The U.S. abuses at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq were a result of broad
messages and narrow policy. The United States sent messages and installed
policy that led to a scandal whose soul-destroying cost we can't even
reckon. For how do you measure our discredit when we turn out to be as bad,
to all appearances in many parts of the world, as the tyrant we overthrew?
How do you measure the setback to democracy in the Middle East when its
loudest proponent turns out to run a prison system worthy of totalitarian
states? How do you defend American exceptionalism when simply being
American wasn't enough to stop the Abu Ghraib guards?
President Bush made unprovoked war on Iraq because it harbored weapons of
mass destruction and allied itself with the terrorists of 9/11 - reasons
that have since proved false, but not before they had demonized Iraqis in
American eyes. The prison guards at Abu Ghraib got that message loud and
As informed citizens, we need to steal a march on the excuse-makers and
establish some home truths. Especially as Indian people, we have to fix
true accountability for the atrocities America is now defined by for much
of the world.
If you visit the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and its various institutions, you'll
eventually see an old black and white photograph of its Sicangu people
herded together in a trench. Above them at ground level stands a U.S. Army
guard detail, soldiers who seem to be lording over the prisoners.
Descendants of the prisoners can take you out and show you where those
But as much as we despise the bluecoats in this photograph, as brutal and
bloodthirsty as they may have been in their day, we don't consider the
responsibility entirely theirs. At some level, we know they weren't lone
actors. In fact, any attempt to think of them as isolated rogues lets their
leadership off the hook. We're well aware that the war criminals we see
followed orders of some kind that we don't see, and that whatever extremes
of circumstance and character led them to treat fellow human beings like a
kind of livestock - the incident is also part of an infamous political and
cultural history played out over decades.
All of that applies to the guards at Abu Ghraib. The only difference there
is that digital communications captured and distributed the humiliation of
Iraqi prisoners with a thoroughness that permits billions of people outside
our borders to assign blame properly, whatever we may tell them about it.
Just like the bluecoats at Rosebud, the guards at Abu Ghraib probably
weren't anyone we'd have wanted our children to marry. Then the
circumstances of war pretty clearly brought out certain indecencies of
character that most of us will never have the choice to act on. But given
their choice, they made the wrong ones. With their faces all over the
Internet and Islamic terrorists already taking revenge, they can expect to
pay for their wretched choices for the rest of their lives - as will many
of their fellow citizens and fellow soldiers.
But that doesn't mean they could have plotted the culturally-appropriate
humiliations they inflicted on Islamic prisoners. That doesn't mean they
agreed among themselves to flout the Geneva Conventions on prisoners. That
doesn't mean they decided all by themselves to get aggressive about
extracting intelligence from prisoners as the U.S. occupation of Iraq went
To the contrary, they were soldiers. Soldiers are rigorously trained to do
as they are told. They are in deep trouble if they disobey, and conversely
they may get a chance to shine if they carry out any special orders with
extra zeal. When they overstep to the extreme degree seen at Abu Ghraib,
and with the extreme refinements of psychological torment they brought to
bear on the physical abuse of prisoners, it is because they've gotten the
message they're proceeding on proper authority, written or otherwise.
At Abu Ghraib, that authority came from military intelligence, which had
assumed authority over the military police charged with guarding the
prisoners. "Soften them up," said the intelligencers, prior to
interrogation. "Give them the treatment." Because that authority structure
was against regulation, military intelligence was getting its authority
from higher up a chain of command that was desperate for knowledge of the
enemy as the occupation ran into stiff resistance.
The highest levels of authority in this country abetted the quest for
intelligence by questioning whether the Geneva Conventions applied to
prisoners in the war on terror. And when President George W. Bush himself
finally issued fine statements denouncing the torture and abuse of
prisoners, as had been documented by several international investigations
of U.S. misconduct in Iraq and Afghanistan - still the administration did
nothing to actively prevent it.
Our own soldiers, and now the world, got your message all right, Mr.
America can send a counter message only by following blame for Abu Ghraib
up the chain of command to the White House where it belongs, and then
electing a new president in November.