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Marh 27, 2008


Iraq — No end in sight

Frank Gibney was an old Japan hand.

During World War II, someone in the U.S. Navy had the singular idea that a person who had studied one foreign language could easily learn another. And so a number of young people found themselves in a special program at the University of Colorado, where they were hurriedly taught Japanese and sent off to serve as translators, interrogators, and code breakers in the Pacific. It must have been a surreal experience. But some of them remained fascinated by Japanese culture and embarked on a different kind of interpreting assignment after the war, presenting a view of Asia to Americans that was neither inscrutable nor exotic. Gibney was one of them.

He was a thoughtful and decent man. His books give the impression that their author was a Good American, concerned with human relations as much as public policy. But he was also a product of his generation, a firm cold warrior. And I’m not sure he was a nice man — he had more than a hint of the arrogance that sometimes characterizes Americans who have lived overseas for a long time.

Gibney stayed in Japan during the Occupation, and when he came home, he began to build a little empire of his own. He published eleven books, including The Pacific Century, which became a PBS series. He became a foreign correspondent for Time magazine and later worked for several other publications including Newsweek and Life. He served as president of Encyclopaedia Britannica in Japan and later ushered in the encyclopedia’s mammoth Chinese edition. The Japanese government awarded him first the Order of the Rising Sun and then the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Second Class. He became a professor, teaching courses in politics and heading the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College.

And he had a son named Alex.

Alex Gibney is a film producer. You may have seen the award-winning film and Oscar nominee Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.Or the award-winning Who Killed the Electric Car?

More recently, Alex Gibney served as executive producer for Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight, which was also nominated for an Academy Award. In contrast to Frontline’s Bush’s War, Ferguson presents a clear — no, passionate — point of view: the U.S. occupation of Iraq has been devastating. He uses a coherent voice-over narration to construct his case, relying on a limited number of talking heads and a vast array of film footage drawn from sources as varied as Al Jazeera and CBS news. And while his theme may be the irresponsible decisions of the U.S. government, his focus is on Iraq — the streets of Baghdad, the walls of Fallujah —- where those decisions played out. This is not a war fought by high-speed planes dropping bombs on invisible human targets. This is a war fought in streets filled with pedestrians and bystanders.

But Alex Gibney also wrote, directed, produced, and narrated the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, which traces the development of the U.S. no-holds-barred policy toward the use of torture in its prison camps. Here, Gibney is his father’s son. In an interview in Harper’s, he says,

As a former Navy interrogator, he was furious about the Abu Ghraib scandal. As more details emerged about the way that torture appeared to be part of a wide-ranging policy, he was even more enraged. He encouraged me to take on this project. While I was working on “Taxi,” I visited him in Santa Barbara just before he died. One day, he said: “Go get your video camera; I have something I want to say.” We had to turn off the oxygen machine so he would be audible. A foreign policy conservative, he raged against Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush for upending the very values that he had defended as a soldier. His anger, and his belief that we could – and did – do better offered a ray of hope in a bleak film.

Reports like Taxi to the Dark Side and Gourevitch and Morris’s “Exposure” are beginning to have an effect on U.S. opinion and policy. But there’s a loophole, one large enough to drive a camel through. Given our present approach, “The Iraqis step, we step down,” we are now able to cede responsibility for the treatment of prisoners to the Iraqis, as Michael J. Totten reported on February 18:

Next to the Joint Communications Center in downtown Fallujah is a squalid and war-shattered warehouse for human beings. Most detainees are common criminals. Others are captured insurgents — terrorists, car-bombers, IED makers, and throat-slashers. A few are even innocent family members of Al Qaeda leaders at large. The Iraqi Police call it a jail, but it’s nothing like a jail you’ve ever seen, at least not in any civilized country. It was built to house 120 prisoners. Recently it held 900.

In this case, his words found a responsive reader:

As it turns out, the place was worse than I thought. Prisoners had to supply their own food or starve. I didn’t report that detail because I didn’t know it. But Marine Major General John Kelly (whom I don’t think I met) read my report, investigated the jail, and fixed it.

UPI reported on March 24,

The U.S. military says it is taking steps to alleviate conditions at the Fallujah city jail in Iraq after recent visitors found a filthy, overcrowded facility.

“They are being fed now,” Lt. Col. Michael Callanan said of the prisoners, who until recently had to provide their own food or starve.

Somewhere in the background, I can hear the voice of Frank Gibney, frail and ravaged with disease:

We had the sense that we were on the side of the good guys. People would get decent treatment. And there was the rule of law.

        — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008