May 05, 2004

honor and shame

I remember My Lai. I know who Lieutenant Calley was and why he was in the news. I don't remember when they were in the news; I was barely a year old in 1968 during the massacre of over 300 unarmed civilians. I don't remember being told about it; my only memories at all of the war are that my uncle wasn't around much and wrote us long letters.

For me this is history and that's my point: it is history. I'm not using the word just to mean "something that's well into the past", either; this is something that made it into the history books, so that those of us who came later know about it. It's a big deal.

It doesn't sound as if what's happened at Abu Ghraib and possibly other Iraqi prisons is an atrocity on the scale of My Lai, at the individual scale, but that's a lot like saying My Lai wasn't as bad as the Holocaust. [Note: 25 deaths are currently being investigated, but at least half of them appear to be of natural causes. One was ruled a justifiable homicide.] The difference is in degree, but not in kind, and all three events show the same frightening mindset, a view of the enemy as a subhuman. Not even that, really; in this state there is such a thing as felony abuse of animals. Abu Ghraib, like My Lai, like lynchmobs to which some people are comparing it, betrays a level of hate that says that "the other" deserves any treatment, any pain, any abuse just for being who he or she is.

I do not believe that all of our military is full of the same kind of mindset, because I don't want to believe it and I simply refuse to. Our military is a dichotomy. The academies turn out cadets who are indoctrinated in the idea that honor is their most precious possession, our Marines and Rangers are torn down as individuals and rebuilt as a band of brothers, our officers are given responsibilities and accountabilities few would ever get in civilian life. Yet on the ugly side, there have been rapes reported by servicemen serving abroad, there were those who collected ears or fingers in Vietnam, there are those who ten or thirty or fifty years after their war ended are still using pejoratives to talk about anyone of the same ethnicity as their enemy. (I have myself heard "Jap", "gook", and "raghead" used by former servicemen of the last several generations.) It's telling that even an MP who reported the Abu Ghraib abuses consistently referred to prisoners as "it" in his testimony.

The only explanation of the dichotomy is that they're all human, but that's not an excuse. Being a civilized human should mean never giving in to the barbaric impulses, or being faced with severe penalties for those few who do. Being in the military should mean something more: a choice to put honor above easy pleasures and sometimes even above life. It doesn't always. I've worked with, been friends with, and been related to quite a few whose proudest claim is that they "served", and this is what most of them (who weren't drafted) say. They tell stories of the ship captain who, off duty and asleep when his navigator ran the ship aground, was nonetheless immediately relieved of command ... because it was on his watch and under his command and he was responsible. I've seen a few too many military abuses to believe that wholeheartedly, from rapes of Japanese schoolgirls to Tailhook. In some cases, those who perpetrated the offense as well as others who bore responsibility were broken, in others (like My Lai) some were broken while others higher up escaped charges.

On the larger political scale, Abu Ghraib may well cause as much damage or more than My Lai. We're already in a precarious position in our relations to the entire Middle East; our one boast has been that we liberated Iraq from Saddam Hussein. If we replaced him with a brigade of sadistic petty dictators, we have lost even that tenuous high ground. It doesn't help that Iraqis have been complaining about endemic abuse without being believed or that Rumsfeld and the military have known about this for a few months now and weren't admitting anything until the press broke the story.

This outrage diminishes our credibility with the whole world, including those who are serving and dying with us. It decreases the chance that we will be able to build peace elsewhere in the Middle East. We're now getting many more claims of abuse and it makes it extremely difficult to determine which are true -- after all, for a long time anyone who complained about abuse at Abu Ghraib was assumed to be just propagandizing. Worst, it may prevent us from being able to build a democratic Iraq, which means all those soldiers who did enlist as a matter of honor and who died in that service, as well as quite a few Iraqis, may have died for nothing. How does it feel to render your brother's death meaningless?

I wonder if those soldiers who abused the prisoners enjoyed it. The price we all have only just started to pay for their fun is way too high. The worst excuse I've heard so far is that the soldiers "weren't sufficiently trained in the Geneva Conventions". First, it's a matter of professionalism. The Geneva Conventions are not hard to find on the Web. If I were responsible for POWs, I might just go read them. Second, the first point is irrelevant, because this is one of those times where all you need to know you learned in kindergarten. The relevant principle is, "Don't be a bully." How does it feel to be flunking kindergarten?

The soldiers shown in the photos are facing prosecution, but this is a case where the military concept of responsibility for what's happened on your watch must be invoked. The original Hersh article quotes one of the defense lawyers, "Do you really think a group of kids from rural Virginia decided to do this on their own? Decided that the best way to embarrass Arabs and make them talk was to have them walk around nude?”. We can't erase a national shame; the best we can do is to go forward in accordance with the dictates of honor. Accountability needs to go all the way up the chain of responsibilty. Lt. Col. Phillabaum, Brig. Gen. G Karpinski, Lt. Gen Sanchez, it's your watch. And who is reponsible for putting civilian contractors in positions where they were inadequately trained and supervised? General Myers, Mr. Rumsfeld, Commander-in-Chief Bush, it's your watch too. How does it feel to be making history?

Posted by dichroic at May 5, 2004 12:11 PM
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