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Churchill the Terrible?

11:30 AM, Apr 30, 2009 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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President Obama invoked Winston Churchill last night as an example of a leader who refused to resort to torture no matter the threat. Obama said he "was struck by an article that I was reading the other day talking about the fact that the British during World War II, when London was being bombed to smithereens, had 200 or so detainees. And Churchill said, 'We don't torture,' when the entire British -- all of the British people were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat."

Ben Smith says it's not so clear cut:

A reader points out, though, that that's a seriously contested claim. The Guardian published an article in 2005 on the alleged torture of German prisoners in the "London Cage" between 1940 and 1948.

The paper described the facility as a "torture centre" and quotes one detainee -- an SS officer -- alleging "that he was doused in cold water, pushed down stairs, and beaten with a cudgel. Later, he says, he was forced to stand beside a large gas stove with all its rings lit before being confined in a shower which sprayed extremely cold water from the sides as well as from above. Finally, the SS man says, he and another prisoner were taken into the gardens behind the mansions, where they were forced to run in circles while carrying heavy logs."

As far as I'm concerned the Guardian is no more credible than a veteran of the SS, which is to say not at all. I don't believe Churchill ordered the torture of Germans captured on the battlefield, but these were uniformed combatants, and what could they possibly have told their captors anyway -- there's a bunch of planes headed to London tonight? When Germans or their agents were caught operating without a uniform, they were turned or shot -- no trial, no habeas, no nothing.

But let's not pretend that Churchill wasn't responsible for policies that Jon Stewart and Andrew Sullivan would consider war crimes. Churchill oversaw an area bombing campaign that killed tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of civilians, and was carried out by a man commonly referred to as Butcher Harris. He authorized that campaign despite his serious reservations about the methods being employed or the effect it would have on the outcome of the war, and he subsequently made Harris a baronet as a reward for the services he'd rendered.

Wars are messy, and in just 100 days Obama is already responsible for the deaths of more than a few civilians resulting from the targeted assassinations of al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. Baltasar Garzón, the Spanish magistrate who launched an investigation of six Bush administration officials, has also begun investigating Israeli officials for just such targeted assassinations as part of the Gaza campaign. Garzón at least seems to believe that all state-sanctioned violence is criminal. Obama would have us believe it's only criminal when Bush sanctions it.