America's Dark Side
Mark Danner’s new book, Stripping Bare the Body, is damning in its assessment of American foreign policy failures in Haiti, Bosnia, and now Iraq, says Chris Lehmann.
It’s all too easy to think of the unmourned Bush era as an aberration—an unsteady compound of crisis, ideology, and ambition that produced a fearful consolidation of executive power, a shoddy set of rationales for foreign invasion, and a shameful descent, in the military-intelligence world, into what Vice President Dick Cheney called, with typically unseemly relish, “the dark side.”
In a more just world, Stripping Bare the Body would occupy the center of global policy debate traditionally assigned for witless tracts by Tom Friedman or Madeleine Albright.
But Mark Danner, a journalist and a professor at Bard College and the University of California at Berkeley, has been tracking the dark side of U.S. power for more than 25 years. Especially in the wake of the United States’ catastrophic invasion of Iraq, Danner’s work—which mainly appears in The New York Review of Books—has served as a key touchstone for readers keen on finding the kind of sharp, historically informed dissenting views on critical questions of war-making and statecraft that largely went missing from most mainstream press chronicles of the run-up, and immediate aftermath, of the Iraq mission. And in this sprawling anthology of his foreign reportage and policy-minded essays, Danner stresses that, for all the excesses of diplomacy as practiced in the Bush White House, they form the logical culmination of America’s restive career as the world’s pre-eminent post-Cold War superpower. True, he writes, George W. Bush blundered into the Iraq invasion with “a thoroughgoing incompetence that stands unmatched in U.S. history.” But the “de facto martial law imposed after the attacks of September 11” occupies a point along a continuum, he writes, in “a moral history of America as a world power over the last quarter-century.”
That history, as told across the 27 unflinching accounts collected in Stripping Bare the Body, doesn’t make for easy, or comforting, reading. The collection starts with Danner’s New Yorker dispatches from the horrific 1988 election massacres in Haiti, where the Tonton Macoutes—the infamous roving security mobs founded by former President François Duvalier—slaughtered civilians in polling places, and ensured that Haiti’s first open election would produce yet another brutal, undemocratic military government. Danner supplies many first-hand accounts of the carnage and its aftermath, but one of the most chilling scenes involves a gathering of U.S. diplomats in Port-au-Prince, ruefully presenting the standard, self-serving American portrait as put-upon caretaker of a poor, black island in its Cold War sphere of influence. “This country is like a very old patient in a hospital,” one of them prates, “and he’s on the machine, but even though the doctors see no sign of recovery, they don’t pull the plug.” When Danner polls the company on why the United States could not step up sanctions on the regime after initially withdrawing foreign aid from Haiti, they take up the same weary, overcivilized refrain: “There is no alternative.”
That dictum also serves as the de facto motto for Danner’s account of the U.S. role in the Balkan conflict of the 1990s. Beginning with James Baker, the secretary of state for George H.W. Bush, American policymakers greeted the specter of a European genocide with a posture of studied (yet glib) indifference. “We got no dog in this fight,” Baker dismissively announced in 1991, after a failed, harried effort to broker a provisional compromise among leaders in the former Yugoslavia—and sure enough, when reports began to surface of Serb-run concentration camps in Bosnia, and the coordinated campaign of ethnic-cleansing atrocities committed by Serbian troops, “the information...passed forward to Secretary of State James Baker and to senior officials at the Pentagon and the White House...met with silence,” Danner archly reports.
Bill Clinton seemed to signal a welcome shift in policy priorities when he announced as president-elect that “the legitimacy of ethnic cleansing cannot stand.” Yet as Danner’s accounts show in raw, shocking detail, that legitimacy not only stood, but was the de facto driver of U.S. policy until Serbian General Ratko Mladic’s bloodthirsty massacre in the U.N. “safe haven” of Srebrenica claimed more than 7,000 Muslim lives. For the victims of many similar Serb campaigns, the dilatory U.S. approach to the Balkans crisis was an especially bitter crash course in the uniquely callow approach to diplomacy favored by the leaders of post-Cold War America: “For Bill Clinton, as the Bosnians were slowly discovering, speaking out against inhumanity often seemed a means of standing up against it.”
Viewed against this broader backdrop, the country’s ADD-style post-9/11 incursion into Iraq—for all its surface resoluteness and score-settling brio—points up what, for close observers, should have been a familiar pattern of the post-Cold War American sense of mission: a fanciful attachment to the fiction of the United States as an unsullied actor on the global stage (hated “for our freedoms,” as George W. Bush memorably put it), and a no less stubborn resistance to reckoning with the true human and political costs of the nation’s moral vanity. “Not for the first time,” Danner wrote shortly after the Iraq invasion began to go sour, “the United States has shown itself to be a strange, hybrid creature, military giant and political dwarf.”
But unlike many other detractors of the dismal errand into Iraq, Danner leavens his acid judgments with firsthand reporting. He sympathetically records, for example, the efforts of a “brilliant and indefatigable” State diplomat, meeting with a wide battery of officials in the Sunni-dominated Anbar Province prior to the historic 2006 vote to ratify a constitution establishing an independent government in occupied Iraq. When the official confidently forecasts that, in spite of the announced Sunni boycott of the ballot, “people here—a great many people—are going to vote yes,” Danner marvels at the predictions, and considers it, potentially, “an invaluable bit of inside wisdom.” Nevertheless, he notes, the actual ballot yielded precious view few Anbar ballots—and even then, “in Anbar ninety-seven out of every one hundred Iraqis who voted had voted no.” Patiently setting out to explore how “with all his contacts and commitment, with all his energy and brilliance,” such a pivotal observer could “on the most basic and critical issue of politics on the ground” be “entirely, catastrophically wrong,” Danner opens out into a policy review of how the entire Iraq debacle was shaped by similar evidence-free assertions of officially sanctioned dogma. With far more sweeping and damning policy miscues in his sights—such as the WMD farce, or provisional government head L. Paul Bremer’s mystifying decision merely to disband the 300,000-member Iraqi army, thereby bequeathing a vast cohort of motivated, experienced recruits to the insurgency—Danner concludes that “the systematic failures in Iraq resulted in large part from an almost willful determination to cut off those in government who knew anything from those who made the decisions.”
Likewise, the far more calculated, culpable official silence that surrounds the torture of U.S. detainees in facilities such as Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and the CIA-administered “black sites” that housed subjects of extraordinary renditions is, Danner writes, “made not of facts but of the myths that replace them when facts remain secret: myths that are fueled by allusions to a dark world of secrets that cannot be revealed.” Such myths, he notes, render the historic conduct of torture by U.S. forces and intelligence officials—first reported in American newspapers in 2002—a “frozen scandal: revealed but unpunished, exposed but unexorcised.” Revisiting the gruesome accounts of detainee torture in the International Committee of the Red Cross report on black site interrogation, Danner zeroes in on the incalculable institutional as well as human costs of a torture-approving regime. Reminding readers that victims of black site abuse such as Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheik Muhammad “almost certainly have blood on their hands, a great deal of blood,” Danner moves on to the essential point: “The use of torture deprives the society whose laws have been so egregiously violated of the possibility of rendering justice...Torture in effect relinquishes that sacred right in exchange for speculative benefits whose value is, at the least, much disputed.”
Stripping Bare the Body isn’t a definitive account of the country’s lurch into the truly Orwellian world of routine state brutality—and the official secrecy, ignorance, and euphemism that must always function as its handmaiden. There is little discussion, for example, of the first Iraq war of 1991-92, and its crucial role in harnessing the electronic media to the prerogatives of state power—or of the genocide in Rwanda, which should have furnished all kinds of cautionary lessons for U.S. policymakers, but predictably enough, went unremarked as anything but a remote and ugly diversion for the world-bestriding policy elite. There is also, surprisingly, none of Danner’s own invaluable writing on the American press’ prostration as a de facto propaganda arm in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. But there is ample material for a clear-eyed appraisal of the American republic’s decades-long slough into global despond, for readers with the stomach to countenance such a thing candidly. In a more just world, Stripping Bare the Body would occupy the center of global policy debate traditionally assigned for witless tracts by Tom Friedman or Madeleine Albright. But in a more just world, you also wouldn’t have to hunt down Mark Danner’s searching essays and riveting war dispatches in The New York Review of Books.
Chris Lehmann is co-editor of Book Forum and a columnist for TheAwl.com.