Wednesday, February 1, 2012



When I was a boy and the Korean War was America's Iraq/Afghanistan of the day, the term "brainwashed" entered the public consciousness. It referred to the treatment of American soldiers in Chinese prisoner-of-war camps, and my Korean War-era boyhood understanding of civilization was that only barbarians (in this particular case, primitive Chinese and North Koreans) would or could stoop so low as to inflict the torturous techniques of brainwashing on other human beings. These techniques include waterboarding, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, beating, sexual abuse, isolation and humiliation. As an American boy growing up I was taught by American culture that torture was unacceptable for any purpose. It violated human decency, moral integrity and the Geneva Conventions, which the U.N. Security Council has since concluded is integral to the body of customary international law.

Though the United States in 2002 officially and at the highest levels embraced torture and the brutal methods of interrogation it had always (officially) previously condemned, I respect that lesson from childhood and believe that torture is still an unacceptable evil for any purpose, even brainwashing, whatever that really means.

The perception of the term "brainwashed" has changed somewhat since those Korean War days from having one's thinking permanently altered through torture to having one's thinking corrupted through deception, propaganda, coercion or bribery in the service of someone's self-interest. One of several big disappointments in my country's international conduct during the past few years is that torture has become official policy, sanctioned at the highest levels of our government and practiced in secrecy at taxpayer expense in several places. Guantanamo comes to mind. And, as taxpayers, we are all complicit. The question needs asking: As a nation, have we been brainwashed?

The term "brainwashed" hasn't come to mind in a long time, but it recently popped up as a consequence of my casual and sporadic following of the astonishing comedy road show that is the Republican presidential primary race. The candidate who will likely but not certainly prevail is Mitt Romney, the son of George Romney, who was a candidate for the Republican nomination for president in 1967. At least until George admitted he had been brainwashed.

In 1965, George, who was governor of Michigan, had gone to Vietnam with seven other governors to check out the early stages of America's involvement in the war there. He came home and announced that the war was "morally right and necessary." But by 1967, the politics of what was morally right and necessary about Vietnam were not so clear, and George changed his stance and explained that change by saying, "When I came back from Vietnam, I'd just had the greatest brainwashing anyone can get."

To my knowledge, George never described what tortures he endured at the hands of America's military brass that washed his brain, and none of the other governors recalls being subjected to any torturous treatment, but when George announced his great brainwash, his shot at the presidency went down the drain. After all, who wants a brainwashed president?

Mitt, the good son, was strongly influenced by his father, and, after the brainwashing, during Mitt's freshman year at Stanford University in 1966, he demonstrated in favor of the draft in reaction to demonstrations at Stanford against the Vietnam War. David Harris, president of the Stanford student body, and among the best known anti-Vietnam War activists, organized those demonstrations.

Whatever one thought (thinks) about the Vietnam War and those who fought in it, supported it, caused it and opposed it, David Harris' commitment to his conviction that it was wrong is impressive. In 1968, Harris refused induction into the armed services and was indicted. As a consequence of his belief that the Vietnam War and the draft were wrong for America and Americans, he was sentenced to 15 months in an Arizona prison.

Mitt Romney, as a consequence of his conviction that the Vietnam War and the draft that supplied the bodies to keep it going were right for America and other Americans besides himself, demonstrated in favor of the draft and against those like Harris who opposed it. Like many things about Mitt Romney's convictions, it isn't clear if he was part of the American tradition exemplified by men like George W. Bush, Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney of promoting war so long as others do the actual fighting, or if, like his father, he recovered from brainwashing and decided that the Vietnam-era draft wasn't such a good idea after all. Either way, in 1967 Mitt got a draft deferment as a Mormon missionary and spent the next 30 months in France, a far safer environment than Vietnam or an Arizona prison. Nor is it clear if Mitt Romney would be the best quarterback for the Republican team in next fall's presidential election, but he certainly has his eye on the ball.

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