Perhaps it is as simple as what Winston Churchill said as long ago as 1946: “War was once glorious and squalid. Now it is just squalid.”
The sentencing phase for Army Reserve Pfc. Lynndie England, who became something of a poster girl for purposeful humiliation at Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison, could be the occasion for a certain amount of soul-searching among American policy-makers. But the questions raised by those photographs — those of Pfc. England, grinning with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, pointing at a naked prisoner’s genitals, or holding a naked, hooded prisoner by a leash seem almost innocent compared to some of the others — are deeper and darker than mere policy considerations.
The official reports on Abu Ghraib stress that the prisoner humiliation in the photos was largely an isolated phenomenon, more the result of a lack of leadership than of official policy. Reservists who had expected to drive trucks or push paper, unaware there even was a Geneva Convention, were expected to function as prison guards under mortar fire, with no training and almost no supervision.
With some evidence that interrogators with experience in Afghanistan encouraged MPs to “soften up” prisoners, you can almost understand how things got out of control.
But what prompted apparently ordinary Americans to become virtually obsessed with sexually oriented humiliation of prisoners? Why would they take so many photos to document their degrading and disgusting acts? What kind of things are apparently ordinary human beings capable of? If it was peer pressure, as England told a military court, what does it say about American culture that peer pressure could lead to this?
Lest we dismiss Abu Ghraib as the work of untrained and unsophisticated troops, remember that the classic experiment on prisoner-guard behavior had to be suspended after six days when Stanford students selected for psychological stability — certified members of America’s intellectual elite — proved all too willing to engage in sadistic brutality.
That Iraqi and other terrorists torture and behead captives is unspeakable, but not relevant here. These are Americans, whose leaders say they are contending on behalf of civilized values against barbarism. Do those who bring up beheadings think they justify Americans engaging in purposeful humiliation? We hope not.
The abuse at Abu Ghraib, despite some attempts to dismiss it as akin to fraternity pranks, was serious on several levels. The first is that military discipline could be so loose and U.S. soldiers could do such things. Second, however, whether it was logical or not, the revelation of those abuses probably did more to discredit U.S. policy in Iraq among more people on a deep emotional level than all the anti-war activities at home and abroad and even the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. For most people, for better or worse, images, especially squalid images, are more powerful than words or logic.
The guilty pleas and sentencing of England and other Abu Ghraib guards should also raise questions about policy and responsibility at higher levels of government. Are these enlisted personnel scapegoats? Should more be made of the fact that government lawyers, well before Abu Ghraib, busied themselves with memos and legal opinions that crept right to the edge of justifying torture?
We’ll leave such questions for another day. Today we are simply sad. The fact that those most directly responsible for Abu Ghraib are being held accountable is encouraging. The fact that it occurred at all is dispiriting.