Toward the end of an interview with Bob Woodward, President Bush explained what he thought would be the big story of Woodward's book, "Plan of Attack." The story, Bush said, isn't how he makes decisions, but: "To me, the big news is America has changed how you fight and win war, and therefore makes it easier to keep peace in the long run." Bush was referring to a new U.S. resolve to win the war with Iraq -- but with historically low civilian casualties, even if it meant coalition troops would sustain higher casualties.
Now, this war is being undermined by the most dangerous combination known to man: cruelty and stupidity. I refer of course to the gratuitous humiliation, sexual abuse and torture of detainees in Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison by U.S. troops so cretinous that they photographed their crimes for souvenirs. (In addition, authorities are investigating possible homicides of Iraqi detainees, although it is too early to tell where those investigations will lead.)
Thousands of American troops have put their lives on the line to liberate a country of strangers. Their sacrifice should not be overshadowed by the antics of a handful of thugs and fools.
A New York Times story about victim Hayder Sabbar Abd suggests the damage to America's reputation on the Arab street may not suffer as much as some pundits predict. As horrific as Abd's experience was, Abd had expected to be murdered (something that happened frequently when Abu Ghraib operated under Saddam Hussein). Abd, who said he was wrongly held and has been released from detention, didn't demand vengeance. Instead, he said that most U.S. troops had treated him well and that he wanted to be compensated and would not refuse an offer to move to America.
But what kind of country would America be if our government did nothing to punish criminal behavior by U.S. troops sent to do good abroad? Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey called the prison episodes a sign of "a complete breakdown of discipline." But the ritual humiliation of prisoners -- in the absence of any intelligence imperative, but just for the kick of hurting others -- also shows a breakdown of decency and an absolute erosion of the social pact.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argues that the military had responded appropriately to the prison-abuse allegations before "60 Minutes II" aired the damning photographs. Rumsfeld is right: The brass began investigations into the abuses immediately. It should be noted that probes were ordered before the media got wind of this story.
But Rumsfeld is wrong to think that the military has done enough.