Guantanamo Diary


This looks a little like the flag but these bars actually cover up a poem by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, author of Guantanamo Diary.  Sometimes the redactions in this work appear to concern details of military interrogation programs and the people who carry them out, but at other times, like this, they are harder to fathom.  I suspect the poem was blacked out because the censor couldn’t be quite sure what it meant.

Slahi is a Mauritanian held at Guantanamo Bay.  He turned himself over to Mauritanian authorities for questioning in 2001 and was illegally rendered, as they say, to Jordan, Afghanistan, and finally our base in Cuba.  Slahi took part somehow in the war in Afghanistan against the Communists, when, to speak very loosely, jihadis were still good guys in our book.  Unfortunately for him, the situation had changed by 1999, when he admits to discussing his experiences with people who were later linked to the 9/11 attacks.  In 2010, a federal judge ordered Slahi released on habeas grounds, but he remains imprisoned pending some sort of appeal.  He has never been charged in court, but to the extent that there is a legal case against him, it appears to hang on those discussions of training in Afghanistan, which could be characterized as recruiting.  For different reasons, most people, including Slahi, don’t care to dwell on other admissions resulting from enhanced interrogation or torture.

In 2005, Slahi wrote what would become Guantanamo Diary; it was published, in censored form and after heavy litigation, in 2015.  In that sense it’s an important new book, but the fact that Slahi is still in jail makes it seem horrifyingly long in coming.  They say the book is a bestseller, but if it is, it’s not the kind people talk about much.  It’s not easy to write about; I’m afraid that I’m being over scrupulous about a topic that should occasion a lot more outrage or something.  It’s an interesting bind.  One might have hoped that a book like this wouldn’t exist in a powerful, law abiding society.  And indeed there are all kinds of ways to explain it away: There are arguments that downplay the violations of human rights and emphasize the threats that we face.  I think a lot of those arguments boil down to that of Thrasymachus in the Republic, not to be taken lightly, that justice is the advantage of the stronger.

Yet not only does the book exist, it’s much better than one would expect, even darkly entertaining.  Slahi complains as much of the obtuseness and haplessness of his interrogators as of the barbarities they committed.  It is all of a piece: Investigators, admittedly working under tremendous pressure under hostile circumstances entirely different from an ordinary law enforcement action, refused to face up to the paucity of what they were actually turning up on some of these people.  Slahi was tortured in many ways.  The thing that shocked me the most was when he off handedly remarked that they were moving him around so that they could torture him and claim he hurt himself in transit.  It shocked me because this is exactly what police in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and other American cities have been (plausibly) accused of doing.  What goes on in Guantanamo is not really foreign.

Much of the book is devoted to characterizations of Slahi’s guards and interrogators, and his sometimes warm relations with them.  They watched movies together, some taught him English, some would discuss theology.  Slahi asked for extra time to study a movie of Henry V, and complains privately that the Star Wars novels he was given weren’t very well written.  More than anything else, this book shows the reader the irrational expectations that we have for people who are subject to our suspicion.  We persist in treating prisoners in immoral and counterproductive ways because we expect them to be submissive, to be afraid of justice, to be both stupid and cunning.  We expect them not to show partiality for their countrymen and their fellow prisoners, because surely most of them are bad.  All I can say is that there have to be better ways of learning about the things that trouble us.

“See it, do it” is a motto I’ve been repeating lately.  It means don’t chat about what needs to get done, don’t put it on a list, but do it.  It applies  to household chores but it applies to reading as well.  I won’t stop making lists of books, but I do hope to be more decisive in picking up important books of the moment and in coming away with books to actually work on for all the time I spend standing in the stacks gawping.  I hope to usher in a new year of better blogging, but the motto also applies to this book.  I should probably spend months digging into the background of Guantanamo Diary and seeking out the reviews and official reaction; maybe I will get around to it and even post, but these are my thoughts.

Coming up: Magnitogorsk


The Way the World Works: Essays by Nicholson Baker

Old Books

Some of my favorite reads fail to make it up here.  It happened with Graham Robb’s The Discovery of Middle Earth.  It happened with Eliot Weinberger and with Nicholson Baker’s A Box of Matches, not to mention all the junk I’m ashamed to put on here. I shouldn’t go without saying something about Baker’s The Way the World Works.  Almost every essay in this book has something good in it, if only a well timed moment of bombast, a silly joke, or a great metaphor.  “Black it was and full of power,” he writes of a penny in a fountain in an otherwise straightforward piece about a summer job.  Wikipedia’s automatic filters, or “bots”, revert a piece of profane but spirited vandalism “with a little sigh”.

Two essays in particular captivated me.  The first was “Truckin’ for the Future”, which title was the slogan of an ambitious San Francisco librarian Baker clashed with in the nineties.  Having written about card catalogues in the New Yorker, he was contacted by disgruntled librarians and became embroiled in questions of deaccession and open records.  The essay is a thrilling hit piece on an administration that, not content with remaking a major city library as a trendy “information utility”, used the chaos of an earthquake and a badly planned move to hack apart a valuable collection and decades of work.

Baker’s essays on newspapers are in a similar vein.  He argues for keeping the old physical copies alongside the microfilm and digital versions.  But these essays are less polemical and more focused on the lovely, leatherbound elephant folios of the bound newspaper runs of yore.  Is Baker a crank?  Is there another side to this story?  Library bureaucracy resorted to counterclaims plausible (it’s always going to be necessary to throw books away) and implausible (he’s Rasputin), and plain stonewalling.  I think Nicholson Baker has established that he deserves the libraries that would make him happy.

The second essay is “Why I am a Pacifist”.  This was written after the book Human Smoke, in which Baker let sources speak for themselves but concluded that the pacifists who spoke out during World War II were right.  While this essay is in some ways a response to the many people who objected to Human Smoke, I would love to see a real, sustained exchange on the subject between Baker and some of the people, especially those on the left, who hold so tightly to the notion of the good war.  Baker is deeply mistrustful of it.  His insistence that a falsely sanitized image of air power has held sway from WWII to the present is compelling.  So too is the insistent focus on the refugee issue.  Could more have been done to save Jews, things that didn’t involve firebombing?  Recent events suggest that Americans, among other nations, would try almost anything before accepting a flood of refugees.

This past week I enjoyed a third Cesar Aira novella, The Literary Conference.  I’m planning to reread Meno and read some of the dialogues I haven’t gotten to yet.  I’m also trying to make myself learn some chess openings.  I have a cool old copy of Capablanca’s Primer of Chess; maybe that will be more fun than looking them up online.

Image by Skyden67, via Wikimedia Commons, CC share alike.

Peace is More Interesting than War

Though not very warlike, I’ve read my share of war books, from infantry combat memoirs to Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  Many of the books that I count as personal landmarks are structured around wars, though some, like Herodotus, range far and wide over humanity.  Leaving The Prince and Leviathan aside, even a philosophical work as fundamental as Plato’s Republic is addressed to the question of what makes a society fit for war.  It’s with this background that I try to make sense of the challenging implications of the eight hundred plus pages, largely living up to the blurbed “pace of a thriller”, of Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945.

War, of course, does have a major role in the book.  The American army was a fixture in Western Europe.  The first Vietnam War and the Algerian War appear in due order (I’m only a third of the way through).  Judt plays down the Cold War, apparently subscribing to the theory that increasingly sophisticated systems of mutually assured destruction were more stable than the early days of conflict over Berlin, and arguing that England, France, and Germany could no longer be expected to make meaningful contributions to their defense in the days of ballistic missiles and hydrogen bombs.  The Cold War has been more on my mind lately, thanks to the war in Ukraine, obviously, but also because among my acquaintance, the issue of children on the border has brought up memories of dirty wars in Latin America.  From the point of view of someone wanting to think about these issues, reading Judt’s book actually has the downside of focusing on the perhaps the most triumphant episode in recent history, the lasting peace and increasing economic integration between Germany, France, and the other nations of devastated Europe.

Judt’s focus on the politics of Europe, rather than a bipolar world, counters the cynical view that the thoroughly defeated nations deserve no credit for keeping the peace, and led to the title of this post.  It’s France that takes center stage here, jealous of Britain’s special relationship with the U.S., determined to prevent German revanchism, nearly upset first by communism and then by militant reactionaries in the wake of the withdrawal from Algeria.  Though I’m still a great way from an actual, technical economic understanding of what went into making modern Europe, Judt has shown me how much there is that deserves a closer look.

Two Short Books on World War I

German advance

It’s convenient that the hundredth anniversary has come around, but the real reason I’m reading these is that I was trying to get rid of some books I bought on impulse that are now cluttering up my life. 

I got started with Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger.  When he died in 1998 at the age of 102, Junger was the last living holder of Pour le Merite, the highest military honor of the German Empire (says Wikipedia).  I bought the book a few years ago when I was reading Clive James’ stimulating Cultural Amnesia, a kind of rambling encyclopedia of little known interwar types.  The impression I get is that Junger is a little hard to figure out.  His memoir is important, gripping, well written stuff, but though he was never a Nazi, he’s too militaristic for many people to stomach.

junger crop

Ernst Junger

Junger hardly ever looks up from the details of his war in the trenches on the Western Front.  He enlisted first as a rifleman, wanting to be responsible only for himself, but after being wounded the first time he changed his mind and became a commissioned officer.  Even after several promotions, he seems to have been most interested in leading night raids into no man’s land.  He certainly never talks politics, only alluding by way of matters of morale in the ranks.  Though there’s no shortage of gore, and he’s fairly frank about what seem to have been minor nervous breakdowns, he gives the impression of having suffered nothing that a hot breakfast wouldn’t fix.   The long and even the mid term view is completely missing from this book.  The beginning and the end of the war are not discussed.

Overall, Storm of Steel is a dull, even simple read, but I get the sense that there could be a lot going on under the surface.  A psychologist or an historian might really be able to sink his or her teeth in.  What, for example, to make of the publication history of the book?  Junger worked from his diaries, and the first version was apparently more or less a transcription; later versions changed emphases, reducing explicit gore or, so I hear, loading up on military cliches.  The translator of my Penguin edition merely remarks that a full treatment of this subject has not been undertaken.  I imagine it would shed light on a few instances where Junger might be deceiving himself.  For example, after a disastrous raid in which much of his platoon disappeared, he says he felt simply terrible, but then quotes a subordinate who admired Junger’s spirited way of leaping over entaglements.  A phrase like “disturbed only by mosquitoes, shelling, and occasional bombardments of gas” might be drollery, but there is a limit.

While I was still reading Junger, I checked out Norman Stone’s WWI: A Short History.  It certainly is short.  While I hesitate to criticize a work that obviously required a colossal effort of synthesis and compression, I am finding his writing difficult.  I don’t usually need to read a sentence two or three times to work out syntax and antecedents.  It is proving to be an interesting check on Junger; Stone contradicts Junger, for example, in insisting that the Germans enjoyed long advantage in munitions production.  I think I could do better than these two works, entertaining as they are, if I were to make a real effort at learning more about this topic, but I’m not sure I have the time now.  But just in case, are there any books that have helped you understand WWI?

Decius Leads Enemy Armies Down to Hell

(This is the last but one of my Livy top five.)

In 340 BC the Romans were dealing with the revolt of their closest allies and neighbors, the Latins.  As Machiavelli emphasizes, these men had fought beside the Romans and knew their way of fighting as well as they did.  The night before the battle, both consuls had the same dream: The gods of the underworld wanted one army and one general, and they would take them from opposing sides.  The consuls agreed that whichever wing faltered first, the consul in command there would sacrifice himself.  So Publius Decius Mus, when his side began to give way, performed the devotio.  He put on purple, stood on a spear, said a simple prayer to the gods “new and native”, and rode into the enemy ranks, where he made such an impression that it was some time before he was brought down with ranged weapons.   Needless to say, the Romans won.