A friend of mine recently wrote me to about the hunger strikes taking place at Guantanamo. He made a very interesting comparison between the hunger striking strategy employed by the Guantanamo detainees and those used by Irish separatists jailed by the British. He noted that the Irish were unsuccessful in their efforts to gain concessions from the British until they struck upon the strategy of a serial hunger strike. One detainee would stop eating, eventually starving himself to death, only to have his hunger strike taken up by another. This sustainable tactic created a relentless tension that eventually caused the British to cave.
Conversely, the Guantanamo detainees have typically used parallel hunger strikes. The resulting large number of hunger strikers is generally assumed to be an attempt to garner media attention. My friend is definitely correct in his assessment that this is not a sustainable tactic, which he took to mean that the Irish strategy would be more effective. However, as I pointed out to him, there is a key difference between the two cases: in Guantanamo, detainees are not allowed to starve themselves to death, only into infirmity. Once their bodyweight drops too much, they get a tube up the nose and food down their gullet. From which I concluded that media attention the sheer number of hunger strikers was the only effective civil disobedience strategy available to Guantanamo detainees.
However, it has since occurred to me that another strategy may be at play here. By increasing the number of hunger strikers, the detainees increase the workload on the medical personnel conducting their forced feeding. As has recently been reported, the situation has gotten to the point where they are having to conduct forced feeding around the clock in order to keep up. If the detainees are able to continue to grow this hunger strike much more, and sustain it just long enough, they may be able to completely overwhelm the guard force medics. If this happens, we could see several deaths in relatively short succession.
The media coverage of such an eventuality would be substantial, the political left would be mobilized, and pressure to finally close the prison would mount.
Or… maybe they’re just pissed off.
In either event, such as strategy will not work. In response to the increased hunger striking by the Guantanamo detainees, the US Navy has sent an additional 40 medical personnel to support the over-burdened force-feeding operations. This capacity and willingness to scale the response to hunger strikes will negate any high-volume strategy, at least in terms of impact on operations.
Interestingly, according to the Navy at least, the term “force feeding” may be a bit of a stretch. Army Lt. Col. Samuel House, in a statement issued on Monday, claimed that “currently only a handful of detainees are being tube-fed.” The rest of those designated for “force-feeding” are actually just isolated from their peers, sat in front of a meal, and eat voluntarily. If this is the case, then the primary driver of the hunger strike is peer pressure rather than solidarity of opposition. If that is the case, this hunger strike is just as doomed as the previous ones.
Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy & Research