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For Shame

We already know the administration’s strategy for damage control on the latest erupting scandal in occupied Iraq, the abuse of Iraqi prisoners of war. The tactics have served more or less successfully, at least in America, to cover up and survive every earlier scandal and fiasco of this administration at home and abroad. President Bush has already raised his hands in holy disgust, pronouncing the actions contrary to his and the country’s principles and the Army’s policy, the work of a handful of miscreants whom Donald Rumsfeld solemnly promises to pursue and punish. We are already hearing the predictable excuses employed by defenders of corporate corruption, high-paid criminal athletes, and this administration—“This does not represent us or America and its values,” “mistakes have been made,” “no one claimed we or democracy are perfect.” A few obvious culprits will be punished, a few mid-level superiors reprimanded or demoted, dangerous questions held at bay at hearings, a commission possibly named to study the problem, administrative changes promised, and then the administration, denying involvement and responsibility, will move on to other things to distract the public.

They must not get away with this.

Not only is this episode more sickening and shameful than others that have already stained the occupation of Iraq. Not only will it have an even more shattering effect on America’s image and ability to lead abroad. Not only does it end any surviving hopes that Americans can be seen by Iraqis and other Arabs and Muslims as liberators, models, leaders, and friends. It reveals as nothing has before the true character of this venture and of the whole policy by which this administration has chosen (allegedly) to fight terrorism and evil in the world. It ought finally to force every American, even the most loyal and patriotic, to face what this country under this leadership has done and is doing in this war. Where is it leading us?

This was not an isolated incident caused by a few bad apples, a shocking but minor and exceptional digression in an otherwise heroic and humane enterprise. This fish that now stinks to heaven began to rot long ago from the head down.

Consider when this happened—in October to December 2003, five to seven months ago. Think about how long many in the Army and outside have known about it; how long the official report investigating it has been in preparation and circulation; how long and often rumors and reports about this and other incidents of abuse of prisoners or civilians have appeared in the foreign press, especially the Arab press our authorities seek to control or repress. Yet in all this time, and to this day, all the higher officials in the Army, the Pentagon, and the White House responsible for policy insist they knew nothing about it. It is not a question of whether there will be a cover-up. There already has been—we are now beginning to learn the extent.

Consider why it happened—not in the superficial sense of why it was allowed to happen rather than prevented, but in the deeper and more important sense of what concrete purpose this abuse served, where it fit into what overall policy. These incidents were not simply a case of a few reservists getting their sadistic kicks or a result of indiscipline, bad chain of command, or other incidental administrative snafus. That would be bad enough and would constitute one more indictment of the incredible levity and mismanagement demonstrated by this administration in the war and occupation. Anyone who knows anything about the history of war and military occupations knows that this is precisely the sort of thing likely to happen, and that if one’s goal really is liberation and winning the hearts and minds of those occupied, this kind of conduct has to be prevented at all costs.

A historical aside: in the summer of 2003, when the Iraqi insurgency was just beginning and the administration still hotly denying its existence, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice insisted that the problem was merely last-ditch resistance by fanatical dead-enders like Nazi resisters in Germany in 1945. The assertion was false, of course—no civilian resistance worth mentioning developed in postwar Germany—but easily buried and forgotten under other more important administration untruths and deceptions. A different resemblance between the two occupations, however, is now dismayingly germane. By far the worst problem the Army faced in 1945 in the relations between troops and German civilians was American soldiers raping German women. The fact has gone relatively unnoticed except by historians, both because Americans at home closed their eyes to it and because it was overshadowed by far worse and vaster Soviet crimes in the Eastern Zone. Yet the Army and the Pentagon should have learned from that experience and from military history everywhere how grave the danger of this kind of conduct was.

The larger point is not, however, that they failed to prevent the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere. It is that they allowed and indirectly encouraged it, in pursuit of a wider and supposedly more important mission. This operation was an integral part of intelligence gathering by both military intelligence and private firms hired by the government for this purpose. The abuse was thus deliberate and purposive, intended to make prisoners psychologically ready for interrogation.

Consider further the context of that interrogation and intelligence gathering. The aim then was not simply or mainly to root out pockets of resistance and ongoing subversion or new terrorism and thereby pacify Iraq and protect American lives. This was the time when the administration was frantically bent on finding proof of the stocks of weapons of mass destruction and the alleged pre-war links to al-Qaeda that were advanced (as we now know, falsely) to justify the war. It was also part of a more massive program of detention of supposed evildoers in Iraq, numbering 10-12,000 by different accounts, an unknown number of them still held without charge or notification to their families—a little-known story with its own cargo of abuses. It fits into the broader pattern of the so-called War on Terror in which the United States covertly and overtly supports a Gulag Archipelago of detention camps and interrogation centers over the Middle East and Central Asia, either on its own bases or on the territory of other regimes, mostly repressive ones, with whom America works.

Consider the ethos behind this massive effort, and how it characterizes and shapes the administration’s entire view of the world and foreign policy. It flows seamlessly from the prevailing Ollie North or (to borrow a phrase from Professor George Lopez of Notre Dame University) Dirty Harry Callahan theory of international politics. It’s a dangerous world out there; hordes of fanatical evildoers are bent on committing unspeakable crimes against us. If we play by the rules they despise, we will lose. We must play dirty to win, and ultimately only winning counts. The end and the unquestioned fact that we represent the forces of light and they the forces of darkness justify the means.

Consider the incentive structure this collective mentality held at the highest level of government creates for people down the line called on to wage this kind of campaign on the ground. Consider what it means to reservists, thrown into a situation for which they are wholly untrained, to be instructed to induce in prisoners a suitable physical and psychological readiness to yield information they were doubtless would save their country or their fellow soldiers’ lives. Consider what it means for military intelligence officers to know that their promotion and careers depend on coming up with the right stuff; for so-called civilian intelligence agents to know their paychecks and their company’s contracts depend on the results, and that nobody higher up worries too much about the methods used to obtain them. Consider what it means for a general commanding a large system of prisons to be told not to obstruct this critically important job of intelligence gathering, knowing that her career is on the line.

Consider also what it says about the administration as a whole when, on top of the many previous outright lies, false promises, failed predictions, abrupt changes of course, and multiple evidences of bad or no planning, corruption, confusion, and failure that have already plagued the occupation of Iraq, this supremely ugly scandal breaks, and no one at the highest level—not Richard Meyers or Wolfowitz or Rumsfeld or Rice or Cheney or Bush—takes responsibility, resigns, is fired, demoted, or even publicly reprimanded. In a government like that of Japan or some other countries, a sense of shame alone would suffice to bring about resignations; in an earlier era it might have meant suicide. But to this crew apply the words that brought Sen. Joe McCarthy down in 1954: “Has it come to this, at long last? Have you no shame—no shame at all?”

Consider finally what it must say about the American public, or at least a major portion of it, if this does not at last produce an overdue and overriding sense of revulsion against leaders and a policy that have led their country to this shameful pass. The Republican slogan in 1996 was “Where’s the outrage?” That outrage, understandable given the disgusting though essentially private misdeeds of President Clinton and important in the 2000 election, today seems strangely absent on the Right. Liberals can now ask conservatives, “Where’s the revulsion?” What must it mean if good, loyal, religious, family-values conservatives—the segment that George W. Bush overwhelmingly commands and that this journal appeals to—find even this degrading spectacle something they can swallow? What if at least a sizeable contingent does not deliver to Bush in November the message that Oliver Cromwell addressed to the English Long Parliament in 1649: “You have been here too long for any good that you have done. In the name of God, go!”

The 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote in an essay that a sign of malfunctioning of the digestive system was the inability to become nauseated or to vomit upon eating spoiled food, and that the remedy was to take an emetic. The disorder that offended him then was spiritual, the failure of Danish Lutherans to share his revulsion at a complacent established church that he believed was betraying real Christianity. His analysis and advice apply in a different way to Americans today. Anyone who does not feel revulsion against this administration for what it is doing and has done in Iraq and elsewhere has something seriously wrong with his political digestive system.


Paul W. Schroeder is professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of The Transformation of European Politics, 1765-1848.

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