From Geronimo To Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: Our Foes Lose Their Luster

If our enemy is cowardly and irrational, our fight and our victory are diminished, writes Roy Scranton.

As the 9/11 hearing finally began Saturday, on the heels of the much-politicized anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s assassination, we’ve watched the political and historical sausage get made.

Future generations looking back on America’s “war on terror” will judge it in no small part by how we bring its occupations to a close. It’s troubling to think how this moment will look to those looking back on it a hundred years hence, and how different this moment looks from similar moments in the past.

Consider Geronimo.

When I was in the Army, finishing my service at Fort Sill, we used to run out over the seemingly endless brown Oklahoma plain to the grave of that renegade Apache warrior. His monument, in the Apache Indian Prisoner of War Cemetery, stands as a testament not only to the U.S. military’s long campaign to capture and subdue a dangerous terrorist, but to the respect we paid him as an enemy.

Geronimo fought first as a warrior then later as a chief in the Apache Wars that lasted roughly from 1849 through his surrender 37 years later, and were marked by vicious fighting, civilian massacres, and an enormous expenditure of American blood and treasure spent on protracted campaigns in wild, remote territories.

Geronimo and his band fought U.S. and Mexican forces for decades, holding out in mountain fastnesses, eluding capture, raiding settlements, and vexing our military might, but when he finally surrendered, he wasn’t vilified or degraded for having done so. On the contrary, when he died in prison 21 years later, he was paid honors for his courage, tenacity, and pride. The Winchester rifle Geronimo surrendered to General Miles in Arizona hangs on display at West Point, and his name echoes as a mythic call to courage when American paratroopers leap into the sky over the field of battle.

Compare that to the killing of bin Laden.

There were the idiotic and eventually walked-back “leaks” just after his killing about how he’d been gunned down while taking cover behind one of his wives, like a B-movie villain. To mark the anniversary of his killing last week, Obama and Romney postured about who would have the guts to order a team of professional killers, backed by the most sophisticated military-operations apparatus in the world, to shoot a man in the face. Obama visited Afghanistan in large part to mark the occasion for his domestic audience, and on Friday selected excerpts from bin Laden’s letters were released to offer an additional reminder of his outright badness. Yet it’s impossible to imagine paratroopers 20 years from now descending from the sky, screaming “Bin Laden!”

A week of assassination talk was followed Saturday by the long-delayed opening of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s trial, at a military tribunal at Guantánamo. Mohammed—whom most of us would recognize from his unshaven, post-capture propaganda photograph in a raggedy T-shirt, looking more like a fat, middle-aged slob working off a hangover than like someone who managed to orchestrate the single most-important act of political violence in the last 20 years—has already confessed to having orchestrated Sept. 11, having planned the previous World Trade Center bombing and other attacks, and even having personally decapitated journalist Daniel Pearl. At the opening day of the trial, as the judge tried to go about administrative business, Mohammed and his codefendants behaved badly, taking out their earpieces, reading magazines, apparently giving family members of Sept. 11 victims there to witness the trial a smile and thumbs-up, and otherwise making a mockery of the proceedings—proceedings which are already so vexed and controversial, it’s hard to know what part of the whole spectacle isn’t a parody.

At the very moment when Americans hope to finally begin turning the page on Sept. 11, Iraq, Afghanistan, and a grim decade of fear and wanton American violence, we are instead forced to look back to our own complicity in torture, secret prisons, illegal imprisonments, and the trampling of the Constitution. We’re again reckoning with the fact that we waterboarded Mohammed at least 183 times and kept him awake for a week to break him—which is why his trial has taken so long to get started, and why it’s happening in a military tribunal and not in a civilian court, as Obama argued for back in 2009. Col. Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor at Guantánamo Bay, told The Guardian Friday, “The reason the apologists want a second-rate military-commission option is because of what we did to the detainees, not because of what the detainees did to us,” and that our use of torture “makes it a greater challenge to prosecute the cases in our regular courts.”

Yet even as our wars of choice move toward their ends, we’ve hewed to a familiar template for seeing ourselves. Osama bin Laden’s code name (“Geronimo EKIA,” the White House was informed when the SEALs finished their killing), the mass media’s hagiography of our Special Operations trigger pullers, and the story of wounding and vengeance that shaped our conception of the last decade are built from stories of Indian raids, hostage taking, and frontier violence. It’s an easy leap from The Last of the Mohicans and The Searchers to bin Laden “Wanted: dead or alive” and the “good man doing a hard job” Hollywood fable of The Hurt Locker.

A person, it’s said, can be known by his enemies. In the hard world of the frontier, we could see the similarities between ourselves and our enemy: desire to protect one’s homeland, tenacity in the face of coercion, and a wild need for freedom.

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Now, we look at Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and see—what? Cowards? Inhuman monsters? Irrational beasts who don’t deserve a fair trial, freedom from torture, or the attempt at understanding?

If our enemy is brave, tough, cunning, and strong, our struggle against them and our victory over them are made meaningful, honorable, and just. If our enemy is feeble, villainous, cowardly, and irrational, our fight and our victory reflect our diminishment, our moral failure, our mistaking of values and misprision of virtues. We saw enough of ourselves in Geronimo—enough Geronimo in ourselves—to honor him even in his defeat. What we decide to see in Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will reflect back on us just as much.