Jumping back and forth in time, from his memory banks to the history books, Flynn works through his feelings, exploring — but never exploiting — personal and world-historical events. We find ourselves ruminating on Berlin's Teufelsberg ("Devil's Mountain"), built from the detritus of World War II, and thinking about lessons learned and not learned from Gillo Pontecorvo's film The Battle of Algiers, and about ersatz fashion inspired by Guantánamo Bay jumpsuits.
And, of course, we ponder that grimly iconic photograph of a gaunt and hooded prisoner standing on a cardboard box with arms outstretched, electric wires tied to his fingers — a photo, Flynn writes, that Iraqis "simply refer to . . . as 'the Statue of Liberty.' "
The depravity at Abu Ghraib was dragged into daylight back in 2004 — in another decade, with another man in the White House. Yet, almost exactly six years later, Americans are still arguing about torture.
Well, some are arguing. Others have made up their minds. This past week, for instance, US Senate candidate and current Massachusetts State Senator Scott Brown came out in favor of using "enhanced-interrogation" techniques on terror suspects such as thwarted Christmas airplane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. (Like many of his political ilk, Brown won't call waterboarding "torture.") Meanwhile, writing for National Review Online, former Bush White House chief speechwriter Marc Thiessen recently opined that citizens who oppose torture are subscribing to a "position of radical pacifism."
I read that quote to Flynn. He seems bemused.
"I'm not a radical pacifist in any sense," he says. "But I'm still against torture. And mostly on a pragmatic level. It radicalizes the enemy and doesn't give you good information. It's exactly what Al Qaeda wants us to do."
It's a feeling that's shared by "most people in the military," Flynn argues. "Almost anyone I've heard who is pro-torture has no military experience. They're just armchair warriors, and it's just a feeling they have. They're sort of reacting to this deep, dark impulse inside themselves. Which is what the book's about, also. How those impulses" — and here he's talking not just about Abu Ghraib ringleader Charles Graner and Department of Justice torture-enabler John Yoo, but his own parents, himself, and all of us — "can lead you astray."
In some ways, Flynn says, he's glad the torture debate is out in the open. It's something that "need[s] to be reckoned with." But he's worried, too. "In the last 10 years, it went from being something that was a shameful secret, to being something that was almost promoted [by many on the right] as who we are — something that's justifiable."
GHRAIB ERROR: Nick Flynn traveled to Turkey to interview “Amir,” seen here being tortured in Abu Ghraib.
Reaction to that sort of resigned acceptance was a big thrust of Flynn's last memoir, too. In Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, he writes movingly about his father's mid-'80s homelessness — homelessness being something that once "was unacceptable, then, in one moment, almost overnight, the unacceptable became acceptable. Suddenly we were willing to accept masses of homeless in our cities."