Or more precisely, why is the belief that the torture of captured combatants is wrong compatible with anything other than some form of pacifism? I mean this an actual question, not as a passive-aggressive assertion. ~Jim Manzi

One of the things that has kept me from saying much over the last week or so is my sheer amazement that there are people who seriously pose such questions and expect to be answered with something other than expressions of bafflement and moral horror. Something else that has kept me from writing much on this recently is the profoundly dispiriting realization (really, it is just a reminder) that it is torture and aggressive war that today’s mainstream right will go to the wall to defend, while any and every other view can be negotiated, debated, compromised or abandoned. I have started doubting whether people who are openly pro-torture or engaged in the sophistry of Manzi’s post are part of the same moral universe as I am, and I have wondered whether there is even a point in contesting such torture apologia as if they were reasonable arguments deserving of real consideration. Such fundamental assumptions at the core of our civilization should not have to be re-stated or justified anew, and the fact that they have to be is evidence of how deeply corrupted our political life has become, but if such basic norms are not reinforced it seems clear that they will be leeched away over time.

Manzi’s mention of pacifism is instructive insofar as it suggests that he cannot imagine a rationale for limited, just or defensive wars compatible with protections for captured combatants. It’s all or nothing, total war or pacifism. Once captured, combatants at that point become non-combatants, and one has to assume that Manzi can see why non-combatants are to be treated differently and are to be protected against reprisals, beatings, torture and execution. One certainly hopes that he would defend such protections for American non-combatants, which, incidentally, every apologist for the torture regime is daily undermining with their consistent, public defense of illegal and immoral treatment of detainees.

Implicit in Manzi’s entire post is the rejection of any distinction between combatant and non-combatant, which tells me that he either doesn’t understand or doesn’t accept the concept of limited war. For him, unless one is a pacifist, one must endorse total war. In such a view, there would be nothing immoral about the summary execution or cruel and inhumane treatment of POWs, since the latter would have been targeted for death while they were still combatants. After all, if torturing such prisoners is not immoral, as Manzi seems to say it is not, what could possibly be wrong with killing them? That is where one must ultimately end up once the distinctions between combatant and non-combatant are erased or blurred, and it is the barbaric conclusion one will eventually reach if one does not start from the assumption that war itself is a sometimes-necessary evil and that it is morally justifiable only under specific circumstances and within certain limits. One of those limits is that captured combatants are to be treated humanely, and when we go down the road towards easing those restrictions we taint not only the institutions responsible for national security with crimes but we also abandon any real claim to moral integrity.