Are We the Baddies?

I’m still writing about the Devil, though as I noted before, it’s tricky since I’m brushing against topics that set me off into outraged off-topic rants (it’s more the off-topic than the rant that’s the problem.) Tonight’s discussion is based on one of them. Or more.

There’s a delightful Mitchell and Webb skit (originally on That Mitchell and Webb Look) in which they play officers of the Waffen SS, and Karl* (Mitchell) asks Hans (Webb) are we the baddies? His argument is that they have skulls prominently displayed on their uniforms which, were they in some kind of cinematic narrative, would indicate they were the baddies. Mitchell and Webb even performed an extended live version with more dialog, since they couldn’t rely on the visual gags.

This is a recurring theme in the Mitchell and Webb series, specifically portraying period characters doing period things and one of them noting wait a minute, this is a bit odd, don’t you think?

Skulls in military symbolism are actually not particularly odd, as indicators of toughness and ferocity (and in Navy a nod to the Jolly Roger, which was partly an identifier of the pirate vessel, but also a call to surrender with the promise of quarter. With the passing of too much time or resistance, the red flag would be flown, indicating no quarter would be given). Skulls were a tradition of mobile units, first cavalry and later mechanized and air units as a symbol of their ferocity.

But getting back to the question, Are we the baddies? It’s one that sooner or later citizens and even soldiers start asking, not necessarily based on macabre military adornments, but certainly when it comes to behavior and policy by state agents, military or otherwise. Even among the ranks of the Wehrmacht, party affiliation of the troops went from positive to neutral to even negative as knowledge of the Vernichtungslager and the atrocities of the SS Einsatzgruppen became more pervasive. When your country is committing mass genocide it really does start to look like you’re the baddies. It can’t be good for morale.

Cut to the twenty-first century. The Abu Ghraib revelations regarding torture and prisoner abuse started raising the same question among citizens of the United States, particularly among the troops in Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld pushed policies encouraging enhanced interrogation of POWs in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters. Part of US dependence on private security companies in Iraq emerged because the rank and file US forces became unwilling to take prisoners they suspected might not be treated well, especially when troopers were advised to offer asylum and relief to surrendered enemy units, a promise that they knew might not be delivered.

Are we the baddies? Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay remains open, and rather than give prisoners there access to due process, they are instead being transferred to secret prisons both within the United States** and abroad. While we transfer troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, we hire more private security contractors to replace them, usually directed not by the Department of Defense, but by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The United States uses secret policies guided by secret interpretations of law and upheld by secret courts. We have secret prisoners held in secret sites who we subject to secret torture. We are spied on by secret organizations using secret methods. Our police use secret data from secret sources to justify secret searches and raids, and even justify secret executions.

Are we the baddies?

* According to the Mitchell and Webb wiki, David Mitchell’s part is Second Nazi, while Robert Webb’s roll gets a name (Hans), This seems unbalanced even if Mitchell’s character is never referred to by name. In the meantime, the Wikipedia entry for Karl Dönitz, David Mitchell is credited for playing Dönitz on That Mitchell and Webb Look, which is probably not this skit at all. Still it sounds better that Hans and Karl are talking rather than Hans and Second Nazi.

** Our solution in the United States has been to undeclare cells in supermax compounds so that such cells — and their contents, including any prisoners we put in them — do not officially exist. These sites and the people held in them are not subject to permanent record or oversight so as to avoid public exposure and to protect officials from accountability. Once a person is rendered to such a cell, they are for all purposes, disappeared.

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