Were you inclined to take a course on war crimes, you might hie yourself to peaceable Berry College in South Georgia. With but 2,000 students on a campus of 20,000 acres, this paradoxical place is where Professor John Hickman not only teaches said seminar in a deeply Republican part of the world, but also has written a meticulously researched, grimly entertaining new book entitled Selling Guantanamo: Exploding the Propaganda Surrounding America’s Most Notorious Military Prison.
Guantanamo Bay, once best known as the military base where Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup issued Code Reds in A Few Good Men, is positively infamous these days for a real-life prison complex incarcerating 166 men who may or may not be enemies of the state. We don’t really know, because so few have been charged, let alone prosecuted for any sort of crime. For fans of freedom, Guantanamo has become synonymous with perfidy, and Mr. Hickman’s book explains why.
WELD: How did a guy like you come to write a book like this in a place like that?
JOHN HICKMAN: I teach a class on war crimes and genocide. It’s one of the most popular things I teach, and it is grim stuff, but on the other hand, it has made me focus over the years on how we treat people captured in war, and Guantanamo seemed extraordinary. Kind of a throwback to things that were done in the past, when exceptional groups of prisoners were hauled off to remote islands and spectacularly punished.
WELD: How did these prisoners wind up in Cuba instead of some far-flung American territory like Guam or Wake Island or such?
JH: Some of those things were initially considered. The attraction [of Guantanamo] was that it was a place where you could conduct a spectacle properly. It was a place where it would be easy for members of Congress to troop down, and journalists. It would be easy to get the kind of prisoner parade that the administration wanted. Guam, for instance, was rather farther away.
WELD: After the attacks of 9/11, in your research, whom did you find in the Bush Administration having the idea to detain these suspects in the Guantanamo facility in the first place?
JH: I think it was kicked around by a number of people. More importantly than that, in a sense, it was an institutional memory. After all, what did we do with the Cuban and Haitian “boat people”? [Thousands of these seafaring emigrants were detained at Guantanamo in the 1990s.] The Clinton administration, in fact, considered moving people from the Yugoslav conflict there at one point. So, at different times, people have thought about Guantanamo, because it does constitute a sort of international legal gray area. For years, it was considered not U.S. territory, but under the control of the United States. Unlike anyplace else, in a way, because we didn’t have a Status of Forces agreement with Cuba. It was just a really unusual political/geographic location. Far away, but also proximate. If you think about island prisons, they are often close, but in some way that’s significant for people, not part of the regular territory of the country that’s doing the imprisoning. Like the British, with the Isle of Man.
WELD: Or Alcatraz.
JH: Right. It makes great spectacle. And the administration was after spectacle. I think [Vice President Dick] Cheney and [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld both realized the value of that, because they had something else they wanted to do. They wanted to launch a war against Iraq. They wanted a prisoner parade to demonstrate a quick victory in Afghanistan so they could get on to the main business.
I think the real story here is that meeting at Camp David [September 16, 2011], where they’re kicking around what to do about 9/11. There was a war party that said, “Forget about Afghanistan, this is our chance to go get Iraq.” They had to talk themselves into actually going into Afghanistan and waging war against al-Qaeda, but from the very beginning they were thinking about the other war, the war they wanted to wage. The one against Baghdad. How do you get there? Well, you win quick in Afghanistan — or at least you appear to do so — and you convince the public you’ve won so you can go on and wage the war you really want to wage.
WELD: A crucial word in the title of your book is “propaganda.” What do you see as the mechanism used to control our understanding of the situation?
JH: They needed a narrative to justify the Guantanamo decision, right? So they offered three different rationales, more or less all at the same time. First was that these guys hauled there represented some sort of extraordinary threat; “the worst of the worst” was one of the phrases used, right? The second was intelligence, in that this was a great place to interrogate these guys and collect all kinds of valuable intelligence, and the third was, we’re going to prosecute them. Or some of them.
The problem is that all three of these turned out to be unreal. They did not do those things.
WELD: Do you think they ever intended to subject the detainees to due process?
JH: I don’t think they cared, frankly. They were doing something else. They wanted, as I say, the spectacle of victory. That was the crucial thing. Those guys dressed in orange, trussed up on the tarmac — that was the virtual spectacle of victory; “Look, American public, look, world public, we have won.”
The second thing they wanted to do was subject someone, anyone, to punishment for 9/11. The United States was in kind of a mood to get even. Surprise attacks typically elicit that kind of response. The guys who were largely responsible for that were in hiding, but we wanted to punish somebody sooner than later. So [the Guantanamo detainees] served.
And the third thing — and this is a deeper part of the neoconservative agenda — there was an announcement function here. I think this is the least obvious part, but really important: when countries are wanting to indicate that they’re willing to change the international rules of the game, how the international system works, one of the things they often do is subject prisoners captured in war to some new treatment that tells everybody that whoever’s in power is going to do things differently now.
WELD: The new sheriff’s in town.
JH: Indeed. This was a way to tell the world the United States would no longer be playing even by the Clinton Administration’s rules. We were going to be a lot more unilateralist. You were for us or ag’in us, and we were going to set the terms of the new international order. There’s no better way to do that than to say, “Look, we’re going to ignore the rules that applied before — the Geneva Conventions — and we’re going to do what we will here, take it or leave it.”
WELD: From your background and perspective on these matters, is there anything remotely analogous in our nation’s backstory to what has happened at Guantanamo?
JH: In a sense, how we tried to deal with the so-called “boat people,” those Cuban and Haitian refugees, is a little like this. So, too, is how we treated the Chiricahua Apache [Indian tribe, circa 1886], hauling them all the way from the Southwest to Florida for some fairly similar treatment. Those two examples are close, but not quite. I think Guantanamo really stands out in American history as an absolutely extraordinary decision to make.
WELD: Especially in the flouting of basic human rights, going back to Magna Carta, for people in detention.
JH: Yes. Habeas corpus had long been understood as essential to political liberty. Basically the administration just said, “Nah, we’re not that interested.” Which makes it all the more astonishing and significant, I think.
WELD: Despite President Obama’s stated intention, two days after his first inauguration, to close the facility, Congress has bucked him repeatedly. What do you see as the politics of Guantanamo?
JH: A lot of people bought into the initial three-part rationale. Just last week we heard [Georgia Senator] Saxby Chambliss repeat that. He called them “the meanest, nastiest killers” in response, immediately following the Obama speech [at National Defense University May 23]. I think that does resonate with a part of the public that wants to be convinced that these guys are monsters, when, in fact, they look remarkably ordinary. They look a whole lot like anybody captured in one of these guerilla wars, anywhere on the planet. They don’t look extraordinary in any way.
WELD: From what I gather, many of the detainees are from Yemen, and a majority of them seem to have simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time or to have been the victims of local reprisals. They do not appear to be functionaries in a terrorist apparatus at all.
JH: At this point, it’s a little hard to know. Even if they were, they’ve been banged up for 11 years. They’re just guys who’ve been in prison for 10 years. They do not seem to have been anybody important when they were picked up. Now, they’re nothing. Except as symbols, from the rest of the world’s perspective, of injustice.
WELD: Do you think Mr. Obama’s newly stated intention to close Guantanamo will bear fruit this time?
JH: No, not really. He’s had a while, right? I was unimpressed. I think he’s, after his speech, exactly where he began his presidency. Republicans in Congress have a reason to do a little rhetorical outbidding when it comes to the nature of those prisoners, to make them appear more threatening than they actually are.
There is a partisan interest in securing the legacy of George W. Bush. If the prisoners turn out to be less important, then George W. Bush looks like an even more hollow figure.
WELD: Do you think posterity will see any vindication for what’s been done in our names at Guantanamo?
JH: No. I think it’s very unfortunate. It’d be nice if it was a lesson we could learn, but at present, I don’t think we’ve begun to learn yet.
WELD: Do you think the rule of law has suffered permanent damage?
JH: Let me say I hope not. I do think many of us have been made to pay more attention to it, as a consequence of Guantanamo. If there’s an upside, that might be it. Beyond that, I don’t know.
Connoisseurs of books with covers can locate Selling Guantanamo through University of Florida Press, but for instant gratification, seek out this title wherever you hunt down your favorite e-books.