What would Cheney say?

Greg Mitchell reports (parts one and two) on the suicide of Spc. Alyssa Peterson, one of the first women soldiers to die in Iraq. She took her own life exactly seven years ago after being reprimanded for showing empathy for Iraqi prisoners who were undergoing interrogation. All records of the techniques being used have been destroyed but there seems little doubt that the Iraqis were being tortured.

The 27-year-old’s parents didn’t even know their daughter was in Iraq until they were informed of her death. The fact that she committed suicide was concealed by the military for several more years — the most likely reason for the cover-up being that it was Peterson’s unwillingness to participate in torture that drove her to take her own life.

Kayla Williams, a US Army sergeant who served with Peterson, described the impact of participating in interrogations which she could see clearly contravened the Geneva Conventions.

Fellow soldiers, echoing then vice-president Dick Cheney, told the young sergeant that “the old rules no longer applied because this was a different world. This was a new kind of war.” But Williams said: “it really made me feel like we were losing that crucial moral higher ground, and we weren’t behaving in the way that Americans are supposed to behave.”

“It also made me think,” Williams says, “what are we as humans, that we do this to each other? It made me question my humanity and the humanity of all Americans. It was difficult, and to this day I can no longer think I am a really good person and will do the right thing in the right situation.”

As the famous Milgram experiment demonstrated, individuals who choose to do the right thing — especially when that demands defying authority — are usually in a minority. The much more prevalent tendency is a willingness to follow orders and suspend ones own moral judgment — even when that involves participating in torture.

Should Alyssa Peterson have been turned away from the military on the grounds that she was too humane, her conscience too strong, for her to serve in the US Army? She ended up being reprimanded for showing empathy to Iraqi prisoners. As the official investigation of her death revealed: “She said that she did not know how to be two people; she… could not be one person in the cage [where prisoners were apparently tortured] and another outside the wire.”

Suppose before she took her life, Dick Cheney had had an opportunity to council her, what would he have said? Or suppose Cheney was now to speak to her father, what would he say?

Empathy is a liability in wartime? Americans need to set aside their humanity when they put on a uniform?

Peterson’s ability to empathize with Iraqi prisoners was no doubt in large part an expression of her character and her humanity, yet to an extent it must also have resulted from the humanizing effect of understanding and speaking Arabic. In spite of the dehumanizing effect of seeing men stripped of their dignity, she must also have been able to see beyond that and through their words seen not mere “terrorist” suspects, but fathers with daughters and sons with parents.

Recognition of humanity is not something we can pick up or discard whenever it seems expedient — whenever cast aside it henceforth becomes increasingly difficult to rediscover.

The choice to cross over to the “dark side” is a choice that may prove impossible to reverse. At 27 Alyssa Peterson seems to have understood that. As far as we can tell, Dick Cheney has not even attempted to find the way back.

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6 thoughts on “What would Cheney say?

  1. j.r. bauer

    Wow. She was trained properly @Ft. Huachuca, she was a good enough soldier to make junior NCO in a very competitive field, and she was reprimanded for trying to do the job as she was trained to. All because the very top leadership–which denied using torture until they were out of office–decided that THIS war was different, forgetting why we didn’t use torture before. 1) Precedent: George Washington forbad his troops from using it on enemy combatants because it was inhumane.
    2) Efficacy: its use invariably produces false and unreliable intel. And then the Army decided it would be wise to lie to her parents about the circumstances of her death. How those people who reprimanded her and then lied to her family can sleep at night is beyond me, the motherfuckers.

  2. David Marchesi

    The general “hush-up” of this tragic matter is not new, and certainly not restricted to the US, of course. By re-electing Mr Bush and Mr Cheney, however, the American people have a lot to answer for in the “new kind of world” they have done so much to create.The “Land of the Free” where , I seem to recall, just one Congressman opposed the ghastly “Patriot Act” !!??? Long before Mr Bush, Mr Reagan ( why not Mr Kennedy, in fact) justified the contras and other terrorists’ actions, even against American citizens in his pursuit of Commies . Practically no leading American speak out against these atrocities; on the contraty, the more you torture the “suspected terrorists” the better American you are, apparently.
    I would recommend readers to the Association Primo Levi (France)for a perspective on torture which may be lacking in your country , although I know Amnesty is active in the area.

  3. Francisco Velasco

    In the land of the «heroes» and «superheroes», l’ve chosen this young woman Alyssa Peterson, as my heroine. My simpathy to the parents.

  4. Christopher Hoare

    Nuremberg, Nuremberg, Nuremberg.

    At the war crimes trials that the whole US war machine needs to undergo, Alyssa Peterson would be one of the few exonerated. Cheyney needs to be one of the first arraigned, before his heart troubles cheat the hangman.

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