On Human Rights in Code Name Verity | Guest Post by Alexia Casale

On Human Rights in Code Name Verity | Guest Post by Alexia Casale

[stextbox id=”kelley2″ image=”null”]A NOTE FROM KELLEY: Ever since Alexia and I started emailing last year (which yielded one of my favorite bookish discussion posts ever), we’ve continued to discuss books and writing from all aspects: craft, content, themes, theory, intentions, morality, and so on. When we began talking about Code Name Verity and our experiences with it, I asked her if she would be willing to write a guest post for my blog, because her take is one I haven’t heard before. I hope you will find it as interesting as I did! Thank you so much, Alexia, for agreeing to explore this topic and joining us as a guest today![/stextbox]

[stextbox id=”guest3″ image=”null”]ETA: It was suggested in the comments that this post might contain spoilers for Code Name Verity. Please proceed at your own risk.[/stextbox]


A human rights perspective on the depiction of torture in Code Name Verity

I’ve been trying to decide how I feel about the depiction of torture in Code Name Verity since I read it last year, so big thanks to the lovely Kelley for inviting me to write a guest post on the topic.

As well as being a writer, I consult on musicals, edit fiction and teach but, at the moment, by the far the biggest chunk of my not-writing time is spent editing human-rights non-fiction. This grew out of my role as Executive Editor of the Essex Human Rights Review, an international peer-reviewed journal based in the world-renowned Essex Human Rights Centre. During my time there, I produced and edited two special issues about the prevention of torture (which can be seen here and here in case you’re interested). In the process, I reflected on the publishing ethics at stake (indeed, my introductions to the two volumes focus on that specifically) and I’ve found that this has carried over into how I approach fiction as both a reader and writer.

When I picked up Code Name Verity, it was with a degree of trepidation about how the subject matter would be handled. I was delighted to find that there is a strong ethical stance grounding the way Wein deals with the topic: as a result, there’s nothing in Code Name Verity that I think is unethical. However, even though I think it’s a very good book, I have somewhat mixed feelings about it. I applaud Wein for taking an informed, ethical stance on the ‘big picture’ stuff, but at a completely subjective, individual level a few little things missed the mark for me so that I couldn’t quite be comfortable with the book. But that’s not surprising: even when people are broadly in agreement about ethics, they may take different stances on the nuances of how these play out in practice, especially when the topic is one they know a lot about.

So what are the key ‘big picture’ things that Code Name Verity gets right?

First and foremost, the book shows that information extracted under torture is extremely unreliable. When states seek to justify torture, they usually do so by claiming that they’re only using it instrumentally, in the pursuit of vital information. Given that there’s a very high chance that at least some of the ‘information’ obtained will be bad, how can this be an acceptable reason to turn ourselves into monsters? The actions of a state’s representatives speak to the nature of the state, and that is the responsibility of all the people who make it up, whether they like it or not.

Second, people who seek to defend the use of torture often illustrate their views through ‘ticking bomb scenarios’. The ticking bomb scenario goes like this:

The authorities know that a bomb is due to go off soon, but they don’t know exactly where the bomb is. However, they have a person in the custody who has information that would lead them to the bomb. The prisoner won’t talk. Should the authorities let innocent people die or do what has to be done for the greater good?

But hang on a sec. If there’s a bomb about to go off, do you really want to end up with false information that may send you haring off in completely the wrong direction? There’s a good chance of this if your ‘information’ is obtained under torture. Perhaps the prisoner is actively trying to throw you off course, wasting time until the bomb detonates… Or perhaps the prisoner doesn’t know anything that will help and is lying just to make you stop the torture. All this takes vital time and energy away from pursuing leads that are more likely to garner you accurate, useful, reliable information.

And then there are the bigger questions about this seemingly compelling scenario. How ‘imminent’ is the attack? If it’s an hour from now, the argument feels emotionally pressing, but how about if you’ve got a month or more? Is this still pressing enough to legitimise torture? Come to that, how reliable is the information that there is going to be an attack soon? How reliable is the information that suggests your prisoner is involved closely enough in the attack to be able tell you where the bomb is?

And then there’s the most obvious counter-argument of all: the whole ‘ticking bomb’ scenario is specious to start with. How often do the authorities know that there’s ‘about’ to be an attack and have someone in custody they’re pretty sure knows enough to stop it? Comparable situations are extremely rare. This is not how and why most people end up getting tortured by states. In the majority of cases, there is no specific, urgent threat that the ‘authorities’ are trying to prevent. Instead, there is a long-term strategic plan to get any information that might be useful in relation to a broad, ill-defined, on-going generic threat. That is when torture is used. Are you still OK with your government being involved in torture?

Code Name Verity depicts torture in a way that speaks powerfully to both these critical points.

There is no ticking bomb situation as far as the bad guys are aware. Moreover, the way Julie bends the ‘truth’ that is tortured out of her ultimately proves her torturers’ undoing. Wein shows us that torture makes monsters of men and that there’s a greater chance of getting damaging misinformation than the truth anyway.

Another thing I really appreciate about how Wein handles the issue is that she refers to international treaties and human rights mechanisms – and why they can’t help people who’re being held ‘off the books’ in secret places of detention, with no one notified of their location, with no access to doctors or lawyers, and with no chance to appear before a judge. Whatever reason a person is being detained, without these crucial protections it makes no difference in practice if a country has signed various human rights treaties or not. If a prisoner doesn’t officially exist, human rights instruments can’t protect him/her.

Under these circumstances, informal mechanisms – like access by reporters – can be crucial, but they carry their own risks. Wein cleverly shows how and why Julie cannot speak out about what is happening to her even when she supposedly has an opportunity. Victims cannot be expected to report torture and other ill-treatment if they know that they will be punished for it, especially when torturers are able to operate with impunity. When a country views the use of torture as legitimate, what better guarantee of impunity for individual representatives of the state, including police officers, prison guards and army personnel?

Wein also does a great job of exploring the fact that torture as practised by states for instrumental purposes is often ‘multi-faceted’.

The main Council of Europe and UN treaties on torture refer not just to torture but also to ‘cruel’, ‘inhuman’ and ‘degrading’ treatment. Code Name Verity shows us how physical violence – what most people of think of as torture – is often only part of the picture.

Through Julie’s eyes we see just how devastating the effects of cruel and inhuman treatment are: it’s the combination of sleep deprivation, weeks of 24-hour-a-day darkness, cold, long periods of time restrained in one position, and starvation that grind her down as much as the direct physical violence that mostly happens ‘off screen’.

We also see that humiliation and ‘degrading’ treatment can be the worst of all: the line “The warmth and dignity of my flannel skirt and woolly jumper are worth far more to me now than patriotism or integrity” speaks volumes. The loss of dignity can prove intolerable – the final straw – when people are under physical duress, and this is why torture often has a sexual element. Wein doesn’t delve into this in depth (a good decision given how dark the book already is) but she speaks to how sexual humiliation and degradation are often used even when direct sexual abuse is not. At the beginning of the book, we learn that most of Julie’s clothes had been confiscated and that she’s only just finished ‘earning’ them back by giving information to her torturers. Critically, when her torturer hands over each garment, he works “from the outside in, so I have to go through the torment of undressing in front of everybody every time another item is given back”.

Wein also refuses to undermine (as so many writers do) how horrific threats of extreme physical violence are, even when there is no follow-through. Mock execution is one such ‘technique’ that we see a lot of in movies and TV shows. The most common version is when a cop holds a gun to a kidnapper’s head and demands the location of the missing child: if the kidnapper refuses to ‘talk’, the cop hurts him and then returns the gun to his head, cocks it and gives a ‘last warning’. It’s the ticking bomb scenario all over again.

Code Name Verity shows us a version of this scenario that we’re less immured to, reminding us of the horror of what is actually happening: how not following through on the threat of death does not in any way mitigate what the ‘good guy’ has just done. As Julie says, “The anticipation of what they will do to you is every bit as sickening” as the thing itself would be. The act of threatening someone in this way is not rendered more ‘acceptable if you don’t follow through: no matter how many times we see a cop’s partner laugh such situations off on TV when the ‘hero’ shows that he wouldn’t really have killed the ‘bad guy’ after all, we should keep asking ourselves how there can possibly be any ‘good guys’ in this situation.

Wein is also careful to avoid protracted scenes of torture and, instead, goes for telling details and subtext.

There’s a lot of ‘noises off’ screaming: an effective way to convey what is happening without showing us. There is mention of other prisoners with injuries but little detail about how they got these injuries. More importantly, Wein makes a clever ethical decision in deciding to start the book just when Julie’s torturers have largely finished with their attempts to get information out of her through physical violence.

However, for me, there’s still a little bit too much information. Do we need to learn that some of the burns from her earlier interrogations were done with a soldering iron? This doesn’t make me empathise more or change my understanding of the situation: if anything, it’s one fact too many for me. There were several times when I felt like the telling details were being layered on top of one another to a point where my empathy was maxed out: I couldn’t feel more engaged with Julie so these extra facts seemed both gratuitous and counter-productive in terms of my emotional response. Once readers reach a peak of empathy, additional facts may not be processed emotionally; we’ve all had experiences of being so sickened by a news-story that we effectively ‘turn off’ our emotions and just deal with the information cognitively, distancing ourselves from recognising that the distressing facts before us are things that have happened to a person.

Telling details are a great way to avoid long, graphic depictions of things like torture, but it only works if a writer strikes just the right balance between too little information and too much. Give the reader just a handful of horrifying ‘snapshot’ images and they’ll linger in the mind for long after the reader has shut the book. But if you keep giving the reader a new horrid ‘snapshot’, she’ll start forgetting the ones that have come before and, eventually, just stop reacting. That said, different readers need and want very different amounts of information. For me, the balance isn’t quite right but that’s very much a subjective, individual judgement that in no way detracts from my appreciation of the fact that Wein has clearly adopted an ethical stance in all her decision-making: no writer can please every reader with things like the balance of telling detail, but an ethical stance can be appreciated by everyone.

The biggest problem for me is that the climax of Julie’s story, which is also the Act 2 turning point of Maddie’s (see p.377 in the UK paperback version), feels like a montage of horror upon horror such that it tips into overkill. I understand that it’s critical for the plot that the reader sees both how desperate the situation is and that the Nazi guards in question are completely inhuman: the book doesn’t work if the reader isn’t convinced that the situation couldn’t possibly be more desperate or hopeless.

The thing is, Wein already had me convinced: one further horror would have been more than enough to reinforce this message at the critical moment, but instead there are a whole series of horrors in quick succession. In the end, I found it such upsettingly graphic reading that I emotionally detached from the story. As a result, this absolutely crucial ‘heart of the book’ scene lost most of its impact for me.

But while this scene doesn’t work for me I don’t see any ethical problems with it. The torture here is not depicted as instrumental: instead, the Nazi guards are inflicting pain for the sake of it, which positions the scene in a very different way. This is the other side of the ‘coin’: torture inflicted for its own sake because the torturers know that they can do anything, with no fear of punishment. This type of torture happens most frequently in just the sort of situation that Wein depicts: ones involving combat. On that basis, the ethical stance behind the scene is solid. It just doesn’t work for me: ultimately, it’s a ‘step too grim’ that leaves me feeling uncomfortable and upset, but as much by feeling that the book doesn’t strike the right balance for me as by the horror of the story.

As I said at the start, although I think Code Name Verity is a very good book, I have mixed feelings about it as a reader with my own set of unique likes and dislikes. But as someone who spends a lot of time thinking and dealing with the publishing ethics associated with human rights issues I appreciate and admire that Wein has taken an informed, ethical stance in how she depicts torture. From a human rights perspective, she does a great job.

About Alexia Casale

A British-American citizen of Italian heritage, Alexia is an editor, teacher and writing consultant. After studying psychology then educational technology at Cambridge, she moved to New York to work on a Tony-award-winning Broadway show before completing a PhD and teaching qualification. In between, she worked as a West End script-critic, box-office manager for a music festival and executive editor of a human rights journal. Alexia has always wanted a Dragon; luckily, she has her very own rib in a pot…

Her debut novel, The Bone Dragon, was published in 2013.

Read 16 comments

  1. Wow. This is an excellent post.

    Code Name Verity is one of my favourite books, I felt it was told really well and such a shocking and heartbreaking story. I’m so glad you’ve done this post. Ethics can be such a difficult topic to analyse, but also one of the deepest and most interesting. It’s interesting to read an expert’s take on aspects in the book and I feel like I agree with you on a lot of things, and you’ve even made me think about more aspects of it I hadn’t really considered before.

    Thanks you so much for writing this!

  2. I love this discussion, and it opened my eyes to a lot of parts of the book that I perhaps did not notice actively!
    Just a suggestion: perhaps there should be a mild spoiler warning with this post? It doesn’t sound so big, but for me the fact that Julie is an unreliable narrator was only realised a while into the book, and that realisation in itself was a really big part of the evolution of the storyline for me. Maybe I’m slow though :P
    Just a thought :)

  3. This is such a fascinating post. I read Code Name Verity recently, so it’s all rather fresh in my mind. I remember after reading being disturbed by some of the content(as I should be–it’s rather disturbing), and thinking about the portrayal of torture and also how Verity’s confession gave it a distance, almost. It was still rather fresh for the character, but since the reader sees it all only through what the main character is writing down, there was a distance that wouldn’t be there if say, the scenes had been written in third person and I was “watching” things play out. I kept thinking about this after finishing. I just couldn’t get it out of my head.

    I also found this insight to ring true:
    In the end, I found it such upsettingly graphic reading that I emotionally detached from the story. As a result, this absolutely crucial ‘heart of the book’ scene lost most of its impact for me.

    I had that same moment–when there was so much horror in such a short space that I became almost numb. I didn’t have an emotional moment at the book’s turning point, and I couldn’t figure out why, but I definitely think this rings true for me.

    Overall, though, this post is great–and I’m sure I’ll be thinking about it quite a lot the rest of the day!

  4. What a wonderful post – very insightful and intriguing. I haven’t read Code Name Verity yet, but after reading this post I bumped it up on my to-read list. This might be a book I would also want to see adapted into a movie.

  5. It would be great as a fllm! Can definitely see that working. I haven’t read Rose Under Fire yet (also Wein) but must do that at some point. Just need a good breather between the two books! My next ‘human rights’-related read will be Sold by Patricia McCormack. I read Never Fall Down a few months ago and, again, I’m still thinking about it and trying to decide how I feel about the handling of the subject matter. Very different tactics – a journalistic approach – but it is also very effective: I thought the very ‘clean’ presentation, focusing on the facts rather than interpreting them, especially in moral terms, made for an ethically-sound way to deliver a lot of truly horrific detail about the situation at stake. But this book falls into the ‘faction’ – lightly fictionalised personal history – so there was a lot more appeal to the head than directly to the heart, which suited the subject-matter. Two very different but interesting approaches.

    • You’re right, I think it would make an excellent movie! I’m excited for you to read Sold, even though it was pretty heart-wrenching (which is kind of the goal, I guess). I haven’t heard of Never Fall Down, but now you have me curious. (If you ever want to write another guest post about any of these, just let me know! ;D)

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