Terror-suspect treatment in perspective

By now it hardly needs saying that, contrary to the animadversions of Dick Durbin and Amnesty International, Guantánamo Bay bears no resemblance to Nazi concentration camps, Soviet gulags, or Khmer Rouge killing fields. Millions of people were murdered in those places. The sum total of those killed at Gitmo is ... zero.

But perhaps critics of US detention practices are correct to say this is damning with faint praise. Who wouldn't expect the "land of the free" to behave better than the most monstrous regimes in history? So let's use a better comparison. Look at how America's closest ally, Britain, handled an insurgency much smaller and less threatening than the one the US faces today.

In the early '50s, the Mau Mau movement challenged British colonial rule in Kenya. Though it became a byword for savagery, Mau Mau was actually pretty restrained as guerrilla movements go. Its 20,000 adherents killed fewer than 100 Europeans and 2,000 African loyalists - fewer than the 9/11 toll. Unlike Iraqi rebels, the Mau Mau had no outside support and no sophisticated weapons. Unlike Al Qaeda, they didn't target the British homeland.

Yet the British used disturbingly harsh tactics against them, as revealed in two new books - "Histories of the Hanged," by David Anderson of Oxford University, and "Imperial Reckoning," by Caroline Elkins of Harvard.

The British admitted killing 11,000 Mau Mau, but the real figure, these authors make clear, was much higher. Security forces held hundreds of thousands of suspects without trial in a system of penal camps known as the Pipeline. Unlike Gitmo detainees, who receive three meals a day and medical care, prisoners in the Pipeline were half-starved, worked to the point of collapse, and sickened by poor sanitation. Torture was standard during interrogation and wasn't what passes for "torture" in anti-American screeds today - such as stepping on a Koran. "The screening teams whipped, shot, burned, and mutilated Mau Mau suspects," according to Ms. Elkins. Some men were forcibly castrated or sodomized. Others were beaten to death or summarily executed.

Little distinction was drawn between guerrillas and civilians. The Mau Mau were primarily Kikuyu, Kenya's largest ethnic group, and the British detained nearly all 1.5 million of them.Men, women, and children were forced off their homesteads at gunpoint. Those not sent to the Pipeline were herded into villages surrounded by barbed wire where they had to endure forced labor while denied adequate food or medical care. Many women were gang-raped by guards.

Has anything like this happened in Iraq? No. If it had, you'd hear about it on "60 Minutes."

Mau Mau was defeated by the mid-1950s, but colonial rule didn't survive. In 1963, Kenya achieved independence under Jomo Kenyatta, who'd spent eight years in prison, falsely convicted of being the Mau Mau mastermind.

There was really nothing unusual about the British counterinsurgency strategy. It was similar to methods used by the British in South Africa during the Boer War (1899-1902) and in Malaya (1948-1960), by the French in Algeria (1954-1962), by the Dutch in Indonesia (1945-1949), and by the Americans in the Philippines (1899-1902). These Western democracies weren't guilty of genocide, à la Hitler or Pol Pot, but they did commit brutality light-years beyond anything at Abu Ghraib, much less Gitmo.

Seen in historical context, what sets apart the US campaign in the global war on terrorism isn't its savagery, as the critics would have us believe, but its unprecedented restraint.

Military investigators have found that out of more than 50,000 suspected terrorists held since 9/11, 26 may have died wrongfully and 100 or so were abused. Even if the real figure is higher - as it probably is - it is not worth mentioning in the same breath with the excesses committed in Algeria, Kenya, or any other serious counterinsurgency. And, unlike in those places, the perpetrators are being prosecuted.

I'm not saying unlawful conduct by US service personnel should be ignored or excused. I simply suggest that we can't judge US soldiers by impossible standards of perfection attained by no other army in history - especially when they're battling fanatical mass murderers who make the Mau Mau look like Boy Scouts.

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. ©2005 Los Angeles Times.

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