May 25, 2004
One Friday in my early 20s, I took off my camouflage fatigues for the last time. The following Monday I reported to the best civilian job I could get. I was given a new uniform, a can of mace, a set of handcuffs and the keys to a cellblock at a state prison in North Carolina.
I was no longer in the infantry, but there was still an enemy and a mission. I no longer trained to kill Central American communists. Instead, every day I faced a prison population that was nearly 80 percent African-American in a state with a population that is nearly 80 percent white.
It was my intention to treat the inmates I was charged with supervising in much the same way I had been treated as a junior enlisted soldier in places like Ft. Benning, Ga., and Ft. Hood, Texas. I had been belittled and dehumanized in the name of discipline. I intended to use the same tactics to control the criminal scum I was assigned to manage.
I was quickly disabused of that notion by more seasoned guards, and, surprisingly, by inmates who weren't mindless crack-addicted drones. I was reminded that I'd volunteered to be in the military and that none of the prisoners on C-Block had signed a contract assigning them to their current surroundings. It wasn't a matter of coddling anyone. It was a pragmatic approach to effectively managing other human beings in a high-pressure situation.
I also quickly learned that the managers of the prison didn't want to rehabilitate anyone. They only wanted to continue to operate their little fiefdom as far from public scrutiny as possible.
The officers and administrators of the Abu Ghraib prison have a contingent of young soldiers much like I once was. These young men and women are products of a military that gave them a one-hour class on the Geneva Conventions during their first month in the military. They have been trained and drilled into mind-numbing, unquestioning obedience ever since that moment. Few of them have the slightest idea how to refuse an unlawful order, much less how to report a war crime.
These soldiers, some of whom have been conditioned to accept racism and human degradation by working in U.S. prisons, are as much to blame for the outrages in Iraq as I was to blame for the conditions of the prison I worked in.
There is an attitude in our country that trains us to accept the fate of those who we are told are less deserving than ourselves.
It isn't the little people on the bottom who should be condemned for designing the system. It is the self-serving masterminds at the top who should bear that burden.
President Bush says that he intends to get to the bottom of this situation. I suggest that he forgo that plan. He should instead get to the top of it.
Lou Plummer is a member of Military Families Speak Out and the Bring Them Home Now (www.bringthemhomenow.org) campaign. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.