“What is our tolerance for brutality?”
A minister asked this question from the pulpit Sunday morning and suggested that his listeners consider recent news stories relating to “enhanced interrogation” procedures by the Central Intelligence Agency.
If we think these enhanced tactics or torture could be justified on the grounds that they were effective in providing useful intelligence, do we show a high tolerance for brutality? Will we accept brutality if it achieves effectively some desired results?
Our past records on this score indicate we are open to this rationale.
For instance, some people in our region in years past embraced lynching as an effective way to deter crime and keep certain people “in their places.”
Some of our ancestors accommodated themselves to the brutality of slavery as necessary for a healthy and profitable economy.
More recently, some of us ignored the brutal results of widespread smoking tobacco use, because we depended on the economic benefits the tobacco industry brought to our state.
But our greatest accommodation to brutality comes, of course, in war.
“Wynne’s War,” a new novel by Aaron Gwyn, set in Afghanistan, gives readers an uncomfortable look at the horror of war and tolerance of brutality that accompanies such conflict.
Gwyn teaches writing at UNC-Charlotte. Although he never served in the military, his interviews with combat veterans have given him the ability to bring the battlefields to the pages of this book.
The central character of the story is an Army Ranger, Elijah Russell, who is detailed to a Special Forces team in Afghanistan to train horses for a secret and dangerous mission.
Team leader Carson Wynne is a powerful, charismatic, relentless soldier. He gave up the opportunity to make millions in the hedge fund business to be a soldier.
Using the horses that Russell has trained for their transportation, Capt. Wynne’s team travels through the desolate regions of eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border, always subject to attack or capture by the Taliban.
Russell’s best friend, Wheels, explains, “This is Whac-A-Mole. We kill one Talib, another pops up over here. We send guys after him, our guys get captured and we have to send more. Then more Talibs join to fight them. It just keeps going.”
The team experiences the brutality of Taliban torture when its two Afghan scouts are captured. “Russell glanced up and saw two bodies suspended upside down from the limbs of an enormous oak, naked except for the ‘taqiyah’ caps on the crown of their heads. The corpses were maybe twenty yards away, but he could see that their throats had been slit in gaping red smiles, their genitals cut away. There were cuts and bruises along their legs and torsos, the skin in places almost black.”
Russell remembered that he had been briefed on what would happen if he were captured by the Talibs, “what they called the ‘Afghan way’: castration or disembowelment, followed by decapitation.”
Capt. Wynne showed that the Americans were not immune to rough tactics. The interrogation of a Chechen soldier fighting for the Taliban went like this:
“The man stared up at him. Then he closed his eyes.”
“Wynne slapped him twice very quickly, very hard. ‘This can get a lot worse,’ he said.
“The man began panting.
“‘Are there more?’
“The man seemed to wilt. You could see something in him break, like a plate shattering. He began to shake his head.”
At the conclusion of the interrogation Wynne “pulled his pistol from its holster, pressed the muzzle to the Chechen’s forehead, and fired.”
Horrible as the dehumanizing impact of war may be, tolerance of brutality that creeps into conscience of those of us on the home front represents a much greater threat to our collective humanity.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.