A nation making war with an enemy which holds different values may eventually feel pressed to adopt that enemy's values at the sacrifice of their own. Whether that nation succumbs to such pressures, or else resists and maintains its valued ethics, is a mark of that nation's integrity.

As citizens of our own nation, or of the world, we also face basic questions about the kinds of treatment now being adopted by other nations, with which we may share alliance links and joint military actions, against people who become their prisoners.

 We review here some of the issues that arise from defending ourselves against terrorist threats and aggression. Arguments have been made (particularly since the September 2001 Al-Qaeda attacks on the USA mainland) that 'normal' ethics may be justifiably suspended or cancelled in dealing with some captives from the terrorist side.

[ click onto underlined words for more background ]

 Two kinds of "total war" threat have been faced by our armed forces and populations : firstly the use of radical kinds of military action, such as suicide attacks ...

 Japan during the Pacific War (1941-45) used both 'banzai' infantry attacks and kamikaze pilot attacks - although these seemed (by Western values) irrational at a personal level they did have intended tactical results - such tactics were also applied in Korea by DPRK and Chinese auxiliary forces against UN forces

... and secondly the use of terror attacks to demoralise civilian populations (urban air raids on Britain, Germany, and Japan; or guerilla attacks such as in Palestine, Cyprus, Indochina, Britain (IRA), Israel, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Both kinds of attacker have been labelled "terrorist" and "freedom fighter" for the purposes of either side in related conflicts.

 Ethical conventions are framed for conventional 'symmetric' war ... in which opponents are expected to share such conventions

but even in such conflicts prisoners may be taken, from whom some response or information is sought which is believed vital to the captor's own side - an argument existed that the 'end justified the means' whereby norms of captor behaviour may be broken

Some nations have simply disregarded such conventions in war, e.g. Japan in 2nd Sino-Japanese war (1935-45); DPRK in Korean War (1950-53)

 Anti-colonial movements in the mid 20th century resorted to terror attacks by both sides on both military & civilian targets, e.g. Stern gang attacks in British Palestine mandate; Vietminh guerilla attacks in French Indochina; 'EOKA' attacks (also on British) in Cyprus; both sides in French Algeria in 1960s; Vietcong assassinations and American napalm bombing in Vietnam (1960-75)

These did have tactical aims for rebels of removing colonial power, but primarily by alienating local populace from brutal counter-measures often taken in response by colonial power

Such "civil" conflicts have seen both sides adopt torture of different kinds on captive prisoners

What is torture ? Why is it used ?

Following the Al-Qaeda attacks in 2001, the USA attacked the Taliban forces which 'governed' Afghanistan in 2002 (with UN endorsement for this action, and a large number of allied countries) - aiming to replace their Islamic fundamentalist regime and to interdict Al Qaeda forces and camps which had been hosted in that country. This action involved anti-Taliban regional forces, led by unelected "warlords," their prime motive being to restore their prior status before Taliban centralised control.

The counter-attack achieved some but not all of USA aims. A partially democratic central government was installed, which remedied many Taliban actions - but with limited government control of areas outside the capital Kabul. Many Al Qaeda fighters and commanders were killed or captured - including Osama Bin Laden ia decade later n 2011, but (to-date) not all its paramount leadership which continues operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen.
The USA government had also maintained hostile relations with the Baathist regime in Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War, and used alleged links between Iraq and Al-Qaeda and an ideological agenda to justify invasion of Iraq to remove the regime,
with more compliant allies Britain and Australia, but without UN endorsement. While the regime change aim was met, the USA was unable to control the country post-war nor achieve a stable and secure replacement government. A serious consequence of both conflicts was also adoption by the USA of illegal treatment - with indefinite detention of captives without trial, and including torture sponsored and co-ordinated by the CIA. This latter approach features some pseudo-legal tactics including RENDITION of captives to American allied countries which have not forsaken torture. This is examined in  Paul Monk's AusThink paper of May 2005

 American abandonment of its values and former attitudes against torture has alienated many countries which had been its allies - and in due course led to internal debate within the USA population and congress. These pressures were forcing some retreat from the Bush government's new attitude, although it remains unclear how genuine and effective such a retreat is.

A significant challenge in this came from within the 2000-2008 government's own Republican Party - from Senator Cain, who had first-hand experience of fighting in the Vietnam War, of becoming a prisoner, and of suffering torture and serious mistreatment. This challenge is outlined in an L.A.Times article.

Although this debate continues, the Bush government has by its ill-judgement and abandonment of principles deeply damaged the national integrity of the USA. This damage will not be swiftly undone, and deeply reduces the former American role as an international exemplar, i.e. "the shining city on the hill" of folklore.

2009 UPDATE ! ... The new US administration of President Barack Obama starts to reveal the (2000-2008) Bush government's steps in providing legal guidelines and endorsement for actions taken by the CIA and other agencies - which included torture techniques.

This story has further to run, but an interim opinion by Frank Rich in the N.Y. Times makes relevant comment, as does the commentary on the ICRC report on USA torture methods (and how they were legally endorsed) written by Mark Danner in the N.Y. Review of Books (30.Apr.09).

2012 UPDATES ! ... article by Cullen Murphy (Atlantic Monthly, Jan/Feb 2012) compares modern methods of interrogation and coercion supported by the CIA with those of the medieval Inquisition for the Roman Catholic Church.

... article (from New Matilda, Dec 2012) reports judgement by European Court of Human Rights on illegality of CIA (and Macedonian) treatment of German-Lebanese citizen Khaled el-Masri.

 Impact on Australia :

No firm evidence has emerged yet of any direct participation by Australian forces, operating in alliance with USA and other nations' forces, in torture or other systemic mistreatment of captives.

However Australian inteligence agencies demonstrated little interest against rendition to Egypt (for interrogationn & torture) and Guantanamo of Australian Mamdouh Habib.

But governmental compliance with any unjust detention and mistreatment of captives in US bases at Guantanomo Bay in Cuba has endorsed such practises.

The Howard Australian government response to USA "rendition" of captives was also silent or muted.

Impacts on Australian & international values are discussed in John Hooker's New Matilda article (23 March 2005) and also items in Wilson's blogmanac (2005/2006).

As individuals we each need to imagine one of our own friends or family members being subjected to such treatment (by forces of ANY nation) to judge its impact: and we each need to protest to our local parliamentary member or any other government branch, for them to be aware of our rejection of this compliance, and to activate international conventions which Australia nominally supports.

 December 2014 : after twelve years, a US Senate review under Senator Dianne Feinstein is released, over CIA interrogation of detainees after the September 11 2001 attacks.

It finds that actions at "black site" prisons around the world included details of barbaric and inhumane treatment [which] call into question the values at the core of that nation's identity.

The report also analysed 20 cases where CIA claims of 'useful' information being obtained from detainees under such torture (like water-boarding), concluding these CIA claims were untrue. It also seeks to affirm that "America is big enough to admit when it's wrong and confident enough to learn from its mistakes."

While the Obama administration had ordered such practises to cease soon after taking office in 2008, this proscription may or may not continue under a future US government.