John Charles Hickman. Selling Guantánamo: Exploding the Propaganda Surrounding America's Most Notorious Mlitary Prison. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013. 279 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-4455-2.
Reviewed by Paul Springer
Published on H-War (July, 2014)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
A Notorious Mistake
Abraham Lincoln famously opined that “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” However, political scientist John Hickman of Berry College would have the reader believe that a later Republican administration, that of George W. Bush, managed to fool the entire American public, as well as the press, with its presentation of the rationale behind detaining captured enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they would be unprotected by law or public scrutiny. Naturally, unlike the gullible masses, Hickman has pierced the veil of lies perpetrated by the Bush propaganda machine, and exposed Guantanamo as an inhumane, illegal, and immoral center of unspeakable tortures and other despicable practices. Hickman’s achievement is all the more remarkable in that he accomplished it entirely on his own, without the benefit of any archival sources, site visits to the prison he describes, or even a review of the most relevant secondary literature, all while protecting his personal heroes from any criticism. The only thing this reviewer finds more impressive than Hickman’s rhetorical flight of fancy is that he managed to get a respectable academic press to publish such a ludicrous hit job, presumably with the acquiescence of at least two peer reviewers.
Alas, Hickman’s work demonstrates two principles. First, if researchers commence a project with their answer already predetermined, they will probably find enough materials to somewhat bolster their claims, as long as they ignore or avoid all contrary evidence. Second, individuals without any professional historical training should tread carefully when using historical examples to prove a modern point, and should choose their case studies wisely. Hickman is guilty of both cherry-picking his evidence and predetermining his conclusions, with the result that a book with a great premise becomes an angry screed against a political administration clearly loathed by the author. The text is littered with outlandish and unnecessary personal attacks against former president Bush and former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld. While both might be guilty of the deceptions Hickman alleges, the case is not aided by references to “the mangled syntax and truck stop grammar that were his [Bush’s] rhetorical trademarks” (p. 17). Such statements are beneath scholarly works, and undermine the value of what could be a noteworthy argument. In addition, senior military leaders are castigated for their loyalty to the Constitution rather than “to abstractions like truth, justice, or the law” (pp. 121-122). I have yet to be convinced that these are somehow contradictory, and it is not a theme that Hickman chooses for elaboration, preferring instead to lob his unfounded cheap shots and then move on. Ironically, the Al Qaeda members at Guantanamo Bay are allowed to make outrageous allegations that are accepted at face value in Hickman’s narrative.
Essentially, Hickman would like readers to believe that the confinement of prisoners at Guantanamo is a legal and moral failure of the Bush administration that has undermined the U.S. standing in the world and eroded the rule of law at home. There is substantial merit to this concept, and had Hickman performed the necessary research and made some effort to muffle or eliminate his own bias, this might have become a meritorious work. Unfortunately, the execution is simply terrible, rife with deliberate misreadings and odious methodology, rendering the final product misleading and mostly useless. Hickman begins with a decision to conflate the terms “terrorist” and “guerrilla,” due no doubt to the almost complete lack of sources on irregular warfare, counterinsurgency, and terrorism in his bibliography. Missing are the canonical works of David Galula, Bruce Hoffman, and Walter LaQueur, who have been replaced by CNN and AP news articles. To Hickman, anyone captured in or near a war zone is automatically a prisoner of war (POW), a mistake that might have been fixed had he consulted any of the current literature on the history of POWs. If my own work (America’s Captives, 2010) was not readily available, surely Robert Doyle’s The Enemy in Our Hands (2010) would have cleared up the issue. Somehow, in Hickman’s mind, the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War applies to the Guantanamo prisoners, regardless of its clear definitions of who is and is not a legal combatant. Ironically, Hickman sideswipes Rumsfeld’s knowledge of the treaty, while demonstrating his own ignorance of its provisions at the same time (p. 12).
After establishing the direction of his argument, Hickman proceeds to a literature review that examines only recent works, almost all by journalists. Some of them are excellent, some are not, and his analysis is solid, but the review demonstrates the paucity of his sources, as he sticks to the works that do not challenge his thesis. Missing are such obvious sources as Mark Danner’s Torture and Truth (2004) and Karen Greenberg and Joshua Dratel’s The Torture Papers (2005), both within the body of recent journalists’ examinations and hence eligible for inclusion in his review.
In chapter 3, Hickman begins to truly demonstrate his utter ignorance of professional historical methods. He has chosen three case studies to support his assertions, each involving the incarceration of special categories of prisoners at island locations. Unfortunately, each choice has enormous flaws, and he missed the obvious case studies that might have bolstered his argument. A quick read of POW literature might have avoided this tragic mistake. He begins by arguing that Geronimo’s Apache followers were the first group imprisoned by the U.S. government due to their ethnicity, ignoring that the Dry Tortugas imprisonment applied to individuals who had actively engaged in hostilities against civilians—they were imprisoned for their behavior, not their identity. Further, they were not even the first Native American group to face such incarceration in the state of Florida—the Seminoles claim that dubious distinction. Next, he examines British fascists sent to the Isle of Man during World War II. These individuals were imprisoned for their political ideology, it is true, but only after the British government identified German intelligence attempts to contact and influence fascists in Britain who might be used for spying and sabotage. When a nation faces an existential threat, the government cannot be expected to follow all of the same practices of peacetime regarding civil liberties. Further, these prisoners were not prosecuted, and were released before the end of the war, once the existential crisis had passed. The third case study, that of Haitian boat people during the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, seems more chosen to attack additional Republicans than to help the case. Despite more than a century of immigration practices refusing admission to would-be immigrants carrying certain communicable diseases, Hickman decries the government’s decision to block HIV-positive refugees, and even accuses Republicans of deriving sadistic pleasure from the Haitians’ plight (pp. 55-57). The Clinton administration, which followed the same practices despite campaign promises to the contrary, receives no criticism, in part because the reality of the situation did not allow much flexibility in the response.
The remainder of part 1 includes a series of ill-informed allegations of racism (pp. 63-64), a habitual pattern of accepting Guantanamo prisoners’ statements at face value, and a remarkable ignorance of intelligence collection methods, goals, and types. Hickman assumes that all interrogations focus upon actionable, tactical intelligence, even though much of the Guantanamo process focused entirely upon strategic information, such as how Al Qaeda cells communicate with one another. Hickman has little if any grasp of Al Qaeda’s structure, goals, and the nature of its attempted attacks upon American soil after 9/11. It does include a nice examination of relevant U.S. Supreme Court decisions, but then betrays a horrible understanding of the military court system. Defense teams are assigned a military attorney to help with the navigation of a unique system by civilian counsel. These military lawyers are not present to undermine the defense, as Hickman alleges; to do so would violate their professional ethics (p. 124).
In part 2, Hickman drops any pretense at an unbiased examination and simply attacks any Republican presidents he can think of, regardless of the facts. He manages to blame the Reagan administration for both the existence and the political success of the Taliban, including the execution of former Afghan president Mohammad Najibullah in 1996 (p. 151). Moving backwards in time, he then attacks the McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt administrations for their handling of the Spanish American and Philippine Wars, primarily due to their overt racism (pp. 190-191). Hickman finishes his diatribe with a bizarre attack on the Eisenhower administration, which he blames for the Bay of Pigs fiasco. While Eisenhower might bear some culpability for the failed invasion of Cuba, it was for the planning stages, not the execution, which came during President Kennedy’s years in the White House. To pull off this attack, Hickman backdated the invasion from 1961, when it actually occurred, to April 17, 1960, putting it in Eisenhower’s last year (p. 192). This type of silly mistake might be overlooked, if it did not fit so neatly into his entire approach to historical study. As it stands, the only surprise is that the University Press of Florida and its readers also missed such a glaring error.
If only President Barack Obama had closed Guantanamo in the first year of his presidency, as he often promised on the campaign trail! Such a closure would offer a perfect conclusion to Hickman’s work, and would have saved him from the embarrassing contortions he undertakes in the concluding chapters of this work. Unfortunately, Obama quickly realized upon assuming office that campaign promises made with incomplete information must often be discarded when reality gets in the way. Of course, almost no voters considered the closure of Guantanamo a high priority, and those who did would certainly never defect to a Republican challenger. To Hickman’s surprise, polls of the American public have consistently shown that a majority of citizens want the prison kept open regardless of the lack of trials. The public’s thirst for vengeance, or its grasp of the reality that no good solution exists, might explain this (p. 214). In the end, to Hickman, Obama caved in to the desire for increased executive power rather than the moral impulse to crucify his predecessor and set right the ills of the Bush administration.
Two bizarre appendices conclude this work, and display almost everything that is wrong with the book as a whole. The first shows pop culture references to Guantanamo and its prison, including films, books, and television programs. It definitively proves Hickman’s affinity for shallow research and easily digestible sources. The second provides a very incomplete overview of the history of island prisons. It shows once and for all his ability to miss examples that would far better prove his point, such as the U.S. Cold War POW compounds at Koje-do, Cheju-do, and Phu Quoc, as well as the earlier U.S. examples at Belle Isle and Johnson’s Island, or the British prison for Napoleonic soldiers at Cabrera.
In summary, Hickman’s book, while an interesting concept, includes a pathetic research agenda not based in anything beyond news sources. He uses isolated single sources to gloss over important historical examples, and completely ignores an enormous pool of publicly available, declassified U.S. government sources, largely on the grounds that he does not trust anything produced by the government. Whether his decision to short-change the research process was due to an unwillingness to confront any information contrary to his predispositions, or was simply due to the twin demons of laziness and ignorance, the result is the same. This book should never have been published in its current form, and should be shunned by anyone seeking an objective analysis of the government information campaign regarding the Guantanamo prison facility. The topic is still valid, and remains open for any researcher willing to put in the necessary time and effort.
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Paul Springer. Review of Hickman, John Charles, Selling Guantánamo: Exploding the Propaganda Surrounding America's Most Notorious Mlitary Prison.
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