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Why We Need a “Truth Commission” to Investigate Torture

The American people’s faith in their government—even with the election of Barack Obama—remains compromised. One reason is obvious. Americans see low-level military operatives being imprisoned for mistreatment, even murder, of prisoners. At the same time, high-level officials go uninvestigated and unpunished. In their case, we’re told to look forward rather than backward, an empty phrase that can be cynically manipulated both to exonerate law-breakers and to obscure war crimes.


Widespread cynicism about government is the result of such blatant double-standards. Instead of participating actively in government, a cynical populace disengages, weakening the res publica, the public domain in which policy decisions are debated and implemented for the greater good. Disengagement breeds distrust, and a government that lacks the people’s trust can’t rule effectively—or, at least it can’t rule democratically.

To strengthen our democracy, we need a rigorous and complete accounting of the role of the Bush Administration in authorizing and conducting torture. If we fail to provide such an accounting, the damage to our political and moral authority both here and abroad will be incalculable.

A full accounting of the torture decisions made by the Bush Administration would serve powerfully to reassure Americans that their government is, in fact, transparent and accountable to the law. Such a result would be more than advantageous: It would indirectly strengthen our national defense as well as people’s patriotism. Far easier it is to trust a government that owns up to its mistakes than one that cloaks them in bombast and bromides.

Self-serving bromides that excuse torture as the price of keeping America safe from evil-doers must be dismissed with extreme prejudice. Even self-preservation is no excuse for torture or similar war crimes. It’s easier to see the truth of this when you look at the abuses committed by countries other than one’s own.

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Think, for example, of Germany in the opening weeks of World War I. As John Horne and Alan Kramer have shown in German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (2001), German soldiers clearly committed atrocities against Belgian civilians. But the Germans themselves refused to admit culpability. As Germany’s Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, explained: “We are in a position of necessity and necessity knows no law.” The court of history, however, has rendered a far different judgment.

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When the argument from necessity failed to convince, the Bush Administration disputed whether waterboarding actually was torture, even though American soldiers had been punished for it during the Philippine-American War. Indeed, even in Nazi Germany, government functionaries tried to fight a rear-guard action against the Gestapo and its use of waterboarding. In a 1979 article on “The Nazi Concentration Camps,” Henry Friedlander cites a complaint made by the Reich Minister of Justice in regards to a murder in 1934 at a concentration camp in Saxony: “The nature of the assault, especially the use of water torture,” the Reich Minister noted, “reveals a brutality and cruelty on the part of the perpetrator that is alien to German sensibilities and feelings. These cruelties, reminiscent of oriental sadism, can neither be explained nor excused by even the most extreme form of hatred in battle.”

If “water torture” was so clearly illegal and so utterly reprehensible to German legal authorities in 1934, even as they battled the baneful influence of Nazism, how can its true nature remain a matter of dispute among some former Bush administration functionaries?

We fancy ourselves to be a nation of laws that apply equally to all. If our new president truly stands for hope and change, he needs to act appropriately. “Hope” in this case means full exposure of torture and appropriate punishment for those who authorized and conducted it. “Change” means accountability for all, even for (especially for) the highest ranking officials in government.

We need a “Truth Commission” to investigate torture. Efforts to suppress the truth, even seemingly innocuous ones, like looking ahead instead of back, will only make the eventual revelations that much worse. Delays in holding people accountable may even empower others to commit new war crimes in our name. Such are the perils of refusing to confront the truth.

william astore

William J. Astore

Mr. Astore, a retired Lt Col (USAF), is a professor of history and author of Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism.

Reprinted with permission from the History News Network.