May 03, 2004

Abuse of Iraqis

I'm going to wade in, here. I may not have any friends left after this--online or off--but . . . easy come, easy go. I'd been meaning to catch up on my reading anyway.

Let's start with the primary links:
The Abuse Pictures
The CBS Story

Full disclosure: my husband is a late-Vietnam-era MP, and a former Marine. His cousin was a spy throughout most of that conflict.

I've experienced the same shocked outrage most of you have. And I would love to see the grinning idiots in these images prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law--something that will certainly happen. But let's get a few things straight.

1. There are two different locations being discussed, with different parties involved. Most incidents under discussion occurred at Abu Ghraib, one of Saddam's most notorious prisons. We are now using it for detainees. The alleged beating incident--thrown in the middle of the Memory Hole photo essay--took place (or didn't) at Camp White Horse, and the accused men in that case are Marines. (Please note that the Marines are [sort of] part of the Navy, and any investigation into this White Horse incident is therefore going to be under that branch of the Armed Forces.)

UPDATE: There is one allegation of a beating death at Abu Ghraib, so that photo may indeed be in the right place. The story is developing.

2. The descriptive information under the photos varies a lot according to what web site you view them on. The one of the man standing on a box sometimes bears the explanation that the man is holding wires, and was told he'd be shocked if he stepped off the box. Sometimes we're told he has wires running to his testicles. Sometimes it's suggested that the electricity was actually going to be turned on. Let's remember that we don't know yet, and cannot rely on most explanatory material that appears with these pix.

And the ones showing detainees fellating each other are blocked out so that we aren't sure whether the sex act is truly being performed or not. There is, obviously, a huge difference between posing these people suggestively and making them have sex.

3. Some critical information we--the public--don't yet have has to do with the affiliation of the "interrogators" who were on-site, and allegedly encouraging these servicemen and -women to "soften up" the detainees for questioning. Some sites or articles--even from mainstream sources--claim that there is no way to try or punish these "third parties." This is untrue: civilians who are in an installation under military control can be tried by the FBI, who should--I feel--be brought in. But more on this later.

4. The term "prisoners" used in a lot of the articles and essays being written on Abu Ghraib is probably inaccurate. These are not Iraqi soldiers who fell into the hands of irresponsible servicemen/-women. These are people who have been brought in for interrogation. They have information we need, presumably in order to save our boys and girls from being blown to bits in another ambush.

5. Intelligence-gathering is probably like laws and sausages, to some degree. Of course, we regulate the making of the second two, and need to set clear limits on the first.

6. Snapping a photo as a trophy is not the same for the young war-hardened soldiers of today that it was for their fathers in Vietnam. In the old days you could put a cigarette in the mouth of a deceased Viet Cong, put your arm around him and get a photo. No need to be revulsed by this until years later, when you come across the snapshot in a drawer and recoil in horror. Now every time a picture is taken you have to assume that, in the digital age, it can and will end up on Al-Jazeera.

7. Studies have shown that people find it easier to do cruel and inhuman things when they are part of a group than alone, and often surprise themselves at how cruel they can be when ordered to. I am attempting to explain, rather than offering excuses.

8. Torture is not simply humiliating people. A lot of the pictures show juvenile pranks that are unacceptable conduct, but don't warrant the word "torture." I'd prefer that we not use that word untiil some of the more serious charges are proven (e.g., sodomy).

9. The investigation has been going on for months, and so far at least 17 people have been relieved of their command, including a Brigadier General.

10. There are spooks in the shadows, and not just army intelligence people. Probably CIA, though there are other US agencies that could be involved, and British intel is another possibility. Come on, people: there's a lot of hand-wringing out there to the effect that we're shocked, shocked to find out that "private contractors" are questioning "prisoners." Whatever companies are supposedly involved, we are obviously not giving the guys who maintain the trucks control over interrogations. These are not security guards doing this.

11. I must say that I keep hearing how "humiliating" it is for Arab men to be nude. Most of their prudery, however, seems to be reserved for the female of the species. I certainly don't want to paint all Muslims--or all Arabs--with the same brush, but if I were involved in an interrogation and I found out that the subject had been involved in an "honor killing" of his sister or daughter because she had been raped, I would have a hard time forgetting that fact.

12. All of the above notwithstanding, what happened is not okay. The pictures are not okay, and there are failures within the command structure. I want to see courts-martial that go significantly up the chain of command.

But I also hope we don't overreact to the point that no aggressive questioning is ever permissible--because that is a sure way to lose more lives.

Here's a little Feedback on the CBS story.

A piece on the Camp White Horse story helps keep that inquiry distinct from Abu Ghraib.

Brain Shavings discusses the beast in all of us.

James Joyner has written five or six posts on the subject so far (I'm sure there will be more--keep scrolling).

John of Argghh! shares his own thoughts and a mini-roundup of reaction from warbloggers.

Michele calls the actions of the army reservists "treason."

Smash has a thing or two to say.

Posted by Attila at May 3, 2004 01:59 AM

You are absolutely right on one very important point: Humiliation is not torture. Being told to strip down and assume the position with one's hands against the wall for 15 minutes isn't torture. Airport Security does that to elderly women every day so they won't be seen as "profiling" the swarthy young man waiting to board their flights.

Yes, this was over the top, and yes, the reaction has been, well, reactionary. But one thing the outlets seem to avoid making clear is that this was brought to the attention of the military almost six months ago and the investigations and prosecutions have been ongoing for almost as long.

Stupid? Yes. Criminal? Yes. Cause for this sort of attention? No. All it does is serve to incite further acts against our troops by the rightously angry militants in places like Fallujah and Mosul.

The greatest disservice these yay-hoo's did was to their fellows at arms.

Posted by: Mamamontezz at May 3, 2004 03:57 PM

"There is, obviously, a huge difference between posing these people suggestively and making them have sex."

according to iraqi values there is no difference at all. their religion undoubtedly is very different from what we consider morally right - nevertheless, anybody who steps in their territory has to respect those values. thus when judging any soldier who has tortured an iraqi citizen, iraqi values have to be taken into consideration.

P.S.: the most effective way to save the lives of American soldiers isn't 'aggessive interrogation', but simply bringing them back home quickly.

just my two cents.

Posted by: Flo at May 4, 2004 12:40 AM

Flo is right that bringing our soldiers home quickly is the most effective way to save their lives. However, that is true only in the short term--withdrawing under such mild pressure encourages our enemies to believe in our fundamental weakness.

We are then faced with the choice: validate their assessment (in which case they'll have no respect for our interests and may even seek to assume a dominant posture) or send the troops back in later to battle rested/regrouped/rearmed foes who actually believe they might win (and will thus fight much harder). So, which option do you like? Should we wait and assure vastly more dead American civilians and/or soliders at a point in the future (it's not a question of if, only of when) when we are relatively less powerful than today or should we oppose modern fascism now, when we have an opportunity to destroy and/or deligitimize it before it gains strength?

Posted by: Jem at May 4, 2004 06:15 AM

I hope if Flo is ever kidnapped by a rapist he knows that, to her, a sexual act is the same as anything symbolic thereof.

Come on, now. That's just silly: to be violated is a good deal worse than simply humiliated. If we're going to call it "torture," I'd like to think we're speaking of something beyond what I experienced in junior high. Sodomy, severe beatings and forced fellatio count. Most of the rest of this stuff doesn't.

As for the men who were so tramautized because they were "treated like women," maybe it'll change their attitudes when they go back into society and see that treating half the population like it's chattal on a daily basis is less than moral. Perhaps it'll give them a little empathy.

Posted by: Attila Girl at May 4, 2004 09:54 AM

if its okay to be thus humiliated then perhaps the iraqis should not just kill the soldiers. get them and sodomise them and photograph them before another day dawns for further sick acts.

being treated like a chattal is not confined to the east. and genocide is not restricted to jews. the greatest genocide the world has seen is the wiping out of indian races in america when the white settlers came.

so its a nation with blood on its hands that is set to liberate the iraqis?

Posted by: attilla 2 at May 5, 2004 04:05 AM

If we're going to call it "torture," I'd like to think we're speaking of something beyond what I experienced in junior high.

If I had been tied up and had electric wires attached to my genitals in junior high, I'm sure I'd remember it, whether or not they were electrified.

Isn't this intense desire to have what the Americans and Brits are accused of doing not be torture really just an attempt to maintain American exceptionalism? "Well, no matter what, Americans didn't torture! They may have abused, but not tortured." It seems as though we're trying to create a difference here to prove that we haven't sunk to a particular level.

Why is it so important that we maintain that distinction? If a bad country did any of the things that particular members of the Coalition forces are being accused of, how much ice would it cut to say, "Oh, c'mon, we didn't torture the political prisioner, we just abused him a little"? Somehow, I don't think we'd give, say, Saddam a pass on that one.

And if the reaction to that is, "Well, but we're completely and utterly different than Saddam and it is grotesque to say otherwise!", it's worth noting that we are not better than the former regime because we are made of different, more angelic material, but because our behavior is, or should be, better. If America is a good country, it is because our actions are good.

The reaction of both the US and UK governments has been pretty much what one would expect from decent people confronted with bad things. No fan of Bush that I am, I applaud his swift and unequivocal statements on this. We can still hope, with reason, that this was the work of some bad elements amidst many good people.

This business of drawing a nice (in the traditional sense) distinction between "abuse" and "torture" seems to be an attempt to say, "Our bad apples are still better than their old good ones." Why is that important?

Posted by: Christophe at May 5, 2004 07:10 PM

On the abuse vs torture question, I think that Secretary Rumsfield pretty much settled the question for us.

Posted by: Christophe at May 7, 2004 07:22 PM

The distinction is important because language should still have meaning. If stripping people and is torture, and raping their daughters in front of them is also torture, then the word is meaningless.

If the humiliation of Iraqis is torture, then what word do we use to describe the actions of someone who feeds them into a plastic shredder, feet first?

I do think there is a distinction, and when people maintain that our actions were on a par with Saddam's, I intend to draw that line because I think it matters.

What I'm seeing here is moral equivalence of the kind we're served up WRT the Israeli/Palestinian conflict: the actions of the democratic, militarily superior group are put under a microscope, and the "oppressed" group is given a pass on behavior that is far, far worse.

The word torture should retain its meaning, or we (meaning: thinking people) will have no way to monitor human rights conditions around the world.

Posted by: Attila Girl at May 10, 2004 01:36 PM

i don't like to americans. they are terrorist

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