Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot:
A crowd of ordinary decent folk
Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.
The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came:
What their foes like to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died…
- W.H. Auden, from The Shield of Achilles (1953)
While working on “The Guantánamo ‘Suicides’” over the last weeks, I kept thinking back to these lines from Auden’s great poem. They seemed to describe the facts and problems I was pondering. The three men who died in Guantánamo on the night of June 9, 2006 certainly had failings and foibles as all men do; no one will portray them as angels. To its credit, the Bush Administration even seems to have determined to set two of them free; the third had only to await resolution of diplomatic problems between the United States and his homeland. These men were not warriors engaged in some vicious military campaign against the United States, nor was there a scintilla of evidence linking them to any crime. “They were small/ And could not hope for help and no help came,” Auden writes. And what was the reaction of the world to their plight? Auden describes it perfectly, and indeed it was only to be expected: “A crowd of ordinary decent folk/ Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke.” The only difference here is the sentries, who at great risk to themselves and their families have stepped forward to place on the record exactly what they saw. They know it defies the official story; they know they may suffer retribution for it; and they know that what they saw is not conclusive in any event. It is only a fragment of the truth, which needs to be put forward and made a part of the historical record. It was offered out of respect for the dignity of the dead and out of conviction that the truth should not be suppressed, no matter how unpleasant. In the corridors of power, however, a river surges past, indifferent to all these questions, viewing them as an insignificant distraction from the troubles of a war.