Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Abu Ghraib: Hidden Costs and Consequences

By David D. Haines,PhD

George W. Bush is presently doing his best to convince whomever will listen, that he is disgusted at the antics of the U.S. Military Police garrison of Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, who apparently have been acting out sexual fantasies on Iraqi prisoners under their guard.

In keeping with time-honored tradition, the incident has been painted as “isolated” and in no way representative of the high standards to which our public servants are accustomed to following. Inevitably, the usual suspects will be rounded up and designated as sacrificial lambs to show the world that such behavior will not be tolerated and its perpetrators properly punished. In this case, the Army will likely make a pointed negative example of a few hapless enlisted personnel and perhaps an officer or two. This certainly will include the incredibly stupid soldiers who gleefully included themselves in pictures with naked Iraqis in various creative poses. It’s also a good bet that the rather pathetic one star General in command of the prison complex will get a pink slip and told not to bother planning for a military pension. Closure of the issue will presumably be attempted through activation of plausible deniability safeguards always in place, which in the present situation will shield the upper ranks from any suggestion that the behavior at Abu Ghraib was known or tolerated.

In fact, careful observation of the interaction between guards and prisoners as shown in the photos, clearly demonstrates that this kind of treatment was at very least tolerated by the chain of command at Abu Ghraib – and probably represents an unofficial, albeit extra-legal policy accepted by CENTCOM, but never intended for public scrutiny.

My experience in 15 years of military service is that troops who willfully violate a fundamental command directive are wisely reluctant to be photographed doing it. Which is why the substantial photo gallery documenting the actions of the MP garrison says so much about where the incentive and license for such behavior came from. These are not furtive, blurred shots taken by folks who knew they were doing a bad thing. They were exuberant life stills that reflected a great deal of enthusiasm for the work at hand. The troops who appear in the pictures are obviously not the sharpest tools in the shed, but stupidity alone doesn’t account for the egregious quality of the album. The events at Abu Ghraib reveal a “situational ethic” by the prison staff, in which a basic tenet of military operations – humane and respectful treatment of prisoners, has been deferred in favor of a policy more conducive to extraction of useful information.

I personally encountered evidence of such activities while serving as Support Command’s liaison officer to U.S. Army 7th Corps in demobilization activities following the First Gulf War. Incidental to this duty I met with members of MP units and heard descriptions of methodology routinely employed to extract information from persons of interest among the thousands of Iraqi POWs in our detention centers. Among these troops, there was a jocular acceptance of sexual humiliation as an approach to interrogation. One account in particular sticks in my mind: in this, an MP sergeant’s words were: “…. We’d get 2 guys naked at gunpoint and set them to playing with each other in front of their buddies - you better believe the others told us everything we asked after that. Nobody wanted to be part of that show”. The prevailing rationalization was that the detainees were not physically harmed but were nonetheless induced to provide a great deal of useful information. In any case, this was mild stuff compared to what prisoners had been subjected to under Saddam.

Undoubtedly, a similar mindset was a contributor to the field-expedient policies in force at Abu Ghraib and made it easy for the U.S. staff to casually override the basic principles of dignity, which are stressed during basic military training. The lethal error in this logic is that the Army officers who condoned and undoubtedly encouraged these acts, failed to fully factor in the cultural context under which they were done. Most US personnel assigned to duty in the Gulf are sharply cognizant of the fact that sexuality is an extremely sensitive issue in their host countries and that behavior taken for granted in Western culture has no acceptable equivalent in Islamic society. However very few Americans have an accurate idea of the extent to which this is true, or the long-term consequences of sexual misconduct.

An Iraqi colleague of mine remarked that if the prisoners had been physically brutalized, or even mutilated, this certainly would have stoked further hatred of America in the region, but the public perception of the victims would be as honorable martyrs who died at the hands of unbelievers. By contrast, to be stacked alive and naked in front of a leering, half-witted American female, or in positions of homosexual copulation, has deprived the detainees of any sense of personal honor for the rest of their lives. If this behavior had not been revealed to the public, these men might have had some chance of returning to society at some point, with their experiences at Abu Ghraib unspoken. However as events stand now, any of them released from US custody will by default seek a last act of martyrdom to erase the social stigma they will inevitably carry. Their extended families too, will carry this stigma and can be counted on to become our implacable enemies. This will be added to the general fury provoked by images of these acts, now available for all to see. What is absolutely certain is that the events at Abu Ghraib will cost American lives, probably a lot of them.

The Bush White House, which already suffers a significant credibility gap, would do well not to subject itself to further ridicule by pretending that this incident was an aberration. Regrettably, public accountability is not the long suit of our present administration. The President’s remedy for the recent travesty was to send the chief of the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility, Major General Geoffrey Miller to Abu Ghraib as deputy manager for detention operations. General Miller is a highly efficient soldier with a long-standing record of error-free mission accomplishment. Certainly, he can be counted on to do a better job than his poor, disheveled predecessor.

However, this change of command also sends entirely the wrong message to the Islamic World. A hallmark of Miller’s tenure at Guantanamo was the hermetic seal on information, all of which was rigidly controlled by military censors and Public Affairs. This feature has become well known as a result of the often futile efforts of families to contact their loved ones – an experience widely covered by international the press. Thus, his appointment will be perceived as a move to prevent further unauthorized disclosure of activities inside the prison and it will be broadly assumed that the sexual torture condoned under General Janis Karpinski continues unabated.

None of this helps the U.S. position in Iraq. A much more honorable course of action would be to admit command culpability at the highest echelon and to take steps to make transparent and verifiable changes in the protocol for handling military detainees. A best-case solution would be to completely eliminate U.S. military jurisdiction over any persons apprehended in Iraq and turn over control of detention centers to entirely to the U.N. This solution – or something like it, would deprive CENTCOM of the ability to gather battlefield intelligence as effectively as is now possible. However in the long run, this disadvantage would be considerably offset by decreased tensions between US troops and Iraqis – although at this juncture, the situation may be too far gone to remedy.

Dr. David Haines is a biomedical scientist and former military chemical warfare specialist,investigating war-linked disease among U.S. veterans, Kuwaitis and Iranians in cooperation with Janbazan Medical and Engineering Research Center (JMERC He served as a U.S. Army officer during the 1991 Persian Gulf War



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