed to declare war on Japan and move troops to the east within, I believe, three months of the end of the war in Europe.

    The Soviets were moving huge amounts of material east during the time before the commitment to help in the east was supposed to come into effect.

    What effect this had on Truman’s decision would be, I have no idea. Given that Truman supported Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech, I think it had some bearing at least.

  5. #7 by Larry Bergan on December 13, 2009 - 2:28 am

    Certainly, if hurting one person is bad, then hurting a hundred thousand is worse.

    Yeah, but hurting one person can land you in jail.

    • #8 by Glenden Brown on December 13, 2009 - 6:14 am

      Larry, there’s an old line something like “one death is a tragedy a hundred thousand a statistic.”

  6. #9 by Larry Bergan on December 13, 2009 - 2:30 am

    I heard somewhere that after WWII, we flew a whole bunch of B-52’s over to Europe that were supposedly filled with A-bombs, (they weren’t), to scare the Soviets.

  7. #10 by Larry Bergan on December 13, 2009 - 11:43 am

    Yep. Stalin said it and he’s right.

  8. #11 by brewski on December 13, 2009 - 1:45 pm

    I am trying really hard to follow your logic, if any, here.

    So you have morally justified the dropping of the atomic bomb on the Japanese and killing hundreds of thousands of people with a thoroughly explained analysis of the costs and benefits, but when it comes to waterboarding you dismiss it out of hand.

    And your pithy retort “So I can guess you’d be okay if Americans were waterboarded because there’s no permanent physical harm” could just as easily apply to your defense of dropping the atomic bomb. So i guess you’d be ok if Salt Lake City had an atomic bomb dropped on it. Stupid questions get stupid answers.

    There is a concept here that has been mentioned and dismissed which underlies all of this discussion. It is this concept of moral equivalence. It would not be morally equivalent to drop an atomic bomb on Japan as it would be to drop an atomic bomb on the US. It is also not morally equivalent to use waterboarding on a mass murderer (KSM) as it would be on some un-named and un-described American.

    I suppose if some American killed 3,000 women and children for the fun of it in the name of God that if he were in the hands of the the victims he probably wouldn’t receive a treatment as light as waterboarding. As we know, they murder journalists, aid workers, UN diplomats and innocent civilians. Hardly morally equivalent to KSM and his deeds.

    • #12 by Glenden Brown on December 13, 2009 - 9:56 pm

      brewski – you have an interesting tendency to write something which has a very plain meaning then deny that you meant the very plain interpretation of your words. It’s as if you wrote, “Misbehaving children should be immediately corrected through the firm application of a parental hand to the child’s buttocks,” and then you deny that you support spanking. I think there’s something about debating torture that results in its supporters being forced to make fundamentally dishonest arguments.

      Consider your comment: “It is also not morally equivalent to use waterboarding on a mass murderer (KSM) as it would be on some un-named and un-described American.” The clear meaning of such a statement is to establish that the victim of torture some how deserves it. Your attempt to defend yourself is simply not honest; you may not have used those exact words, but your meaning is clear; to claim you “did not say it” does not pass the straight face test. If you don’t mean the plain implications of your words, feel free to expand on what you’ve written but to simply pretend they don’t mean what they clearly mean is unserious.

      Consider your first comment:

      The sadistic Japs tortured pretty much everyone in one way or another including women and children. It is hard to use the same word to describe what they did as with waterboarding. As harsh as waterboarding is, the subject lives and doesnt have any permanent physical harm. Tell that to anyone in a Japanese prison. Or on the Bataan march. Or in Nanking. Or….

      Besides using the racist term “Japs”, you are clearly here arguing that since waterboarding doesn’t cause long lasting physical harm, it is morally permissible. When I pointed that out, you attempted to twist the discussion into an argument that I must be okay with something horrific happening. It’s a dishonest tactic. Of course such rhetorical shenanigans are central to defending torture – the over the top rhetorical claim that without torture we will not be safe, we must therefore torture to be safe. As I explored in my original post, there are a lot of reasons that assumption is false. Of course now you will claim you aren’t a racist and your use of a racist term means nothing.

      The issue, as I pointed out in my original post, concerns the intentional infliction of harm. I would also challenge you to re-examine my original post. I’m not sure Truman’s decision was moral; it may have been necessary, it was a clear circumstance of a moral actor knowingly choosing the lesser of two evils.

      Despite the fact that I addressed the whole concept of motive, it’s clear you are either unable or unwilling to admit that even people who do horrific things have some sort of motive which can be defined; the people who plan and execute terrorist attacks do not do so for fun and doing something in the name of God is not the end all be all of their motives. Despite your attempts to pretend it is not torture, waterboarding is torture. The US objected when it was done to American soldiers. Torture doesn’t require lifelong physical harm to still be torture.

      Finally, I’m not at all convinced that using atomic weapons on Japanese cities was a morally defensible action; an explicable one, maybe even one that were I in the same position Truman was in, I would do the same thing; but that doesn’t make it morally defensible. I’ve long thought detectable in the defense of torture is a bloodthirsty desire to see some people suffer.

  9. #13 by cav on December 13, 2009 - 1:58 pm

    I think you’ll find, in an asymmetrical theater of war-making – moral, as well as other ‘equivalents’ could be characterized thus: Some are more equal than others.

    It’s called, ‘Holding the high ground’.

  10. #14 by Richard Warnick on December 13, 2009 - 3:43 pm


    It seems you have departed from the thoroughly-debunked claim that torture can produce valuable intel, and retreated to the morally repugnant argument that people like KSM deserve to suffer cruel and unusual punishment without benefit of trial.

    Quoth the Red Queen, “Sentence first — verdict afterwards.”

    FYI torture continues to be a federal and international criminal offense, which the U.S. government is obligated to prosecute under the U.N. Convention Against Torture (signed by President Reagan).

  11. #15 by brewski on December 13, 2009 - 5:21 pm


    You seem to be subscribing to the Glenden school of rhetoric by saying I said things which I never said, and generally dodging the points that I did make.

    I did not say KSM “deserved” to suffer without cruel and unusual punishment without benefit of trial.

    What I was noting is that it is quizical for Glenden to state that dropping the atomic bomb on Japan and killing hundreds of thousands of people was morally defensible, but that waterboarding was not.

    Also, quoting from the US constitution which applies to bank robbers and embezzlers and not for enemy combatants is a bit disingenous. I don’t recall the US granting civillian trials to Rudolf Hess, Tojo and others.

    Also, your assertion about the “

    debunked claim that torture can produce valuable intel

    defies the actual planet we live on:

    Captured al-Qaeda planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has given U.S. interrogators the names and descriptions of about a dozen key al-Qaeda operatives believed to be plotting terrorist attacks on American and other Western interests, according to federal officials. Other high-level al-Qaeda detainees previously disclosed some of the names, but Mohammed, until recently al-Qaeda’s chief operating officer and the brains behind the 9/11 attacks, has volunteered new ones. He has also added crucial details to the descriptions of other suspects and filled in important gaps in what U.S. intelligence knows about al-Qaeda’s practices.

    – Time

  12. #16 by glenn on December 13, 2009 - 6:19 pm

    No one in this argument wishes to admit what war truly is, torture by any means to compel physical submission on a grand scale. There is really not much of an informational component within torture, if there is, so much the better as it goes.

    That is merely incidental though.

  13. #17 by Richard Warnick on December 14, 2009 - 9:14 am


    I think you are well-informed enough to know that the information from KSM that’s considered reliable came from his FBI interrogation– before he was handed over to the CIA for torture. While he was being tortured, KSM only told lies. Like everyone else who has ever been tortured. For example, he confessed to beheading Daniel Pearl.

    So my point is (1) torture is illegal as all hell, and (2) never produces useful intelligence information. So why do it? Obviously, the Bush administration was desperate for confessions in order to inflate the threat from al-Qaeda and keep Americans fearful.

  14. #18 by brewski on December 14, 2009 - 10:08 am

    My use of the term “Japs” was an intentional tongue in cheek use of a term which was completely acceptable during WWII. It was so acceptable that even newspapers used the term in their own headlines such as “Japs Bomb Pearl Harbor”. It was also just fun to get a rise out of you. It is also funny to call me a racist with respect to Japanese since they are among the most racist societies on earth. To this day in Japan people whose families have lived in Japan for 100 years but who are ethnic Koreans still cannot become citizens.

    It is also entertaining to reading your tortured (pun intended) analysis of what you would do if you were Truman. In your thinking out loud on this topic you wonder if you would do the same thing that Truman did, but then say even if you did do it it might not be morally defensible. I have no problem making the statement that killing a few hundred thousand people to save a few million people is morally defensible. Morally defensible decisions are not limited to easy ones such as between saving puppies and killing innocent people. Real decisons are often between outcomes which are really bad and horrible. Sometimes really bad is the best that can be achieved and that is the morally defensible decision.

    • #19 by Glenden Brown on December 14, 2009 - 11:35 am

      Don’t be a putz brewski. I said you used a racist term not that you are a racist. Maybe we should expect that from a hillbilly like you. It’s also funny that you defend your use of a racist term by arguing that someone else is racist. “Sure, I beat my wife but that’s not bad since my neighbor killed his wife.” Someone else behaving immorally doesn’t excuse your immoral behavior.

      You keep missing the point. Choosing the lesser of two evils is still an evil choice. To state the obvious, simply claiming that your actions are necessary is simply not sufficient. You always have choices and sometimes the choice is between doing something horrific and doing nothing at all. The whole principle of non-violence is rooted in that reality – the practice of non-violence is powerful. Choosing a violent response may be necessary, but necessity isn’t the same as morality. In the case of torture, we have options and lots of them. From the standpoint of sheer pragmatism, torture is the often the least effective choice and the choice most likely to result in bad information, it seems to defy logic that you would choose it as your interrogation method. Which is really the point that I keep making and Richard keeps making and lots of other people nationwide keep making the point that torture doesn’t work so even from the perspective of “necessity” it is a failed response.

  15. #20 by cav on December 14, 2009 - 1:23 pm

    Glendon, try looking at torture from the perspective of a person who would intimidate much of the planet with his power and fearsomeness, someone who really will never get their hand dirty doing it, but who feels compelled for some reason to dabble in the dark sike of humanity.

    That doesn’t mean it will work, nor that the rest of us are guilty right along with him (even though we are made to feel that way, due to some payment made to one or two members of some elite judgmental unit).

    I would happen…hypothetically.

    • #21 by Glenden Brown on December 14, 2009 - 2:38 pm

      cav – yeah, well I tend to think the problem with that perspective is that eventually the whole playground gangs up on the bully and takes him down.

  16. #22 by Cliff Lyon on December 15, 2009 - 7:35 am

    Brewski, Thank you for putting Glenden in his place. Since all Japanese are racist against Koreans, they deserve all the racist epithets you can throw at them, especially from a white man because we are smarter (obviously) and Japs and Koreans are, well you know, yellow.

    And besides, some people used to refer to them as Japs anyway, and they did not get in trouble, so it is totally OK to call them Japs.

  17. #23 by brewski on December 15, 2009 - 11:30 am

    Since when were white men smarter than Japanese? What a racist thing to say. And anything coming from a person who lists political campaign speeches as “accomplishments” worthy of a Nobel prize is immediately suspect.

  18. #24 by jdberger on December 15, 2009 - 4:18 pm

    Just curious – does anyone have any hard references on this “Marcus McDilda”?

    The NYT piece is an editorial. All the other references to “Marcus McDilda” appear after 2003 – most in connection to the “Torture” debate. He’s alternately described as a “fighter pilot”, “P-51 Mustang pilot”, B-29 crewman or B-29 pilot.

    You’d think, that having ended the war, there would be a little more history on the guy….

  19. #25 by Richard Warnick on December 15, 2009 - 8:30 pm

    This is from Wikipedia:

    Jerome T. Hagen. War in the Pacific: American at War, Volume I. Hawaii Pacific University, ISBN 0976266903. Chapter: The Lie of Marcus McDilda, 159–162

  20. #26 by jdberger on December 16, 2009 - 4:35 pm

    Notice that he’s described as a B29 pilot where Kristoff describes him as a ‘fighter pilot’.

    Also, you didn’t happen to see the date of publication of that book, didja?



  21. #27 by cav on December 16, 2009 - 5:47 pm

    I read that name in the last week. Something about: The Lessons to be learned…”. I’ve backtracked everywhere and turned up nothing.

  22. #28 by Richard Warnick on December 16, 2009 - 6:34 pm

    jd– What? All history books published in 2005 are inaccurate?

  23. #29 by jdberger on December 18, 2009 - 3:16 pm


    read post 25.

    I’m proposing that the story is a myth.

  24. #30 by Richard Warnick on December 18, 2009 - 3:38 pm


    You have evidence that the story isn’t true?

  25. #31 by cav on December 19, 2009 - 2:44 pm

    That very shrill Chris Floyd is gonna make Santa leave Mercan chimneys alone this year.


    Dred Scott Redux

    After hearing passionate arguments from the Obama Administration, the Supreme Court acquiesced to the president’s fervent request and, in a one-line ruling, let stand a lower court decision that declared torture an ordinary, expected consequence of military detention, while introducing a shocking new precedent for all future courts to follow: anyone who is arbitrarily declared a “suspected enemy combatant” by the president or his designated minions is no longer a “person.” They will simply cease to exist as a legal entity. They will have no inherent rights, no human rights, no legal standing whatsoever — save whatever modicum of process the government arbitrarily deigns to grant them from time to time, with its ever-shifting tribunals and show trials.

    The Constitution is clear: no person can be held without due process; no person can be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. And the U.S. law on torture of any kind is crystal clear: it is forbidden, categorically, even in time of “national emergency.” And the instigation of torture is, under U.S. law, a capital crime. No person can be tortured, at any time, for any reason, and there are no immunities whatsoever for torture offered anywhere in the law.

    And yet this is what Barack Obama — who, we are told incessantly, is a super-brilliant Constitutional lawyer — has been arguing in case after case since becoming president: Torturers are immune from prosecution; those who ordered torture are immune from prosecution. They can’t even been sued for, in the specific case under review, subjecting uncharged, indefinitely detained captives to “beatings, sleep deprivation, forced nakedness, extreme hot and cold temperatures, death threats, interrogations at gunpoint, and threatened with unmuzzled dogs.”

    Again, let’s be absolutely clear: Barack Obama has taken the freely chosen, public, formal stand — in court — that there is nothing wrong with any of these activities. Nothing to answer for, nothing meriting punishment or even civil penalties. What’s more, in championing the lower court ruling, Barack Obama is now on record as believing — insisting — that torture is an ordinary, “foreseeable consequence” of military detention of all those who are arbitrarily declared “suspected enemy combatants.”

    And still further: Barack Obama has now declared, openly, of his own free will, that he does not consider these captives to be “persons.” They are, literally, sub-humans. And what makes them sub-humans? The fact that someone in the U.S. government has declared them to be “suspected enemy combatants.” (And note: even the mere suspicion of being an “enemy combatant” can strip you of your personhood.)

    Criminals on the right of us, criminals on the left of us…I guess we have them right where we want them. Activate the ejection seat lever stat.

  26. #32 by Larry Bergan on December 20, 2009 - 12:49 am

    And the Supreme court doesn’t even have to let us know how they feel about it. This is depressing to say the least, cav!

  27. #33 by jdberger on December 21, 2009 - 2:19 am

    Richard Warnick :jd–
    You have evidence that the story isn’t true?

    Nope. It’s fishy, though. Why is the first instance of the story show up in 2003?

    It’s an incredible story. If true, it’s pretty suprising that it had been under wraps for 50 years…. doncha think….?

  28. #34 by Richard Warnick on December 21, 2009 - 8:54 am


    I certainly don’t know everything there is to know about McDilda’s story, but it sounds credible. Everybody lies under torture.

    There are plenty of WW II secrets that didn’t get revealed until 50-60 years after the fact. I’ll bet there are a bunch that remain secret.

  29. #35 by jdberger on December 24, 2009 - 12:00 pm


    Richard Warnick :jd–
    I certainly don’t know everything there is to know about McDilda’s story, but it sounds credible. Everybody lies under torture.

    You’ve empirical information to support that statement, Richard? Or are you just talking out of your ass again?

  30. #36 by Richard Warnick on December 24, 2009 - 9:29 pm


    I have read the seminal article by Malcolm Nance about waterboarding. I have read opinions from several intelligence professionals who have conducted actual interrogations of prisoners captured in Iraq and elsewhere. I have read the Army field manual on Intelligence Interrogation (FM 34-52). I’ve linked to all these sources previously, and will again if you promise to read them.

    They all say the same thing. If you want to extract false confessions, use torture. If you want accurate information, then you need to treat prisoners well.

    Of course, if all you know about interrogation comes from watching “24”…

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