Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Disturbing Times

Last week two sets of serious allegations about the treatment of prisoners in Iraq emerged, one for each side of the Atlantic. Last Wednesday, CBS News broke the story in the United States that American military personnel had engaged in systematic mental and physical torture of Iraqi prisoners. Then on Friday night the English newspaper the Daily Mirror ran a story of British soldiers clubbing handcuffed Iraqis with their rifles, then urinating on them (there is a debate raging in Britain over the veracity of those photos. The BBC has good coverage of the issue: Army photos: Claims and rebuttals)

Both stories were accompanied by incontrovertible photographic evidence of these assaults carried out by coalition troops (apparently taken for the album back home by the grinning perpetrators) and denunciations from the respective political and military hierarchies in Washington and London. We are told that those who indulged in these behaviors were “rogue elements” and “a disgrace to the uniform” and that they will be vigorously dealt with by the court martial process.

I certainly agree that those responsible are reprehensible human beings and I applaud the rigor of the condemnations from our leaders. Exactly how “rogue” these actions were will no doubt be uncovered by the course of the investigation, although one of the accused American NCOs has been claiming that the mistreatment of prisoners resulted from direct orders given by shadowy civilian military contractors (less hermetically known as mercenaries.) How widespread the knowledge of these abuses reached up the official chain of command will hopefully emerge during the courts martial.

However the question must be asked, loudly and often, as to how these professional soldiers came to think that these assaults were acceptable. It is common practice to demonize an enemy before battle, as it makes the killing that will take place easier to bear psychologically. Once an enemy is captured or has surrendered however, both honor and the Geneva conventions dictate humane treatment. Given that one of the ostensible reasons for the coalition’s presence in Iraq is to fly the banner of democratic values, it should pain all of us that this vileness was allowed to emerge from the ranks of what both sides of the pond are told are the “best, most professional armies in the world.” The trouble is that while only a few “rogue” elements have seen fit to act on their disgusting, inhuman impulses there is a permissive culture towards brutalism in both armies.

I support the troops. I come from a military family, and I know first hand the sacrifices made by service personnel in return for lousy pay, keyed-up boredom, and moments of high danger. But I also bear in mind the maxim expressed by the Duke of Wellington on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo: “I do not know what our men do to the French, but they scare the hell out of me.” Fighting units and their support arms (military police, etc) have to be brutal, savage combatants. Yet, believing as I do that every human being can conceive of at least two separate lines of thought simultaneously, they also have to be professional enough to put the brakes on. The best army units apply force within a disciplined continuum.

The American and British troops serving in Iraq are under a microscope; their individual actions and inactions can have an impact on the post-war landscape of the entire region. One photograph of an Iraqi humiliated and beaten could be the trigger for the next Mohammed Atta. Nobody is perfect, but every soldier knows that the treatment of prisoners and civilians is not subject to improvisation as clear laws and rules do exist.

The problem might be that the coalition troops do not see the Iraqis as a liberated population but rather as a defeated enemy. When an army allows its troops to refer to all Arabs (enemy soldier, guerilla/terrorist, civilian, and ally alike) as “camel jockeys” and “towel heads” the dehumanization that leads to humiliation, casual hooliganism, and torture has begun. The inability to control the basest behaviors of soldiers smacks of poor leadership and an institutional failure.

I have little patience with those who are ready to draw historically dubious comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam after a scant 13 months. However, there is one aspect of that dismal Southeast Asian conflict that does seem relevant to these abuses in Iraq, and its one that has been back in the news as an aspect of the presidential campaign.

Back in 1971, John Kerry testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about abuses, torture, and crimes committed by US servicemen in Vietnam. As decorated combat veterans of that conflict, Kerry and his colleagues in Vietnam Veterans Against The War were able to give eye- witness accounts of the abuses, and backed them up in repeated press interviews, including one infamous encounter on Meet the Press.

I say infamous because on April 18, 2004 on the same show, Tim Russett decided to take Kerry to task for his testimony 23 years previously. Suggesting that “a lot” of Kerry’s allegations had been discredited, Russett tried to hold the Democratic contender’s feet to the fire and cast doubt on his suitability for the Oval Office. To his discredit, Kerry vacillated and waffled rather than stand by the courageous actions of his youth.

The unpleasant and unavoidable truth, highlighted by Kerry all those years ago, is that torture and human rights abuses were both prolific and horrific in Vietnam. This has been backed up by hours and hours of testimony, memoir, and confession. Most recently, The Toledo Blade of Ohio won a Pulitzer Prize this year for its illumination of a campaign of unrelenting human rights abuses by a specific army unit over a seven-month period.

The fact that similar allegations are now emerging in Iraq suggest that people like Russett are both in the wrong and doing the world a grave disservice. By attacking the whistle blowers for their courageous stand against inhuman behavior rather than turning the spotlight on the complacency, permissiveness, and institutional brutality that leads to this torture they risk perpetuating this pattern of abuse that has damaging effects far beyond those on the immediate perpetrators and victims.

It is a damning indictment of America’s failure to learn from the disaster of Vietnam that these abuses have been taking place in Iraq. Maybe we should think twice before trying to forcibly export our brand of democracy, given that we seem fundamentally incapable of mature examination of our own weaknesses.

George W. Bush famously claimed “they hate us for our freedoms.” No Mr. President, they hate us for our arrogance, our casual xenophobia, our ignorance, and our callow refusal to examine the institutional failures that lead to the torture of prisoners.

Write to me: wisdomweasel@hotmail.com

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