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.


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.

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 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.


  1. Marshall says

    How far back are you willing to go? How about the cold war and Vietnam? I was in Berlin in the late sixties, behind Iron Curtain, and An Loc 71-72. Y standaras were what I would do to a family member. I may have treated a few east german security members beyond your standards. You may consider any mental stress as wrong even when no physical sress is used. My goal was to locate what carrot I could offer and what stick I might use to make that offer.

    Once it took me five days to make an East German see that she needed me to sign her travel papers out of Berlin and to West Germany and I was not going to do that until she told me everything I wanted to know. At first, I did not know what it was I wanted to know, but I could tell by the third day the truth had not be given. Instead of sending her back to the JROC (look it up) for dinner, I put her in a holding cell in a safe house for the night. Told the agents that lived there to give her a plate of what ever they ate and say nothing to her. I always used a translator even when I could speak the local language. It gave me more time to listen to the answers and form my next question. She was alone from 1700 until 0800 in a cell, in a basement, with one light and one sink and potty. I was not going to send an east german agent, which I was sure she was, to west Germany only for them to contacted her and start a new mission in the West. So after three days of going in circles, she gave up the truth on Thursday and both the French and West German governments wanted to talk to her when I released her. Seems she had some direct knowledge of several of them. I told her this would happen but not to worry, she had cleaned her soul and was on her way to the west. Even though I had first spoken to her on thursady in German, I continued to use my native German translator for the reason stated above.

    My point is you have no way of judging me or my fellow HUMINT resources. You live here and not in the muck where I lived. You do not have to deal with what I did. You do not live in the real world even now, you live in America. I hope those who do what I once did do a better job than I as I do not want some one from a foreign country to bring in a big bang in a small bag and set it off in an American city.

  2. Gwazdos says

    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.

    So stop screwing around and begin the charges of War Crimes against Bush, Cheney, Rumsfield, Rice, Feith, Addington,Karl Rove. These people must be charged for what they have done in damage to our Country in behalf of their own personal greed and Ego. Look – Karl Rove is still making tons of money working for the WSJ and FOX Fake news and speech of hate and lies and misdirection. This man belongs in Jail first, let him taste the damage he has help do to our American men and women in the military. NOW – WHAT MORE DO YOU NEED TO KNOW. ACTION!

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