The confusing morality of war

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From the Publisher/Arnold G. York

There is a scene in the World War II TV series “Band of Brothers” in which an American soldier in France, who recently lost his brother in the combat, in a cold rage, calmly murders a group of German prisoners of war with a Thompson submachine gun. It was a war crime, and yet totally understandable because of what he had been through. In the show, the others in the unit just shrugged it off, accepting it as a crazy consequence of war, and moved on.

War does crazy things to people. The tension, the fear, the anger, the loss of normal inhibitions, the power and, perhaps, even the sadistic urges, don’t sit well with some, and they go over the edge and lose control.

At least that’s the inference of Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba’s report to the Senate this week. The problem as he saw it in his official report is there was a lack of leadership in the military police units guarding the prisons in Iraq, which led to the prison abuses. It’s a neat package. They were reservists. They were poorly trained. The supervision was lax and what they did was totally unauthorized. He was quoted in the press as saying, “We didn’t find any orders, written or otherwise” that instructed soldiers to stress prisoners in this way.

There is only one problem with the general’s analysis-it’s a lie!

Why do I say that? Because the Internet allows you to take a story and trace it through a dozen different newspapers and news services. You can read documents in their original form, read related stories from different countries, pick unconnected bits and pieces of information, and then connect the dots.

Let me give you another, and I believe, far more likely scenario. Last August and September, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, the chief of interrogations and detentions in Iraq, and a team of his experts toured the prisons in Iraq. It wasn’t because they were worried about how prisoners were being treated. At that time, according to a recent New York Times story, the prison population was growing and the guerilla fighting was intensifying. We desperately needed better human intelligence on the ground because we were losing more troops every day. The Iraqis were apparently not talking. The general looked it over and one of his recommendations in his report was that “the American military police serving as guards at the Abu Ghraib prison become actively engaged in setting the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees.” Let me translate for you. It means lean on them. Soften them up. Do whatever you have to do, but get them talking because we’ve got men and woman dying out here. And in a technique familiar to many prosecutors and policeman, it also meant they were going to arrest their families, former Baath officials and such so those prisoners who knew something would start talking.

According to a 24-page report just released by the Red Cross and reported in the New Zealand Herald, MPs kept Iraqi prisoners naked for days and in the darkness, and an intelligence officer told the Red Cross it was “part of the process.”

The Red Cross said coalition military intelligence officers estimated that 90 percent of those detained were arrested by mistake.

I don’t believe it. I think they were picking up anyone who might have information or the families of those who might have information.

The report further stated that the mistreatment of prisoners went beyond exceptional cases and might be considered as a practice tolerated by the coalition forces. Abuse was “in some cases tantamount to torture” the Red Cross reported.

This didn’t happen by accident. A couple of months after Maj. Gen. Miller’s August/September visit, the custody of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison was transferred, per Miller’s suggestion, from the military police, who after all were reservists and amateurs, to the military intelligence, who were neither. That decision wasn’t made casually. It went all the way to the top because in November 2003, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, ground commander in Iraq, and someone with higher authority signed a directive ordering the shift. In other words, what they decided to do was to bring in the hard guys. Now these hard guys were not just Army intelligence. There was also something called OGAs or other governmental agencies, which had constant access to the prison and the prisoners. OGA is the euphemism for our spooks, CIA, Defense intelligence and others.

And in case you think these “lean on them” investigation techniques were made up by a 21-year-old private first class who is about to be court martialed, there was a Defense Department directive last year approving a series of aggressive interrogation techniques for use at the prison at Guantanamo, where the intelligence can’t be one-half as important or immediate as the intelligence the prisoners could provide in Iraq, where troops are in the field. A couple of the techniques included disrupting the prisoners’ sleep routines and requiring them to disrobe entirely for questioning.

Soon the U.S. Army is going to court-martial a young reservist named Lynndie R. England, from West Virginia, who is 21, female and five months pregnant. She’s the gal in the photo holding the leash around some naked Iraqi prisoner’s neck. Our President, in a great show of moral indignation, blamed “a small number of American servicemen and woman for the abuse.” He went on saying, “We will learn all the facts and determine the full extent of the abuses. Those involved will be identified; they will answer for their actions.”

If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you.

(To be continued.)