View Full Version : Guantanamo a far cry from the gulag

02-24-06, 11:38 AM
Speakout: Guantanamo a far cry from the gulag
By Anil Adyanthaya
February 24, 2006

In his Rocky Mountain News column of Feb. 21, "The shame of Guantanamo," Paul Campos wrote that "\[T]he only difference between the gulag and Guantanamo is the scale of the crime." Campos is correct that the Soviet gulag and Guantanamo involved different numbers of persons. Writer Anne Applebaum, the author of The gulag: A History estimates that 18 million persons were imprisoned in gulag camps. Today, there are about 500 inmates imprisoned at Guantanamo.

But, and unfortunately for Campos' argument, that is not the only difference between the Soviet gulag and Guantanamo. Here are some other differences of which Campos was apparently unaware:

• The gulag, which derived its name from an acronym for the Russian term for Main Camp Administration, was the system of slave labor camps in the Soviet Union. The purpose of the gulag was twofold: to provide the Soviet Union with cheap labor and to punish dissent. The purpose of Guantanamo is the imprisonment and interrogation of enemy combatants captured in Iraq and Afghanistan. The prisoners at Guantanamo are not forced to labor. In fact, they have access to books and may play checkers and chess, not to mention soccer.

• A significant cause of death in the gulag was starvation. Food was strictly rationed - a full ration according some estimates was around 1,200 calories. And if enough work was not done, an even smaller ration would result. At Guantanamo, the prisoners are given three meals per day. The meals, which meet Islamic dietary restrictions, are varied over a 14-day cycle and include such fare as pancakes, scrambled eggs and honey ginger chicken.

• Another leading cause of death in the gulag was exposure, which resulted from the lethal combination of rationed clothing and the harsh Russian winters. At Guantanamo, prisoners have fans and are given adequate clothing and shoes. Their beds have mattresses and sheets.

• Starvation and cold were not the only fates for prisoners in the gulag. Conservative estimates put the total number of executions at close to a million. The number of executions at Guantanamo: zero.

• The prisoners in the gulag included those imprisoned because of their belief in God. At Guantanamo, the prisoners are given prayer beads, prayer rugs, copies of the Quran and are told where to turn to face Mecca.

• Medical care in the gulag, to the extent it even existed, was intended solely to keep the prisoner working. The prisoners at Guantanamo have access to medical and dental care equivalent to that provided U.S. servicemen.

Prisoners receive immunizations and amputees there have even been fitted with prosthetic limbs. Prisoners at Guantanamo also receive individual visits with representatives of the International Red Cross.

Campos undoubtedly feels passionate about the plight of the men imprisoned at Guantanamo. And the above comparison was not intended to present Guantanamo as a happy place. It most certainly is not. But ludicrous and morally indefensible comparisons such as the one he makes between the Soviet gulag and Guantanamo do little to help his cause. What is worse is that the prevalence of such outlandish parallels in today's political debate makes real horrors more likely.

Most people when confronted with hyperbole like Campos' tune it out. If every prisoner of war camp is a gulag and every harsh interrogation is torture, how will we ever recognize a true gulag or real torture when we see them?

Anil Adyanthaya is a lawyer and writer. He is a resident of Brookline, Mass.