Book Review

Published Human Rights Review, June 2010

The Least Worst Place: Guantánamo’s First 100 Days, by Karen Greenberg, Oxford University Press, 2009

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Mankind has an insatiable appetite for story. We need it to make sense of our lives. Better than explanations or sermons, story can shift the kaleidoscopic fragments of event into patterns that console, edify or produce catharsis. 

Karen Greenberg tells the story of how Guantanamo went from a drowsy, tropical and nearly forgotten naval base to an infamous symbol of America’s debasement. Or rather she tells what happened during the first one hundred days and leaves the rest to imaginations already damaged by half a decade of degrading images.

Another writer might have opened the drape on history’s larger stage, beginning this drama at the School of the Americas, where Latin American military officers are routinely trained in the art of torture; or with Henry Kissinger’s private wink at the assassination schemes of Operation Condor; or even with the CIA consultants who coached the death squads of Honduras and El Salvador. Any of these openings could have foreshadowed the legal and moral quagmire of Guantanamo.

But that’s not Greenberg’s book. 

A former short story writer and would-be novelist, Greenberg dramatizes the riddles and conflicts that marked the first three months, as military men, politicians, and mysterious, nameless detainees converged.

She begins, quite simply, by introducing two protagonists. The first is Naval Captain Robert Buehn who was in charge of the hibernating Caribbean base when, just before Christmas 2001, it was selected by Washington, D.C. lawyers, meeting in secret, as the ideal place to warehouse prisoners captured in Afghanistan. Ideal because it could—and would—be argued that Guantanamo was territory outside any law.

The second protagonist is Brigadier General Michael Lehnert whose holidays were cut short when he was dispatched to set up a detention camp there. They met—the Navy man and the Marine—and became collaborators in the effort to satisfy expectations inherent in the President’s Military Order of November 13, 2001.

Although there appear later in this narrative, other characters whose careers and values embody the spirit intent of this Order—among them lawyers David Addington, Alberto Gonzales, and John Yoo, along with their handlers Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld—for the time being it is the Order itself that serves as the story’s antagonist.

The Order gave military tribunals exclusive jurisdiction over the new detainees and invoked unchecked presidential powers in the name of national security. The right to counsel, habeas corpus, the Geneva Conventions and the treatment of prisoners would all be casualties of this Order, as it was interpreted and defended.

Fortunately, Greenberg’s sly humor relieves the gathering dread of this story. She writes, for instance, of the secrecy that surrounded the drafting of this first Order: “Even the Joint Chiefs were left out of the loop—a notable absence when it came to a so-called Military Order.”

Many people will pick up this volume uncertain if they really want to read another book about Guantanamo—so indelible and haunting are the images, starting with the one taken on the day the first detainees arrived and published in newspapers from Ireland to Australia. Greenburg describes it: “...the detainees, kneeling in the day’s heat, goggled and earmuffed, bound and shackled at the wrists, dressed in fluorescent orange jumpsuits and caps and turquoise face masks, facing away from one another and bending in submission toward a concertina wire fence. They were awaiting in-processing...”

Yet the author assumes we know all that; she tells us a new story, that of the culture clash between the military code of honor and an administration that respected no law. Of the energy and creativity of military personnel, trying to make-do in a situation that had no template and, alarmingly, neither stated goals nor rules.

Greenberg, whose previous publications include compilations of documents—on the predicament of “enemy combatants” and on torture—is careful in this volume to track the legal memos and responses-to-memos that often baffled the Marine Corps, Army and Navy staff on the ground. 

Her book is undergirded with a wonderful sense of humanity. Especially memorable are the nocturnal visits of General Lehnert to Camp X-Ray, where he would sit on the ground in front of the cages and try to talk to the detainees; the improvisational genius of staff, who strung up simple surgical masks to cradle Korans that must never touch the ground; the sense of family cultivated by Captain Buehn and his wife Debi, and the courage and loyalty they inspired among the people who lived on the base; and the trials of the first Muslim chaplain, kindly and sincere, yet thought to be an “infiltrator” by detainees because he served in the military and by the troops because he understood those strange languages.

These and dozens of other human moments serve as a baseline of decency, ever renewing the reader’s capability to be shocked by what we know is yet to come. 

There’s a memorable line in Bertolt Brecht’s play The Life of Galileo:  when the great astronomer returns defeated from the courtroom of the Inquisition, where he was on trial for proclaiming the theory that the earth moves about the sun, his protégé shouts,  “Unhappy the land that has no heroes!” The great astronomer’s reply is telling:  “No,” responds Galileo, with bitterness. “Unhappy the land that needs a hero.”

Indeed we are unhappy to need her, but author Karen Greenberg is a hero of sorts – for having gained the trust of the people she interviewed, many of whom were no doubt skeptical of the press, and for her respectful treatment of the stories they entrusted to her.

And Brigadier General Michael Lehnert, whose 100-day command of Guantanamo’s Joint Task Force 160 marks the period covered by this book, also comes across as a hero, a conscientious and sensitive man.  “He didn’t want to preside over a shameful incarceration like thee internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II,” Greenberg writes. “For him, preserving the dignity of the detainees was about honor–his own and the nation’s.”

Would that the lawyers back in the nation’s capital had had the same concerns.

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