Betrayal in Iraq

I am deeply troubled by the release of recent images from Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Like the rest the world, I’ve been shocked and horrified at the juxtaposition of naked, tortured Iraqi citizens and leering cigarette-smoking gun-toting Americans. As the scandal began to break a week ago, the photos, though graphic, seemed to have an air of fraternity hazing about them. And, indeed, radio commentator Rush Limbaugh compared the photos to fraternity pranks. But even with the early batch of photos, it was clear to me that the U. S. had a much bigger problem on its hands. No matter how I or other Americans personally felt about the photos, they were impacting the world, and particularly the Arab world, in a far worse manner than anything that we could imagine.

While most Americans were horrified by the callous and inhumane manner in which naked Iraqis were made to stack their bodies on top of one another and humiliate themselves, we still cared most about our sons, daughters, and comrades who were wearing our uniform. Even though our sympathies were extended to the human wreckage splayed across the prison floor, another part of our collective psyche begged an explanation, and wanted to deny that our people were capable of such madness. The rest of the world did not see it this way. To them, and especially the Arab world, it was their sons, daughters, and comrades who lie tormented, and our smiling officers who were reconfirmed in their minds as the lowest evil scum of the earth.

It goes beyond any consideration of what these Iraqi prisoners may or may not have done to deserve their treatment, or what kind of orders may or may not have been followed by the prison guards. No explanation, however plausible, can undo the damage. These events have the potential to completely change the landscape we face in this country, and potentially negate any good that has been accomplished during the war thus far, and all the lives that have been lost on both sides, Iraqi and American.

This is because the prison photos reinforce the worst fears and beliefs that the Arab world already has about the United States. We already faced an uphill–if not impossible–battle in changing Arab public opinion, because of past American policies. These included support for Israel, and American exploitation of Arab countries and resources. Iraqis have a very bitter memory of how we initially backed Saddam Hussein as our man in the Middle East, then we used him as a secular counterbalance to Islamic forces in Iran which indirectly resulted in the bloody Iran-Iraq war in the 80’s. Then we invaded in 1991, seemingly ready to topple him. Then, we pulled out, and left the Iraqis who began to rise up against Hussein to be bitterly crushed. There have been at least three distinct betrayals by America of the Iraqi people. As a result, during the past year of Iraqi conflict, many Iraqis who otherwise would have welcomed “regime change”? either remained passive or actively attacked our forces.

Added to this stew of hatred were the numerous foreign fighters and Al-Qaeda sympathizers who relished the chance to humiliate the great satan. We also faced relentless one-sided coverage of every military encounter by Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and other Arab media. There was little counterbalancing American coverage, and no good explanations offered. The fires of anti-Americanism in Iraq were already stoked to a fever pitch, even before any prison images were seen last week.

Now the symbology rages on multiple levels:

  • Occupiers vs. defeated peoples
  • Rapist vs. helpless victim.
  • Sadist vs. prisoner.
  • Imperial power vs. powerless subjects.
  • Bitch goddess vs. emasculated man.
  • Infidels defiling the land of Islam

These archetypes will be paraded incessantly and justifiably in the Arab press for years to come. Al Qaeda will be having a field day. The Abu Ghraib prisoners have been made into martyrs—and they didn’t even have to die! Every image is a ready-made terrorist recruitment poster. Just add a target grid and “Allahu Akbar!”

It is hard for most Americans to imagine how things could have gotten this bad. Though a lot of blame can be laid at the feet of politicians, this would not have happened if not for the simple fact that humans are first and foremost a violent species. Everyone alive today is the descendent of a killer, or we wouldn’t be here. The peaceful or less violent people all died at the hands of our ancestors in prehistoric times. The humans more skillful at killing and dominance were the ones who survived. Civilization does not take away the killer instinct, yet we are always shocked when it emerges. Most Americans are in denial about this fact, and about the boiling cauldron of rage that composes human nature. It’s like the song says (“Lock And Key”, Hold Your Fire — Rush, 1987).

We carry a sensitive cargo, below the water line.
Ticking like a time bomb, with a primitive design.
Behind the finer feelings, the civilized veneer.
Heart of a lonely hunter, guards a dangerous frontier

The balance can sometimes fail, strong emotion can tip the scale.
I don’t want to face the killer instinct, face it in you or me.
So we keep it under lock and key.

It would be beyond the scope of this essay to comment on the reasons why humans are capable of such brutality, and are by nature doomed to violent conflict, but this is well explored in both The Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker, and The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. It is clear that’s displays of brutality are universal, particularly in warfare.

But it is viciously ironic that the worst public example of officially sanctioned brutality in American military history has taken place under the most ostensibly religious president in recent memory. This shows not only that the Bush administration has been disastrously naïve in its planning for the aftermath of the Iraqi war, but also that its is woefully ignorant of the impact of unchecked human nature in conducting foreign policy. Did we not learn from the massacres of innocent villages in Vietnam? (Maybe it’s because they were never fully seen on TV)

Bush’s simplistic notions of good versus evil, “America good — rest of world bad,” is a perfect set up for the atrocities that have occurred. Not only did this attitude make it more likely that these problems would crop up, it made the scandal more appropriate in the eyes of the rest of the world. Bush should read his Bible: “Pride goes before a fall, and a haughty spirit before destruction.” [Proverbs 16:18] Couldn’t have happened to nicer people.

A sophisticated leader would understand the importance of keeping his military men and women in check. Someone well schooled in human nature would know that powerful intelligence services far from home could easily fall into the trap of using the aggression and sadism of young untutored soldiers to achieve their goals of extracting information. A sophisticated leader would understand the Clausewitzian nature of warfare — as politics by other means. And therefore such a commander-in-chief, would take every precaution to ensure that American prestige and standards were upheld to the letter. He would know that any violations or abuses would eventually come to light, and negate a thousandfold the value of any information obtained.

We may find that orders may have been given from the top, and that the abuses catalogued were systematic in nature. This would be an even greater tragedy and miscalculation, and would put the entire US government and military in a shameful light. Politicians are scrambling for cover, and offering many possible explanations. Some congressmen have suggested that it is the Abu Ghraib prison itself that is to blame, almost as if some ghosts of Saddam Hussein or his sons still roamed the halls of that charnel house, (wishing that it were they and not American GIs who were so shamefully pictured). Razing Abu Ghraib might be an appropriate, symbolic gesture, but it should have been done right after Baghdad fell. Using that dreaded facility was a colossal blunder that military officials should have known was doomed from the start. Now, nothing can possibly erase the bitter mistrust that these prison photos have indelibly etched into the Arab psyche.

Having spent my life believing that America does more good than harm in the world, I find myself struggling to find some silver lining in this debacle. The only good I can see would be some deep soul-searching. I would hope that America is finally ready to re-examine the following notions:

  • That social mores, training, or good character can mask underlying bloodlust or rapacious nature.
  • That religious belief has any check or balance on the exercise of human power.
  • That women in powerful positions are any less brutal or sadistic than men (Abu Ghraib prison was run by a female brigadier general, and many of the tormentors were female).
  • That America or Americans have any inherent moral superiority over other peoples.
  • That the use of torture in anything other then a ticking-clock terror situation is acceptable (It should completely off-limits, subject to court martial, to US military and intelligence services, unless authorized by a military general or someone at the director level in the CIA).
  • That our positive view of ourselves is always shared by the rest of the world.
  • That our institutions, leaders, and intelligence are anywhere near infallible

The clash of civilizations that began the terror war seemed to be between the modern liberated West, and the medieval ways of radical Islam. And in large part, this is true. America has much to offer the Arab world in terms of liberation for women, freedom of the individual, freedom of sexuality, expression, education and intellectualism, modern modes of dress and entertainment, and great opportunity and prosperity.

Instead, before American values have even had a chance to take root, we have demonstrated our own medieval ways. Instead of sexual liberation, Iraqis got violation. Instead of the example of the true vitality and beauty of American women, Iraqis got the bitch goddesses from hell. Instead of a modern court system and proper treatment, Americans took over Saddam Hussein’s medieval torture facility.

These awful pictures are the most charged images to emerge in more than a generation. The only comparable photo that I can remember in my lifetime is the 1968 AP photo of Nguyen Ngoc Loan, whose execution of a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon sparked international outrage. Now, it would be unfair for me to condemn this entire situation without at least giving our soldiers and military personnel the benefit of the doubt. After all, American prisoners of war in Iraq were often mutilated and murdered, not just violated. And many American civilian contractors who were trying to rebuild Iraqi infrastructure have been shot, beaten, burned alive and worse and their bodies dragged through the streets. It has been a brutal war, and before it’s over, there could be thousands of Americans who will never make it home and tens of thousands wounded.

In this climate, it’s easy to see that some soldiers may have thought they were either avenging their buddies or contributing to the American mission by subduing and humiliating prisoners. It’s easy to see how a culture of acceptance and desensitization could have emerged in a prison system that was overcrowded and in a war zone. And bored prison guards with too much time on their hands decided to have a little fun and take some snapshots. Things may have even been staged to look worse than they actually were. Individual soldiers who appear in the photos may not even have participated in the torture, they may have just posed for a souvenir photo they never realized would be the biggest mistake of their lives. So these awful pictures that have shocked the world and humiliated Americans are probably being taken somewhat out of context. But the truth is that history won’t care. As the occupiers and so-called liberators of Iraq, we had a duty to fulfill to the Iraqi people that has now been massively compromised.

As of a month ago, though many Iraqis expressed their dislike of the American occupation, a Gallup poll showed that at least 60% of them believed that things were better than they had been under Saddam Hussein. Given the suffering that country has been through over the past year, those are stunningly positive numbers. So in spite of all the bungling of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bremer, and the Coalition Provisional Authority, most Iraqis were still willing to give the US a chance at beating the insurgency and establishing a democratic government. I would hate to see those poll numbers now. I’d be extremely surprised if any Iraqis were willing to give us any chance at all. It’s going to take a huge effort and some brilliant political maneuvering to turn this around, if it can be turned around.

One of the worst consequences of this disaster will be to any American soldiers who are now captured. We can be sure that they will be treated with extra brutality. In recent weeks, kidnapped Westerners had been treated somewhat decently by POW standards, and the ones who were not killed were not tortured or otherwise harmed. But now, every Coalition soldier who is captured faces beatings, sodomy, and worse.

America needed the cooperation of average Iraqis, and now is unlikely to ever get it. The war will most likely turn bloodier and uglier in the months to come. Calls for the US to unconditionally leave Iraq are likely to be heard from many quarters. Even if Iraq can be salvaged, and a positive outcome delivered, the United States of America has suffered a crushing defeat of prestige worldwide. We have squandered much of the benefits that could have come from our expenditure of blood and treasure to the tune of $200 billion and nearly a thousand lives. We have betrayed the other 130,000 troops whose sacrifices over the past year we can barely imagine. We have perhaps doubled or tripled the likelihood of future terror attacks on American soil (as if the danger wasn’t high enough already).

It will take a huge change in military and political leadership, and decades of diplomacy to repair the damage — both to our relationship with the Arab world, and to our relationship with our allies. It’s unclear who would have the capability to undertake the repair, or how this would be accomplished. Hearings are set to begin on Capitol Hill as soon as this Friday, and I don’t think we will have seen such a firestorm since Watergate, possibly not even then. John Kerry has called for the resignation of Rumsfeld, but the American people and the people of the world may not be satisfied with anything less then the end of this despicable administration. The president has so far declined to even apologize. If he were a decent man, and religious as he claims, he should be offering to wash the feet of these Iraqi victims. He needs to apologize not only to them, but to the soldiers and the entire American public. Failing that, if there is a god as Bush believes, I hope he sees fit to punish his wayward hypocritical president son as severely as the president’s minions punished the Iraqi prisoners.

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