We never use torture, nuclear weapons or cluster munitions, unless we need to

by John M. Crisp

No terrain is more difficult to defend than the moral high ground. As a rule, however, America has done a decent job of it. We are not the sort of people who use torture, nuclear weapons or cluster munitions. Unless we need to. 

Consider torture. It’s illegal in the United States to torture another human being, but it’s incontrovertible that American armed forces used torture in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War to extract information and to terrorize and brutalize Philippine insurgents. Waterboarding was popular (yes, waterboarding is torture). In fact, torture thrives in war. 

After 9/11, the George W. Bush administration skirted the law (and tortured the English language) by calling torture “enhanced interrogation.” But, in fact, suspects were tortured at Guantanamo and at so-called black sites located in countries not as scrupulous about torture as we would like to think we are. 

But whenever I’ve argued against any use of torture, someone always brings up this simple hypothetical case: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in a major American city. Its location can be determined only by the use of torture. The clock is ticking. Would torture be justified in order to locate and disarm the bomb?  

I don’t have a good answer for that question. Nor can I gainsay the positions of those who argue that torture is justified in such a case. All I really know is that, yes, we would use it. 

Nuclear weapons? We abhor the use of these incredibly powerful and indiscriminate weapons, but is there any doubt that, if the stakes were high enough, we would use them? Indeed, we’re the only country that has. 

This is the context in which to consider President Joe Biden’s decision last week to supply the Ukrainian military with cluster munitions, the insidious weapons that have been banned by more than a hundred countries, but not by the United States, Ukraine and Russia. 

Cluster munitions are long-range artillery shells that break open in midair to release up to 72 highly destructive bomblets that scatter over an area larger than a football field and wreak havoc on armor and personnel. 

The problem is that cluster munitions have a “dud rate” that can range from under 3% to over 40%, which means that many unexploded bomblets are left strewn across the landscape. Thousands of civilians, many of them children, have been killed or injured by the bomblets long after the wars have ended. 

Biden’s decision was controversial and politically risky. Republicans generally supported sending cluster munitions to Ukraine, but some Democrats resisted. 

Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania asserted that victory for Ukraine is essential, but that it “cannot come at the expense of our American values and thus democracy itself…I challenge the notion that we should employ the same tactics Russia is using, blurring the lines of moral high ground.”  

Houlahan’s point is a good one, but in real-world terms, it embodies an ideological and moral purity that we may not be able to afford. 

My generation’s war was Vietnam, a hopelessly ill-advised conflict that birthed the hippie subculture slogan: “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came.” Unfortunately, this aspirational notion never stood a chance in the face of humanity’s enduring instinct for war. In fact, few activities are more foundational to humankind than fighting each other, and few aspirations are more futile than the abolition of war. 

I hope, however, that we keep trying to talk more and fight less. In the meantime, there are values worth fighting for, and democracy’s conflict with totalitarianism represents one of them. But often there is no nonviolent, humane way to defend democratic values without sinking to the level of brutality that autocrats are willing to employ without a second thought. 

So we will send cluster munitions to the Ukrainians, and very likely civilians and children will suffer from unexploded bomblets for years to come. 

This is not the way it should be; unfortunately, history suggests that this is the way it always is. 

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Texas and can be reached at jcrispcolumns@gmail.com.