In his unflinching memoir of the Pacific War, With the Old Breed (1981), Eugene Sledge reported that his fellow marines regularly used their bayonets to gouge gold teeth from Japanese corpses. On one occasion, an American marine actually tried to pry his gold trophy from the mouth of a Japanese prisoner, still writhing in agony. Such darker moments of “the good war” are not often remembered today.11. There are exceptions; see “Reporting the Good War: A Conversation with Ken Burns”, The American Interest (September/October 2007). And of course, they were not publicly reported at the time.
The new documentary Taxi to the Dark Side aims to ensure that we don’t gloss over abuses perpetrated by the American military in our current wars. It has already been hailed as a great documentary, nominated for distinguished prizes, and awarded an Oscar.
The film does not exactly report breaking news. The central stories that it tells appeared in the New York Times several years ago, but writer and director Alex Gibney tries to plumb what the story really means. Taxi does not engage in the clowning or the cheap shots of a Michael Moore production. What it offers instead is unrelenting indignation.
The film tells its story almost entirely through interviews. At the outset, we encounter American soldiers—or rather, veterans of the U.S. Army—who guarded or interrogated detainees at Bagram prison in Afghanistan during the first two years after the overthrow of the Taliban. Then we hear from lawyers for detainees at Guantánamo, from a released prisoner at Gitmo, from various critics. High Bush Administration officials appear only in excerpts from press conferences, television appearances and congressional testimony in excerpts that make them appear either callous or mendacious.
Taxi takes its name from the very sad story of an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar. He was apprehended at a roadside checkpoint by U.S. forces in 2002 and died in custody at Bagram prison only five days later. Gibney links his story with the statement of Vice President Dick Cheney on Meet the Press, only a week after the 9/11 attacks, explaining that, to forestall such attacks in the future, the United States would need to pursue much more aggressive intelligence efforts: “We have to work the dark side”, as he put it, indicating that the United States could only defend itself against “nasty, vicious enemies” by engaging in some “nasty, vicious” measures of its own.
The point of...