Monday, July 28, 2008

Jane Mayer, American ideals, and military lawyers

Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (Doubleday, 2008) is making a big splash this summer. It’s landed on the New York Times bestseller list and sent its author to countless interviews, including appearances last week with Bill Moyers and David Letterman.

Despite its grim title, Mayer’s book does more than call out villains (a fairly despicable David Addington stars as Public Enemy No. 1, but many others lurk alongside). In both her book (its dedication professes her “love of American history and admiration for those who have fought to fulfill the promise of the country’s ideals”) and interviews (on Letterman she said that there are “many good guys in the military, and in the FBI”), Mayer is careful to give credit to those who resisted “the dark side”.

Among those who come out best in her account are uniformed military lawyers. Mayer documents how the JAG corps was bypassed, ignored, and isolated while key decisions were made about military commissions, the laws of war, and the rules regarding the treatment of prisoners. This is not a new interpretation; Mayer’s narrative echoes charges made repeatedly in press coverage (including her own work in The New Yorker) of the White House’s frequent dismissal of military legal expertise. For example, in the drafting of the military commission order, the services’ top lawyers were “marginalized,” in the words of Rear Admiral Donald J. Guter (88) (Guter is now dean of Duquesne Law School), and ultimately blind-sided by the rash proposal to authorize a new version of military commissions. The infamous “torture memos” triggered shock and outrage from many military lawyers: “The memos from uniformed lawyers to the politically appointed general counsel were brimming with barely concealed disbelief at the direction the Justice Department was proposing for soldiers to take “ (232).

Mayer draws on interviews, government reports, legal analyses, and an already extensive body of scholarship to build a damning critique of post 9/11 legal conclusions and political actions. But not yet answered is the central historical question: why did the U.S. adopt legal and military practices so wrongful in the face of such powerful opposition? Judge advocates and other officials who realized, in real time, that grave mistakes were being made could not stop the Bush administration despite what Mayer casts as truly valiant efforts.

The hubris of a few misguided individuals may be enough explanation for now. But eventually, we have to reconcile the impotence of Mayer’s “good guys” with her faith in American ideals-- and her hope for the future.