The Magazine

A Few Bad Men

From the May 17, 2004 issue: Looking at the outrage over Abu Ghraib.

May 17, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 34 • By RICHARD STARR, FOR THE EDITORS
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THE MILITARY'S TOP OFFICERS and civilians are constrained by strictures against "unlawful command influence" from expressing their true feelings about the members of the 372nd Military Police Company who face charges of conspiracy, dereliction of duty, cruelty and maltreatment, indecent acts, and assault for their all-too-well-documented sadistic abuse of Iraqi detainees in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison. Not operating under such constraints ourselves, we admit to looking forward to a fair trial of the accused followed by their harsh punishment. They have endangered any American unlucky enough to find himself at the mercy of our enemies in the war on terror. They have impeded our progress in that war. More fundamentally, they traduced their mission, betrayed their fellow soldiers, and disgraced their country. Anyone up or down the chain of command who was criminally complicit should be prosecuted, too.

That said, we were made uneasy by the indiscriminate orgy of outrage in Washington last week. For all the talk of the hysteria and paranoia and hatred those unspeakable photographs are going to unleash in the Arab world, it was here that they seemed to have their most potent effect. Pulses quickened among everyone who has it in for President Bush and the American effort in Iraq. We watched the Senate Armed Services Committee's grilling of Donald Rumsfeld gavel to gavel on Friday and could not readily distinguish between senators' anger over the crimes at Abu Ghraib and their rage that Rumsfeld had not given them a heads-up when CBS was about to broadcast the photographs. It is undoubtedly true that this was a breach of courtesy, as one senator put it. We wouldn't blame the senators in the slightest if they decided to drop Rumsfeld from their Christmas card mailing lists. We don't doubt the sincerity of Sen. Carl Levin's "dismay," as he called it, that when Rumsfeld "briefed senators in a classified session last week on events in Iraq, just hours before the story broke on television, you made no reference to the impending revelations."

But outside of Zone 1 on the Washington, D.C., taxicab map, these are trivial lapses. And on this point, our sympathies are entirely with the embattled secretary of defense. No one was left in the dark about the ongoing investigation at Abu Ghraib. It had been public knowledge since January for anyone who cared to know. There was no "coverup"--a word that was on the lips of every other hyperventilating Democratic congressman last week. Gen. Mark Kimmitt publicly announced in Baghdad on March 20 that criminal charges had been filed against six soldiers and that 17 had already been "suspended from their duties until the outcome of the investigations." He described the collapse of good discipline in the unit as a "kind of cancer that you've got to cut out quickly." Nowhere in the record of events made public so far is there a hint that allegations of wrongdoing, once leveled, were ever brushed aside or not taken with utmost seriousness by the military chain of command.

Neither are we sympathetic to the arguments of defense lawyers for the accused, echoed by friendly reporters, who want to point the finger of blame anywhere except at their clients. The prison guards were badly trained, we hear; they thought they were doing what the interrogators/contractors/CIA wanted them to do; they were cogs in a corrupt military machine. We might say something like that if we were being paid to defend these lowlifes. And, yes, there do seem to have been lamentable weaknesses in training and command. But "sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light" is evidence of a lack of humanity, not a lack of training. And consider this lovely detail: The Washington Post reports that there is "a new batch of photographs similar to those broadcast a week ago [which include] pictures showing crude simulations of sex among soldiers." Did the CIA encourage them to do that, too?

The Bush administration's enemies fantasize that there has been an effort to "suppress" this story. To the contrary, this is probably the least "suppressed" such story in American history. Indeed, we are told there are more horrifying pictures and video to come. There's only one way to drain this poison, and it isn't further breast-beating, from the administration or its foes. Bring on the trials, and the punishment.

--Richard Starr, for the Editors