Jonah Goldberg's deeply "conflicted" thoughts on war and torture

The war cheerleader and torture apologist explains why the rationale underlying his beliefs is so very complicated and nuanced.

Published November 12, 2007 4:13PM (EST)

In this week's version of their borderline-unwatchable (though, I confess, perversely engrossing) Internet chat show, Jonah Goldberg and his friend, Peter Beinart, amicably debate waterboarding. Jonah protests the unfair treatment of what he calls the "pro-waterboarding camp's position." Waterboarding, you see, is a "tough question" and Jonah feels "very personally conflicted about it." What Jonah calls "one half of his brain's problem with the debate" is that it is an "open question" if waterboarding is even torture at all. All very riveting.

To explain his objections to the use of the "pro-torture" label for those who are merely "pro-waterborading," Jonah creates an analogy which very well may be the most deceitful and hypocritical claim ever uttered. The "pro-torture" label is unfair because it obscures what Jonah calls -- seriously -- all of the "nuance and principled objections involved on the side of those willing to condone waterborading." He then unleashes his analogy:

It's sort of like calling people pro-war. Very few people just love war. Um, most people have, you knew, a pretty well-developed series of reasons why war is sometimes necessary as a last resort, and sometimes not. And to simply call people "pro-war" glosses over all of that.

Absolutely. Calling neoconservatives like Jonah "pro-war" is every bit as unfair as describing the "pro-waterboarding camp" as "pro-torture." Here, for instance, was Jonah's highly nuanced, principled, and extremely reluctant case for starting a war against Iraq:


So how does all this, or the humble attempt at a history lesson of my last column, justify tearing down the Baghdad regime? Well, I've long been an admirer of, if not a full-fledged subscriber to, what I call the "Ledeen Doctrine."

I'm not sure my friend Michael Ledeen will thank me for ascribing authorship to him and he may have only been semi-serious when he crafted it, but here is the bedrock tenet of the Ledeen Doctrine in more or less his own words: "Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business." That's at least how I remember Michael phrasing it at a speech at the American Enterprise Institute about a decade ago (Ledeen is one of the most entertaining public speakers I've ever heard, by the way).

Just to underscore the case, Jonah went on to assure us: "Whether or not Ledeen -- a historian and student of Machiavelli -- was being tongue-in-cheek when he made the suggestion, there's an obvious insight to it."

And the same person who today righteously explains that virtually nobody can fairly be called "pro-war" then said (emphasis in original):

There is nothing we want to see happen in the Middle East that can be accomplished through talking around long tables festooned with bottled water and fresh fruit at Swiss hotels, that cannot be accomplished faster and more permanently through war. But there is plenty that cannot be achieved by such gabfests that can only be achieved through war.

And what was the highly nuanced, principled, profoundly serious and angst-ridden rationale for choosing Iraq to invade (only as a "last resort," of course)? This: "The United States needs to go to war with Iraq because it needs to go to war with someone in the region and Iraq makes the most sense."

Is it even possible to ponder the intellectual depravity necessary to enable the same person who said that "every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall," to now solemnly lecture us about how nobody should be called "pro-war" because war is only chosen reluctantly as a last resort and that label obscures all the deep thoughts and nuances underlying the war cheerleading?

It's the same type of depravity necessary to deny -- or even question -- the proposition that waterboarding is torture. Here is counter-terrorism expert Malcolm Nance -- a former master instructor and chief of training at the U.S. Navy Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School (SERE) who underwent and trained in the waterboarding technique (in order to teach U.S. soldiers how to endure captivity at the hands of waterboarders such as Al Qaeda) -- in The New York Daily News:

When performed on an unsuspecting prisoner, waterboarding is a torture technique -- without a doubt. There is no way to sugarcoat it.

In the media, waterboarding is called "simulated drowning," but that's a misnomer. It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning.

Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word. . . .

Waterboarding is slow-motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of blackout and expiration. Usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch. If it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia -- meaning, the loss of all oxygen to the cells. . . .

One has to overcome basic human decency to endure causing the effects. The brutality would force you into a personal moral dilemma between humanity and hatred. It would leave you questioning the meaning of what it is to be an American.

Of course, Jonah never has "been strapped down to the board" and thus it's easy (and repulsive) for him to send around with his friend Pete talking about all the fascinating theoretical nuances behind the "waterboarding debate." Identically, he's never been near a war and it is thus fun and easy for him to beat his chest and type about the "need to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall."

As extreme -- and sometimes unfathomable -- as the events of the last six years have been, it isn't actually that difficult to understand why it has all happened. It's because there's nothing unique about Los Angeles Times columnist Jonah Goldberg; he's depressingly commonplace.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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