May 4, 2004
The torture and grotesque mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of the U.S. military epitomize the failure of Bush's war in Iraq.
What was once an irony has become an indictment. The irony was that the United States was using one of Saddam's most notorious prisons, Abu Ghraib, to hold prisoners.
Abu Ghraib was where Saddam's henchmen tortured many prisoners to death.
Now at least a few U.S. troops and private contractors have been abusing prisoners there, and the symbolism has not been lost on people throughout Iraq--and throughout the Arab and Muslim world.
Some of these photos first appeared on "60 Minutes II" on April 28. Seymour Hersh in the latest issue of The New Yorker elaborates on them. Hersh got a hold of an internal Army investigative report written by Major General Antonio M. Taguba, who cited "sadistic, blatant, and wanton abuses." Here are some of Taguba's descriptions of the abuse, as quoted by Hersh: "Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape; allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell; sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick, and using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee."
The report also describes several instances of sexual humiliation. One picture, which was widely shown on television though the details were obscured, was of a female soldier "giving a jaunty thumbs-up sign and pointing at the genitals of a young Iraqi, who is naked except for a sandbag over his head, as he masturbates." Other testimony indicated that U.S. soldiers made some of the male Iraqi prisoners simulate oral sex.
The Taguba report indicates that the soldiers guarding the prison were under orders from military intelligence to brutalize their captives. The soldiers "were directed to change facility procedures to 'set the conditions' for MI interrogations," he wrote. Hersh adds that "army intelligence officers, CIA agents, and private contractors" were the ones giving the orders. He quotes the report as saying that they "actively requested MP guards set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses."
The U.S. military did not do nearly enough to make sure that such behavior did not take place. "The problems inside the Army prison system in Iraq were not hidden from senior commanders," Hersh writes. He adds later: Tugaba's report "amounts to an unsparing study of collective wrongdoing and the failure of Army leadership at the highest levels. The picture he draws of Abu Ghraib is one in which Army regulations and the Geneva conventions were routinely violated. . . . Interrogating prisoners and getting intelligence--including by intimidation and torture--was the priority."
To some extent, abuse was bound to happen. U.S. soldiers were not properly trained as prison guards, the prisons were overcrowded, and private contractors outside the chain of command were also allegedly involved in the torture and abuse. (One of the soldiers implicated in the abuse was a former guard of the Virginia Department of Corrections, Hersh reports, which does not speak well of the training and supervision that U.S. prison guards receive at home.)
The New York Times on May 4 reported additional abuses, including showing a U.S. soldier sitting on an Iraqi prisoner who is sandwiched between two stretchers. It also relayed a quote from one of the Iraqis who was mistreated at Abu Ghraib. This Iraqi told Al Jazeera, according to the Times, that "they covered our heads with bags, they beat us with the butts of their guns."
The power imbalance that is the nature of occupation, as well as prison, all too easily enables sadistic behavior to occur.
The Army did not do nearly enough to guard against such behavior. In fact, military intelligence officers encouraged it. Others in command ignored it.
Even if these were aberrant cases, the sadism that was on display is devastating to the U.S. image in the Arab and Muslim world.
It will make the occupation even more untenable than it was before.
And it will inflict a decade of damage on the United States.