When the controversy first broke, President Bush and Secretary of State Rumsfeld referred to a "few bad apples" at Abu Ghraib prison. In reality the U.S. high command had evidently decided to allow wholesale torture of enemy detainees everywhere. But many Americans seem to have forgotten, or they are young enough to be unaware, that the U.S. has been caught in that torture spotlight before -- during the Vietnam War. For probably the first time in U.S. history, Vietnam was when covert torture began to be routine in intelligence-gathering.
Yet at the time, the U.S. insisted -- as Bush did today -- that the U.S. was adhering to the Geneva Convention as well as our own military code, which expressly prohibited torture to get information.
A Time-Line of War Crimes
This issue became important to me because, as a child of the Vietnam generation, I saw people that I knew and loved come back from that war deeply disturbed by things they'd seen or experienced that they couldn't talk about.
In 1971, after years of ugly rumors and with Southeast Asian conflicts still going full blast, the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War finally went to the media with documentation of torture incidents that they had witnessed. A hawkish Congress was finally dragged kicking and screaming to investigate these and other allegations of war crimes -- especially those committed during the top-secret counter-terror Phoenix Program, which the CIA ran for several years, ending in 1972. Green Berets and Navy SEALS were often recruited for these covert operations. The purpose of Phoenix was to undercut civilian support for the Viet Cong guerrillas, either by assassinating targeted people or getting them on our side, with torture involved in the intelligence work.
But Congress lacked the courage or backbone to prosecute everybody who should have been prosecuted. Only a few rank-and-file "bad apples" were punished, including those in a specific case involving water-boarding of a Vietnamese prisoner. No one in high command was ever called to account for wholesale violations of our own military code. Indeed, the government assured the American public that, by and large, the Phoenix Program had operated within rules of war and South Vietnamese law.
So, in 1972, with the American public's attention suddenly diverted to the Watergate Scandal and the fall of President Nixon's government, our nation let the torture scandal get officially swept back in the closet again.
Unofficially, however, torture continued to fester. Behind the scenes of ongoing " police actions" that America kept launching, we evidently used it in our covert operations against Central and South American governments that we didn't like. Peacetime training for these Phoenix-type operations was done at the so-called School of the Americas (SOA). Allegations went on being made that vast abuses -- assassination, torture, etc. -- continued to be perpetrated against combatants and civilians in those long-suffering countries.
Anti-torture protests were heavily punished by U.S. law enforcement, but protesters continued to keep the issue alive in the independent media.
Making a Story Real
During this period, the closeted gay men and the few lesbian women who managed to serve in uniform, during the Vietnam War and afterward, surely found themselves personally colliding with this horrible issue in some way or other -- as I realized in the early 1990s. This was when I started writing Harlan's Race and Billy's Boy, my sequels to The Front Runner, and saw that the story line was going to crash straight into the torture question.
My new novels' story-threads went back into the mid-70s, when the Vietnam War had just ended. Death threats to my main character, track coach Harlan Brown, were an ongoing concern, following events at the 1976 Montreal Olympics described in the first book. The story had already mentioned two gay bodyguards that Brown had hired at the Games. I now wanted bigger roles for these two characters.
Though my story was fiction, I knew that real-life credibility was vital. My gay bodyguards would likely be ex-special-warfare guys. In the post-Vietnam era, many returning veterans -- especially the spec/war personnel -- had major difficulties re-entering civilian life and adjusting to "regular jobs." As soldiers, they were often hailed as the best of the best, and loaded with medals. But the carnage they had experienced was still haunting them. Many went to work in law enforcement. Others headed into the security industry, as freelance bodyguards or employees of corporations like Wackenhut and Blackwater. Failing that, they hired out as mercenaries.
After all -- where else could a guy use those lethal skills that the U.S. military had spent millions of dollars to teach him?
So Coach Brown hires a couple of threadbare combat veterans as his personal security. They had finally come out, and needed work. I became most intrigued with the character of former Navy SEAL Chino Cabrera. A idealistic closeted young Latino from East L.A., Chino had joined the Navy and volunteered for SEAL duty so he could serve his country -- and also resolve a deep personal conflict. He knew he was gay, but was he a "real man?" Tough, highly motivated, he went to Vietnam to answer his question, and found himself in over his head.
To portray Chino credibly, I had to do some serious homework. So I interviewed as many gay and non-gay Vietnam veterans as I could convince to talk to me. (And yes, a few of our own were wearing those hot-looking special-forces berets in the Nam.) When they got to trust me, some of them opened up a little, though none of them owned up to torturing anybody.
To get clearer on the right questions to ask, I also read books written by Vietnam veterans. The one gay book that dealt with the subject was Charles Nelson's 1981 novel The Boy Who Picked the Bullets Up. Though labeled "fiction," it was based on real-life experiences as a Marine medic in Vietnam. Between grisly close-ups in battlefield hospitals, the book goes to close-ups on the freewheeling sex scene among our troops in Southeast Asia. Realistic though it was, this novel hovered near the stereotype so accepted by many in our community -- that gay people are nonviolent by nature, so most gay men in uniform would naturally seek to be noncombatants -- medics, quartermasters, linguists, cryptographers, etc.
But I was looking for background on warriors who had served in the shooting-and-looting department. A number of straightforward real-life accounts were published by obscure small presses, written by men who were involved in the Phoenix Program. When I got done with my research, I was in shock. It was pretty clear that Vietnam had been two wars -- the public war that we all saw on the TV news, that paid lip service to the "rules" ...and the covert war that happened far from the cameras, complete with its own offshore prison, Con Son, the equivalent of Abu Ghraib, with its Vietnamese prisoners kept in "tiger cages." Torture was routinely used -- whether we did it ourselves or had South Vietnamese allies do it for us.
So the issue of what my fictional gay SEAL might have done in combat -- i.e. my challenge to portray him honestly, yet also sympathetically to LGBT readers, many of whom are opposed on principle to serving in the military -- was a big one.
Tied to a Bamboo Pole
Chino's age put him in the last wave of special-forces men who went to Vietnam. This was during the 1972-75 period of American troop withdrawal and "Vietnamization," when the U.S. admitted defeat and handed the war back to the South Vietnamese. So I portrayed Chino as one of the last U.S. advisors who stayed behind to train South Vietnam's own special forces (called PRUs), and to liaison with them during a last series of operations. Code-named Bright Light, these ops were aimed at rescuing American POWs still held in prison camps throughout North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
Bright Lights were the most heroic and positive thing I could find for Chino to do. What reader would argue with me about the validity of prisoner-of-war rescues?
But even Bright Lights had the potential of landing an American officer in some nasty torture dilemmas. Supposing you had a captured enemy who might know where a specific prison camp was located. He wasn't talking. How did you get information out of him?
Chino's story was not told from his viewpoint. I kept him third-person, murky and enigmatic. Other characters in the book heard just a few bits of it -- shapes emerging briefly out of the jungle mist. At one point in the story, Chino talks briefly about one incident involving a captured Viet Cong mercenary. He says:
"One day my PRUs brought in some VC officers to question. He was one of them. Half-naked, blindfold on, his arms tied to a bamboo pole. He held himself real quiet. The PRUs were going to torture him. I could see he wasn't going to tell us anything. They'd do him and do him...and finally they'd cut his throat...and officially I wouldn't be there, but I'd have to watch. Something came over me. The carnage was starting to wake me out of being numb. And I had a feeling I could chu hoi him...turn him. So I ordered them to release him, and I gave him clothes. He was surprised...he'd expected to die."
The listener has a leading question for Chino. "You ... tortured people?"
Chino answers him with another question. He says: "Let's say somebody kidnapped you, and was going to kill you. I could find out where you were by torturing somebody. Don't you think I might tear the guy apart with my bare hands?"
The Dark Heart of War
Chino Cabrera may be fiction, but his question is real, dredged out of all those real-life accounts of the Vietnam War that have piled up since then, in books, magazines, documentary films, Congressional testimony, websites, even blogs. Which way do you go in those real-life situations? Do you try to get to the enemy's information through kind treatment and respect? Or do you try to get it by stomping your captive's body and mind into quivering pulp?
Americans are still wrestling with this question 40 years later. As I write this, every day, the question is being endlessly asked, and analyzed, and dissected -- more so than ever, now that the infamous Bush "torture memorandums" are out of the closet. We're finally trying to find a simple black-and-white answer for it.
But I'm not sure our government will find one. Today, our new President and new administration has returned to the old official position that "America doesn't torture." But what happens behind the scenes, when dire emergencies kick in?
My off-the-record talks with former soldiers gave me a lot to think about. I came to the conclusion that, despite all the high-flown rhetoric about "just wars," a war usually ends with neither side having clean hands. War hurls both sides into the most dehumanizing chaos, and the most extreme and excruciating ethical dilemmas, that the human imagination can devise. In the middle of all that, in the dark heart of war, treatment of civilians and torture of captives has always been a core issue for countless centuries. A war's impact on history is often determined not by whether the war is "won" or "lost," but "how" the was fought. What we label with the word "war" ranges from Sun Tzu's ideal of winning without even drawing your sword, to conquerors who left mountains of civilian bodies behind.
Today, there in the dark heart, a tiny spot of light is supposed to be kept burning -- an internationally recognized humanitarian principle about what you can and can't do to other people if you hope to be respected by most nations. Yet during any war, people do things under orders, or they do things in the heat of the moment, that they spend the rest of their lives asking themselves anguished questions about.
We LGBT people are more used to thinking of ourselves as potential victims, the ones who get tortured. Yet for us, the question is whether a few of us have ever been the torturers, in Vietnam or other conflicts since then. And will any of us ever be among the torturers of the future, if America refuses to give up its policy of unofficial torturing? And will some of us have high enough rank in the military that they will make the command decisions to have others tortured? Will those few do it because they're ordered to...expected to? Because they're carried away by rage and revenge, as some people are in combat? Or, as some torturers do, will those few individuals go that way because they like doing it?
After Vietnam ended, U.S. veterans logged a notable suicide rate, because of inner conflicts and memories that they brought home with them. Our government never acknowledged this problem, or lifted a finger to help men and women deal with a burder that its own policies placed on their shoulders. So today the Iraq War has the highest suicide rate ever among returning veterans. And no wonder. They come home from a war where torture is evidently even more out of control than it was during Vietnam. They come home from either seeing prisoners abused, or from abusing prisoners themselves. And they come home to hear something that Vietnam veterans never heard -- a rising clamor of daily national debate about "how we treat the enemy."
Discussion is happening so openly at the dinner table, so inescapably on TV, that torture is becoming trivialized in a ghastly kind of way. Surely our men and women who witnessed real torture in Iraq or Afghanistan must feel queasy when they see idiots like Sean Hannity saying on Fox News, "Water-boarding isn't torture." If Mr. Hannity knew his history, he'd know that water-boarding was declared torture and illegal during Vietnam. And if Mr. Hannity ever fell into the hands of real torturers, like the guys who water-boarded prisoners in Vietnam, I bet he would change his definition of torture in two minutes.
The dark question waits for President Obama too, out there in the dark heart of war. If and when the U.S. finds itself in a potential scenario of another major terrorist attack, and the Obama government decides not to torture a suspect who possibly knows details, and the attack does happen and thousands of American civilians die as a result, and the public finds out about it, and believes that the attack could have been stopped by torturing just one person, there will be political hell to pay. On the other hand, if the Obama government tortures just one person behind the scenes, and the public finds out about it, there will also be hell to pay. In other words -- no matter what the President does, there might be drastic consequences for his administration.
So the question really doesn't have a nice neat black-and-white answer.
Is torture worth it? Does it provide reliable information? Does it contribute to victory? The Bushie torture advocates insist that it does. But during the Inquisition across Europe, the Catholic Church proved for all time that torture could coerce preposterous and untrue "confessions" out of countless hundreds of thousands of people. Some Vietnam commanders insisted that the Phoenix Program was an unqualified success, and it's a fact that Phoenix "neutralized" 30,000 or 40,000 Vietnamese by its own admission. Yet Phoenix was clearly a failure. Not only did it fail to destroy popular support for the North Vietnamese cause, but its excesses made Americans more hated and feared. We had to admit defeat, and withdraw from Vietnam. So all that torture failed to bring us victory.
Where Is the Answer?
If LGBT people can one day serve openly in uniform, we can do so proudly and gallantly - whether as grunts in the regular troops, or commandos sent on those special-tactics missions that are key to modern warfare.
But whatever Obama's policy decision is -- including the upcoming decision of whether or not his government should prosecute the Bush-era war crimes -- that question will still be waiting for us too, out there in the dark heart of war. Real life doesn't care much about "policy" -- it continues to hurl nations and individual people into situations where they might be tempted into thinking that coercion might be the best option in a particular situation. In other countries, I am positive that LGBT people who already serve openly in the military have run into it already -- are running into it as we speak. Can our LGBT history and sensibility of being victims of torture possibly temper the response, by a few of us, to pressures from the high command about torturing others in war-time situations? It's one of the most complex and hair-raising questions that our LGBT personnel will face when equality in uniform finally comes for them.
In my novels, a fictional Navy SEAL finally answers that question for himself by resisting the pressure of policy. He opts for treating the captured enemy with kindness and respect. But in real life, our fighters in uniform will have to answer that question for themselves, in a terrifyingly lonely moment of personal truth, whose memory -- even if they do what we'd consider "the right thing" -- is so devastating that they will likely take their story with them to the grave.
Further reading and TV watching:
The Boy Who Picked the Bullets Up, by Charles Nelson
Code-Name Bright Light: The Untold Story of U.S. POW Rescue Efforts During the Vietnam War, by George J. Veith
"Torture on Trial" -- Link TV
A must-see documentary, that will be streamed online starting April 27. Link can be found on Dish Network and Direct TV.