Iraq: May 10, 2004


The current Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal developed last year because troops in Iraq were under tremendous pressure to find and arrest the Baath Party groups that were terrorizing Iraqis and attacking coalition troops. The methods used (humiliation and demoralization, for the most part, although the more effective sleep deprivation was more common) are not considered torture in the classic sense, as they do not involve physical harm. It's been known for over a year that these methods were being used at Guantanamo, and elsewhere. This was widely reported and discussed in the media. Saddam's methods were rather more violent. You can easily buy videos of Saddam era torture sessions in Baghdad. Very ugly stuff. Without the photos of the US soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners, there would have been no media frenzy.

Some of the prisoner abuse by American troops was physical, and thats what caused the most indignation in the U.S. Theres a historical reason for that. When the United States was founded, physical torture was quite common throughout the world. Many of the people who fled to America did so to avoid physical torture. So the US basic law specifically outlawed "cruel and unusual punishment." But there was still a need to extract information (often life or death information) from uncooperative prisoners. There developed a body of techniques that relied on psychological pressure. Physical abuse still occurs (as it does everywhere), but it is illegal and regularly punished. 

The abuse in Iraq occurred because at some point in the chain of command, there was a breakdown of control, and some illegal acts were allowed to be committed. Even before this story broke, several officers had already been relieved of command, and there investigations of underway for other officers, NCOs and troops. However, it appears that many officers were punished for bad judgment while "trying too hard," and not for criminal acts (which, under American law, requires "criminal intent.")

Much was made of the fact that some of the soldiers involved were not well enough prepared for their duty as prison guards. Military historians were shocked, shocked to hear this. Imagine there being a war where some soldiers were sent forth were "unprepared?" Unfortunately, its very common. Whats uncommon about the Iraq experience is the extent to which special training programs were established, in the United States and Iraq, to rectify this common situation. This is not considered news and gets little coverage.

Other aspects that get little coverage include the fact that most of Iraq has been at peace through all of this. Moreover, you have many Iraqi Shia and Kurds who see these pictures and react quite differently. The Shia and Kurds not only understand that the prisoners are suspected Baath Party members, but will often comment that they should "all be killed." Eventually, an elected Iraqi government is going to have to take care of the anti-government (mainly Sunni Arab) violence. An Iraqi government dominated by Shia and Kurds, with memories of millions of their kinsmen murdered, tortured or otherwise abused by the Sunni Arabs, will have to muster enormous restraint to avoid much uglier incidents of violence against prisoners. The US wants to hold the elections, and let the Iraqis sort it out themselves. But there is some unease about what the Shia and Kurds will do to these still violent Sunnis.

The one result of all this media uproar is that U.S. interrogation methods will become less forceful, and less effective. So this Summer there will be news stories of ineffective interrogations leading to avoidable combat deaths of American troops. Unfortunately, this is an old pattern in American politics and its relationship with the media and the military. There are similar examples going back 150 years (to before the American Civil War.) But the media has no memory, particularly when it comes to their own abuses.


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