Sep 11, 2011

It wasn't our good war

I met the man who built the prisons at Guantanamo Bay.

I didn't plan to meet him and didn't know who he was when I did. It was in the Atlanta airport. I was with a group of WWII veterans -- old men, grandpas with medals, memorabilia hats and hearing aids. They were flying to see the monument built to them after all these years in Washington. Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert was passing through and saw me with a notebook and camera and stopped to ask me where all the old soldiers were going. I interviewed him, a one-star general in the "War on Terror," about how he felt seeing the vets of that earlier era.

Later I looked him up. Realized who he was.

Lehnert didn't build the Guantanamo Bay you think of when you hear "Guantanamo Bay." He actually tried to follow the Geneva Convention. He thought he was being sent prisoners of war, who were to be treated as such.

There was a "policy vacuum," though, as the Washington Post reported. Lehnert was told, when he started building the detention facilities, that the Geneva Convention didn't apply. He wasn't told what standards, what rules and policies he was to follow. When he asked for Red Cross personnel, before the first detainees started to arrive, the request was denied. With no explanation. Then when one of Lehnert's officers placed a call directly to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva for help, Donald Rumsfeld's teams of lawyers were irate, and tried to find ways to dis-invite the international aid workers.

Lehnert brought in a Muslim chaplain, gave a Koran to every inmate, and made prayer beads and skullcaps available to those who wanted them.

Rumsfeld sidelined Lehnert, after that, and set up a second structure of command which would do what he wanted, making this alternative command responsible for the interrogations, the actual handling of the detainees. Rumsfeld made it clear, increasingly, that this facility wasn't going to be a place where prisoners of war were detained until a trial could be held. It wasn't going to be Lehnert's Guantanamo. Instead, it would a place where detention was indefinite, where interrogations were "enhanced," where no laws, domestic or international, applied as a check to the behavior of the would-be Jack Bauers that George W. Bush and Rumsfled wanted for interrogations.

Lehnert, according to the profiles I found, was a general in the "War on Terror" who sat on the ground of prison cells in Guantanamo Bay, holding his hat in his hand, and actually talking to hunger-striking detainees. He had a guard removed for reportedly hacking up a Koran. He arranged for a detainee to get news about a newborn son.

He was told he was being removed, after that, the prison he built to be replaced by the one known now so infamously as Guantanamo Bay.

I didn't know any of this when I met him by happenstnace in the Atlanta airport. He came to me, asked who these WWII vets were, where they were going. I only knew there was something about the way he looked at the old men -- it was more than respect. There was a wistfulness to it.

I scrambled for a question for him. I asked him something like, were the WWII vets important to him as a kid or influential in his decision to join the Marines, people he'd looked up to as a soldier.

Lehnert said, "that was the good war."

It was a stark statement. Not exactly an answer. A strong contrast: "that was the good war."

There was a moment, after 9/11, when it seemed like this might be our good war. When it seemed that way to me. Like we might live up to our ideals, or might, as a country, be the better angels of our nature.

That wasn't what happened though.

Maybe there was never really a chance we could have built Lehnert's Guantanamo. Maybe it really wasn't possible for us to be honest with ourselves in the aftermath of 9/11, or for us to have been vigilant against our own weaknesses. There was a lot of mawkishness, hubris and fear. We embraced amnesia when it suited us. Nationalism when it made us feel better. We made our ideals into cliches to inoculate us against their implicit challenge to be better.

We didn't even really try to rise to be the best versions of how we perceive ourselves.

It seems like we could have been something more, though. Something better. Ten years later, I just feel like we missed it.

Ten years later, I've been thinking about the time I met the man who built Guantanamo Bay as much as thinking about where I was and what I remember when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center. I feel the wistfulness of the way he looked at the old men is the airport, deaf old men who could say where they served their country without that being a watchword for horror and human rights violations.

We could have been out better selves, this last decade, could have proved our ideals. Instead of the "War on Terror," it could have been our good war.