Jigsaw Films, 106 minutes
In his unflinching memoir of the Pacific War, With the Old Breed (1981), Eugene Sledge reported that his fellow marines regularly used their bayonets to gouge gold teeth from Japanese corpses. On one occasion, an American marine actually tried to pry his gold trophy from the mouth of a Japanese prisoner, still writhing in agony. Such darker moments of “the good war” are not often remembered today.1 And of course, they were not publicly reported at the time.
The new documentary Taxi to the Dark Side aims to ensure that we don’t gloss over abuses perpetrated by the American military in our current wars. It has already been hailed as a great documentary, nominated for distinguished prizes, and awarded an Oscar.
American soldiers stand guard over prisoners awaiting transport.
The film does not exactly report breaking news. The central stories that it tells appeared in the New York Times several years ago, but writer and director Alex Gibney tries to plumb what the story really means. Taxi does not engage in the clowning or the cheap shots of a Michael Moore production. What it offers instead is unrelenting indignation.
The film tells its story almost entirely through interviews. At the outset, we encounter American soldiers—or rather, veterans of the U.S. Army—who guarded or interrogated detainees at Bagram prison in Afghanistan during the first two years after the overthrow of the Taliban. Then we hear from lawyers for detainees at Guantánamo, from a released prisoner at Gitmo, from various critics. High Bush Administration officials appear only in excerpts from press conferences, television appearances and congressional testimony in excerpts that make them appear either callous or mendacious.
Taxi takes its name from the very sad story of an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar. He was apprehended at a roadside checkpoint by U.S. forces in 2002 and died in custody at Bagram prison only five days later. Gibney links his story with the statement of Vice President Dick Cheney on Meet the Press, only a week after the 9/11 attacks, explaining that, to forestall such attacks in the future, the United States would need to pursue much more aggressive intelligence efforts: “We have to work the dark side”, as he put it, indicating that the United States could only defend itself against “nasty, vicious enemies” by engaging in some “nasty, vicious” measures of its own.
The point of Taxi to the Dark Side is to make the connections between abuses in the field and attitudes and policies laid out in Washington. It is an extended rebuttal to the claim that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were mere aberrations. The film shows then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Meyers explaining that the notorious photos from that Iraqi prison were the work of “the night shift”, who acted against orders and without the knowledge of superiors. The film wants us to see that in fact such abuses started much earlier, spreading “like a virus” from Afghanistan to Guantánamo, then from Guantánamo to Abu Ghraib—encouraged throughout by the highest-level policymakers in Washington.
The indictment in Taxi proceeds on three levels, somewhat skillfully woven together. These levels might be described as managerial failings, legal defiance and moral collapse. Only the first seems really credible to me. But the film tries to use the indisputable to buttress the improbable.
What does seem indisputable is that the U.S. Army delegated too much responsibility for interrogations to soldiers not properly trained or supervised for such work. That is the most reasonable conclusion to draw from the film’s interviews with soldiers who guarded or interrogated Dilawar at Bagram. They were not officers but enlisted men. They do not come across as sadists or even bullies but as reasonably reflective, serious individuals. Only at the end of the film do we learn that they were prosecuted in the military justice system and subjected to various degrees of punishment, including time in military prison, for what happened to Dilawar. Perhaps what they say is self-serving: The film does not let us hear from those who prosecuted these individuals, nor from those who testified against them. But their stories are mutually consistent and compelling in themselves.
Prisoners like Dilawar had their hands shackled to the ceiling to keep them in a standing position for hours at a time. Sometimes they were kicked or beaten on the legs to try to make them more cooperative or to make them stand more quietly. According to the army medical examiner, Dilawar died from a blood clot caused by this beating. His interrogators did not expect that a prisoner would die from the treatment they imposed, and they worried that they would get in trouble when he did. They were surprised that there were no consequences at the time. The Army only launched criminal investigations some years later, after the revelations about Abu Ghraib, and after the New York Times began looking into stories of earlier abuse in Afghanistan.
Subsequent investigations indicated that Dilawar’s arrest was, from the outset, a misunderstanding. An electrical device found in the trunk of the taxi was suspected of being an implement for a bomb. But the device belonged to passengers Dilawar had met only when they entered his cab. And even those passengers, though detained for a long period, were ultimately released without charge.
Yet Dilawar’s case did not arise in the first chaotic weeks after the Taliban was chased from Afghan cities, but more than a year after American forces established their long-term operations in Afghanistan. The least one can say is that the U.S. Army does not seem to have made it a priority to refine its methods for distinguishing likely terror suspects from innocent civilians. And it did not take sufficient precautions against the abuses that might have been expected from routine reliance on harsh interrogation methods.
But Taxi to the Dark Side is not content to point out careless or ill-considered policies. It offers, among other things, the claim that military superiors were deliberately vague in their instructions to forces in the field, and that officers were deliberately evasive in orders to subordinates—such as those who interrogated Dilawar—because they did not want to leave a paper trail exposing them to prosecution for war crimes. That is how the film takes us from charges of abuse and neglect to charges of lawlessness.
We are told via interviews, for example, that the Bush Administration, at the highest levels, decided to reject the application of the Geneva Conventions to Afghan prisoners, to suspend habeas corpus for Guantánamo detainees, and to waive legal constraints on torture. We are told, through snippets of interviews with lawyers for detainees, that all of these decisions were shocking. But the film’s account of the legal issues is so abbreviated and one-sided that the presentation is entirely misleading.
Regarding the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war, for example, the film fails to mention that the actual 1949 Convention sets out qualifications for its protections that would not apply to most guerrilla forces, let alone terrorists. Precisely because everyone recognized such limits, an additional protocol was negotiated after the Vietnam War to protect fighters like the Viet Cong—but the United States has never ratified that protocol. The U.S. Supreme Court did hold in the summer of 2006 that one provision of the Geneva Conventions would apply to prisoners taken in Afghanistan. But only five of the nine justices agreed with this conclusion, and those five rested on the extraordinary premise that the war in Afghanistan, because it was not waged against the recognized government of that country, could be described (in the requisite jurisdictional term) as “an armed conflict not of an international character.”
Similarly, the Court’s 2005 ruling in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, which allowed Guantánamo detainees to appeal to Federal courts, was a remarkable innovation. Never before in U.S. history had courts challenged military detentions of foreign prisoners by U.S. forces overseas. When a prisoner of war held in Germany in the late 1940s sought to challenge his detention in this way, the Supreme Court (by eight to one) held the claim beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. courts. The prison facility at Guantánamo was established there not to circumvent the law but to gain the benefit of seemingly well established law protecting U.S. overseas military operations from second-guessing by domestic courts.
Even with regard to interrogation methods and charges of torture, the legal issues are not at all straightforward. Sleep deprivation and enforced standing are methods that have been approved—that is, held to be on the safe side of international prohibitions on torture—by British courts, by the European Court of Human Rights and by the Israeli Supreme Court. Even these methods, however, if pursued without respite, can inflict lasting physical damage. It matters where one draws the line, but it isn’t obvious where lines should be drawn.
The film features an historian who tells us about CIA investigations into the effects of sensory deprivation, which it has pursued since the 1950s. The film does not allow anyone connected with the CIA to say what practices were used on terror suspects in the past five years. The film doesn’t mention—though it has been reported in the press—that waterboarding was used successfully on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, architect of the 9/11 attacks, after he was captured in 2002. Government officials have said the interrogation yielded a great deal of very valuable information about al-Qaeda plans and operations. Instead, the film only offers testimony from FBI officials who claim that torture never provides useful information. One need not be a ghoul to think otherwise.
Taxi glosses over all the legal complications so that the charge of lawlessness can serve as the predicate to an even stronger charge. When the film tells us about the U.S. disregard of the Geneva Conventions, it tells us that the Conventions were drafted after World War II in response to atrocities committed against prisoners.
That is somewhat misleading, since international treaties protecting prisoners of war go back at least to the Hague Conventions of 1899. We could not have prosecuted Nazi atrocities if they had not already been regarded as unlawful at the time. But the invocation of the World War II experience allows the film to cut to newsreel footage of emaciated concentration camp victims tottering toward the camera. The pictures convey the point: If you disregard established legal constraints, you will end up behaving as the Nazis did.
But of course the film cannot really demonstrate this conclusion because it is absurd. The narrator tells us that as many as 25 deaths of detainees have now been classified by military authorities as possible homicides. That is a disturbing number, to be sure, but it is not evidence of systematic murder considering that more than 80,000 prisoners have been detained for some period since 2001.
Even so, the film can’t resist straining for some larger point. We are told, for example, that evidence extracted by torture was used to back up Colin Powell’s claim to the UN Security Council in February 2003 of links between Saddam Hussein’s regime and al-Qaeda—as if all the resulting miseries of the Iraq war sprang from this reliance on one unreliable source. We are told by an interrogator who was at Bagram that Americans used to pride themselves on being good but seem to have decided after 9/11 that they could no longer afford to hold themselves to higher standards. Then we hear, as a kind of epilogue, from Frank Gibney, father of the film’s writer-director, who says that when he was an interrogator for the Navy in World War II, nothing like torture was ever employed, because the United States did then hold itself to a higher standard.
In fact, American soldiers sometimes used very brutal methods to extract information from prisoners during World War II. Whether this was known or approved by high-level officials is by now a somewhat moot point. American policymakers at the highest levels planned and implemented the massive bombing of cities in Germany and Japan, which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. Taxi suggests that we have gotten ourselves into nasty, protracted conflicts because we have lowered our standards since World War II, “the good war.” But the truth is almost the opposite: We live with more uncertainty about our military methods today because we try to hold ourselves to higher standards.
We should hold ourselves to high standards whenever we can. And we surely can do better than we did at Bagram and Abu Ghraib. But we should not imagine that victory, or even peace, is an assured reward for the pure at heart and the clean of hand. The real world does not always follow the ethical or aesthetic priorities of film directors.
There are exceptions; see “Reporting the Good War: A Conversation with Ken Burns”, The American Interest (September/October 2007).