It?s the end of the semester at George Mason University, and for the past couple of weeks, I?ve been too busy preparing final exam harassment for my students to pay much attention to all the news stories about how U.S. soldiers were torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. Now that my spring semester?s work has just about been completed, I decided to bring myself up to speed on these American atrocities.
I braced myself for the worst. Part of my 1959 Fort Jackson, S.C., basic training involved lessons on evasion and escape. Our drill sergeant, who had fought in the Korean War, told us about how North Koreans tortured American prisoners of war. His graphic descriptions gave us added incentive to pay attention to what we were being taught about evasion and escape.
Remembering his graphic descriptions, and given the worldwide condemnation of our soldiers, I was prepared to see pictures of American soldiers engaged in atrocities such as: eye gouging, piercing of prisoners' hands and knees with electric drills, beating soles of prisoners' feet, cigarette burns, fingernail extraction, whipping and placing prisoners in acid baths. I also thought I might see pictures of Iraqis looking like the diseased and starved World War II American prisoners of the Japanese who were brutally marched from Bataan to Camp O'Donnell. When they were liberated from Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, many didn?t weigh much over 100 pounds, if that.
Much to my surprise, I saw none of this. What I saw in no way could be described as torture or atrocities, at least if we stick to historical definitions of torture and atrocities. Among the pictures I saw were: Pfc. Lynndie England with a dog leash tied to a naked Iraqi. Iraqi prisoners forced to parade naked before their jeering captors. Two American soldiers -- a male and a female -- forcing a group of Iraqi prisoners into simulating group sex. An American female soldier playing with two naked Iraqi captives. A British soldier urinating on an Iraqi prisoner. Of the pictures I saw, the worst acts shown were an Iraqi woman being gang-raped and an American soldier putting a rifle butt to an Iraqi prisoner's groin.
These acts aren?t anything that Americans should be proud of, but at the same time, they don?t qualify as torture and atrocities so far as those terms have been historically defined. Moreover, they are mild in comparison to the kind of prison treatment to which Iraqis have become accustomed.