Friday, April 30, 2004

There are scandals...

...and then there are atrocities.

The stories about the atrocities (there is no other word) at the Abu Grahib prison in Iraq are deeply disturbing even if you don't subject yourself to the photography that supports them (and I won't subject you to those photos here. They're easy enough to find for those interested). Six soldiers have been charged with crimes committed while acting as guards and aids to civilian interrogators. Col Jill Morgenthaler of Central Command says the charges against the six are for "indecent acts, for ordering detainees to publicly masturbate; maltreatment, for non-physical abuse, piling inmates into nude pyramids and taking pictures of them nude; battery, for shoving and stepping on detainees; dereliction of duty; and conspiracy to maltreat detainees".

A private contractor was originally included in the group charged, but it was determined that the military had "no jurisdiction," and he was released. "It was," Morgenthaler said, "left up to the contractor on how to deal with him."

Two private firms were involved in the interrogations at Abu Ghraib, CACI International Inc and the Titan Corporation. According to investigators, "A CACI instructor was terminated because he allowed and/or instructed MPs who were not trained in interrogation techniques to facilitate interrogations by setting conditions which were neither authorised [nor] in accordance with applicable regulations/ policy." It's not clear from reports whether this was the contractor that Morgenthaler referred to, but another report indicates that "One civilian contractor was accused of raping a young, male prisoner but has not been charged because military law has no jurisdiction over him." At first glance, it seems there are at least two cases involving specific civilians. In any event, it seems outrageous that given Iraq's current status, which can only be described as martial law, these civilian contractors cannot be brought under the rein of the military occupation they are contracted to serve. Sounds like the 'no controlling authority' defense gone wild.

One of the soldiers facing charges is Staff Sgt. Chip Frederick, who is charged with maltreatment for allegedly participating in a photo, for posing for a photo while sitting on top of a detainee, an indecent act for observing one scene and assault for allegedly striking detainees – and ordering detainees to strike each other.

His response? “We had no support, no training whatsoever. And I kept asking my chain of command for certain things...like rules and regulations,” says Frederick. “And it just wasn't happening."

Jeanne at Body and Soul writes "The lesson of the Boudreaux photograph is that when you put young men and women into positions where they are both powerful and powerless -- powerless to change the course of events, powerless even to protect their own lives, and at the same time able to bully other people -- some of them are going to do stupid, vicious things.

"These photos raise far more disturbing questions. Do we have a military that knows perfectly well that young, frightened, inexperienced, poorly trained soldiers are going to do brutal things, and has decided to make use of that convenient fact?"

She's right, I'm afraid, about the inevitablity of some troops stepping over the line of decent behavior in the stresses of combat situations, and she raises a good question about the responsibility that rests up the chain of command for this situation, but frankly, there's no excuse available to the soldiers who, whether driven by their own impulses or by clearly illegal orders, participated in the kind of scenes that are depicted in the photographs which are circulating.

Frederick, for instance, may feel that he was given inadequate guidance by his superiors, but he is a senior NCO in the Army Reserve and a professional corrections officer in civilian life. Which part of "maltreatment for allegedly participating in a photo, for posing for a photo while sitting on top of a detainee, an indecent act for observing one scene and assault for allegedly striking detainees - and ordering detainees to strike each other" did that experience lead him to believe was permissable? You don't need to memorize the Geneva Conventions to grasp the problems here.

While I'll make no excuses for the behavior of the enlisted men who have been charged, I'm so far disappointed with the news about how the chain of command is being held accountable. So far, it seems to be limited to an "administrative review," which seems clearly insufficient given the range of criminal charges levied against the enlisted troops. Heads need to roll - high ranking heads.

Gary Myers, an attorney for one of the enlisted men is partly right. "This case involves a monumental failure of leadership, where lower level enlisted people are being scapegoated," Mr Myers said. "The real story is not in these six young enlisted people. The real story is the manner in which the intelligence community forced them into this position."

Well, the story is about the enlisted men who committed these war crimes. But it's also about the command structure that allowed those crimes to occur, and about the DOD policy of contracting out the war to private intelligence and security firms, and about the massive mobilization of reserves without adequate preparation for their assignments. It's about many things.

Be certain, though, that this story is not about the hundreds of thousands of men and women who serve our country honorably while in uniform. It is out of regard for them that everyone, at every level, who holds responsibility for these actions must be rooted out and punished accordingly, military or civilian.

And it's out of regard for them that we have to replace an administration that harbors a defense department whose policies have contributed to these crimes.

Note: The best reporting on all of this I've found is happening at Body and Soul. Check out Jeanne's work here, here and here for starters.

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