Torture and the War System

Thanks for John Calvi’s Viewpoint “A Perfect Spiritual Work” (FJ Aug.). I was inspired and stimulated by his discussion of spiritual work, and I admire the courage and persistence of those seeking to end torture. I mostly agree with John that “getting the U.S. out of the business of war will do more to change the world in our lifetimes than any other single endeavor.” However, I have major strategic questions. For most people concerned about peace, security, social justice, and environmental sustainability, I seriously doubt whether torture is the best issue to begin with, as John claims.

Why do I have strategic misgivings? Let’s look at the U.S. war system—or what we might instead call the U.S. imperial system. I think the system consists of the following interrelated components (here, too, John’s article is helpful). First, the military-industrial complex, especially the huge and very powerful multinational corporations that make weapons systems. Second, the worldwide network of U.S. military bases and alliances, together with the local elites that support them. These bases and alliances often serve to protect the interests of huge U.S. corporations (e.g., by ensuring a steady supply of oil), and local elites frequently profit from them, politically and economically. The third component of the system is the millions of U.S. men and women— of all races and classes—who are in uniform, together with their family members. Many of these people see military service as a noble profession, and/or they depend on such service for their economic survival. The last component of the war system is deep-seated cultural approval of the other three components. Approval is promoted in many ways—notably through the mainstream media, which endorse the system as a whole (e.g., through uncritical repetition of simplistic messages like “we must combat terror”), which frequently exaggerate threats to U.S. security, which often keep negative information about the system from public view, and which usually neglect the significant positive impact of nonviolence and other constructive approaches to conflict.

I’ve often wondered about possible “weak links” and contradictions in this system. I’m not sure where they are, but I doubt whether campaigning against torture addresses weak links in any significant ways. We should consider the following about torture: 1) Relatively few people in the military actually practice torture, compared to the number who fire weapons at “enemies,” or who make and maintain weapons, or who are the victims of weapons (including soldiers and family members who suffer mentally from the effects of being in combat). 2) Expenditures on torturing prisoners are tiny, compared to the amounts spent on developing, building, and deploying weapons and maintaining bases. 3) The U.S. public is more likely to be motivated to campaign in specific ways about important issues other than torture. These issues include: egregious abuses in the conduct of wars and foreign interventions; the immoral harm done by specific weapons (e.g., cluster bombs, nuclear weapons); corruption and human rights abuses—going beyond torture— on the part of companies/political leaders who gain from weapons systems, and of foreign leaders who benefit from overseas bases; and the huge social, environmental and other “opportunity” costs in terms of non-military needs we cannot address because of the war system. (On this topic, an excellent resource is the National Priorities Project,

What about the spiritual aspects of addressing the issues I’ve listed? No doubt many Friends Journal readers are working hard for a planet free of nuclear weapons, or to build worldwide institutions (going far beyond the United Nations) to prevent violent conflicts— to name just two important long-term causes. People involved in such projects need to be committed to the long haul, to face accusations that their goals are unattainable, and to work with reverence and delight. In other words, perfect spiritual work is involved in many types of peace and antiwar work, other than campaigning against torture.

Perhaps I am missing something here? I thank John Calvi for bringing up this critical issue, and hope his article will prompt lots more discussion in Friends Journal.

John MacDougall
Cambridge, Mass.