Torturers' Tales

"This fight has nothing to do with soldierly gallantry or principles of the Geneva Convention. If the fight against the partisans is not waged with the most brutal means, we will shortly reach the point where the available forces are insufficient to control the area. It is therefore not only justified, but it is the duty of the troops to use all means without restriction, even against women and children, so long as it ensures success." -Wilhelm Keitel, chief of staff of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces of Germany, Dec. 16, 1942.

Coincidental with America's tortuous debates over the issue of prisoner abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay is the appearance of an extraordinary new book containing in-depth conversations with defendants at Nuremberg in 1945-46. Compiled from transcripts by American psychiatrist Leon Goldensohn, who was assigned to monitor the mental health of the defendants during their war crimes trials, The Nuremberg Interviews: An American Psychiatrist's Conversations with the Defendants and Witnesses (Knopf) is a mesmerizing book about war, remembrance, and the distressingly bland face of evil. It also casts a haunting shadow across our country from a regime we once thought was moral light years away.

The appearance of this book just prior to the conviction of Spc. Charles Graner in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal and Senate confirmation hearings of attorney general-designate Alberto Gonzales is an interesting confluence. Like the United States' ill-fated invasion of Iraq, German occupation of sovereign nations across Europe clearly turned out to be more than they could handle. Desperation born from mounting casualties resulted in direct orders contrary to the rules of war – oftentimes from the highest echelons of government.

"The Fuhrer has ordered all troops and police to adopt the severest measures," Albert Kesselring, general field marshall of the air force and later supreme commander of the German armed forces, wrote on June 17, 1944. "Every act of violence committed by partisans must be punished immediately. Where there is evidence of a considerable number of partisan groups a proportion of the male population of the area will be arrested, and in the event of an act of violence being committed these men will be shot."

Leon Goldensohn's conversations with jailed leaders of the Third Reich elicit astonishing denials and rationales for atrocities. While some members of the military, most notably Generals Kesselring and Ewald von Kleist, honorably shouldered responsibility for their wartime actions, others were less than forthcoming.

"Everything is now blamed on Hitler, Himmler and Borman," Goldensohn wrote bemusedly at one point, noting that Reich leaders Adolph Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and Martin Borman were dead. Julius Streiche, founder of the anti-Semite journal Der Sturmer, claimed to know nothing about even the existence of Auschwitz, "until this trial." Oswald Pohl, administrator of all Nazi concentration camps, provided this astonishing disclaimer: "Although I am responsible for the camps, and the extermination program took place within these camps, I am not responsible for the extermination program itself." Said Hanz Frietzsche, senior minister in Joseph Goebbels's Ministry of Propaganda: "I can defend myself in one sentence, 'I did it as a German patriot.'"

Others tried to appeal to common sense and sportsmanship. "The Allies should take the attitude, now that the war is over, that mistakes have been made on both sides, that those of us here on trial are German patriots, and that though we may have gone too far with Hitler, we did it in good faith and as German citizens," said Joachim von Ribbentrop, German foreign minister from 1938-45. Von Ribbentrop nevertheless was hanged on Oct. 16, 1946 along with nine Nuremberg co-defendants.

While no one can argue that the abuses charged against U.S. forces today are on a scale with those committed by German forces in World War II, neither can anyone see an end in sight. U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq are estimated to be holding more than 10,000 prisoners in its war on terror. Many have been held incommunicado for years, and recent reports reveal that the CIA plans to hold some "enemy noncombatants" for their entire lifetime – without charges.

While Defense Department and Bush administration officials insist these are isolated incidents, a review of news archives over the past eight months reveals an astonishing number of reports of abuse, torture and killing by U.S. forces from various sources: internal Defense Department documents, Red Cross reports, Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba's inquiry, military guards, intelligence agents, MPs, and legal documents filed by prisoners released from U.S. and coalition custody.

FBI agents have also reported widespread abuses of prisoners by U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, including strangulation, beatings, placement of lit cigarettes into the detainees' ears, sexual assault, chaining internees hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor with no food or water, exposure to extremes of heat and cold, simulated drownings, mock executions and deprivation of sleep.

Despite official repudiation of Alberto Gonzales' infamous Jan. 25, 2002 "torture memo" to President Bush (among other things, Gonzales counseled that the "new paradigm" of the war on terror "renders obsolete [the] Geneva [Convention]'s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions"), the abuses continue. Last month, at the urging of the White House, congressional leaders scrapped a legislative measure that would have imposed new restrictions on the use of extreme interrogation measures by U.S. intelligence forces. Conservative pundits continue to dismiss torture tactics as "fraternity pranks."

The defiance, dissembling, and denials exhibited by Nazi leadership in The Nuremberg Interviews makes the words of former Justice Department official John Yoo in defense of Alberto Gonzales that much more chilling: "Aggressive measures" adopted by the administration "are necessary to protect America from another terrorist attack," Woo wrote in the Jan. 2 edition of the San Jose Mercury News. We know where we've heard these words before.

Besides Spc. Charles Graner, who will bear responsibility this time?

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