Those Iraqi prisoner pictures

Posted: May 05, 2004 12:00 AM

Let's get the preliminaries out of the way first: If members of America's armed forces violated any rules and mistreated prisoners of war, they should be punished in accordance with accepted military law. That having been said, there are several other things that also need to be addressed.

First, we don't know the identity and intentions of these allegedly abused prisoners. Did they have and withhold information vital to the protection of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians? War is nasty business, and the rules don't always comport with a book of etiquette.

Second, Iraqis and insurgents from other countries have made sport of knocking off American and British troops by sniper fire and exploding devices. Newspapers recently carried the story of a young boy who shot and killed an American soldier. The American thought the child was a noncombatant. The boy bragged that he suspected as much and hid his rifle until the soldier turned away, whereupon he shot him and kept firing "until I saw smoke coming from his body." No doubt the boy will be considered a hero in some circles and never brought to justice.

Third, where was the world's outrage when mass graves, rape and torture rooms and other evidence of Saddam Hussein's genocide and other inhumanities were revealed? There was some initial horror but nothing like the vindictiveness reserved for the United States and Britain. The difference between alleged American mishandling of prisoners and what Saddam did is that the American incidents are contrary to regulations and the rules of war to which the United States subscribes. Saddam's policies of torture, murder, rape, incarceration and humiliation were the norm for him, his now dead sons and the regime's leadership that carried out his specific orders. (In a similar vein, hardly a peep is heard by those critical of America and Britain when a pregnant Israeli woman and her daughters are murdered by a Palestinian sniper.)

There's much talk about how the pictures of prisoner abuse will look in the Arab world and how they might set back American efforts to pacify Iraq and advance U.S. policies throughout the region. The Arab world does not need excuses to excoriate the United States. Even so-called "allies" such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt regularly vilify America in sermons from their mosques, on state-controlled television and in government newspaper editorials, columns and political cartoons.

This is one of the great fallacies in dealing with such people: that what the West does influences how they think and their course of action. It is a self-seduction when we in the West believe that acts of kindness, generosity and "evenhandedness" will change people who believe we are infidels, bound for hell and deserving of that final destination (and some think they have been divinely appointed to send us and the Israelis there). We should be kind, generous and humane because that is who we are. But we should not labor under false assumptions that such values alone will change minds and hearts poisoned by years of political and theological propaganda.

Some Arab commentators are repeating the myth that the West has, once again, humiliated Muslims. If there has been humiliation, it isn't the fault of the West. It is Muslims' fault. They took trillions of dollars in oil money, and instead of building a culture dedicated to elevating their people, including women, they have squandered it on agendas and adventures that had the opposite result. Like communism, which blamed the West for its failure to produce a better life for people forced to live under that system, Arab dictatorships must have an external enemy to keep people from blaming their leaders for the misery they have created.

Before universal condemnation of British and American forces goes any further, consider the comments of columnist Barbara Amiel in the May 3 Daily Telegraph of London: "The first casualty of war, it is claimed, is truth. I'd say the first casualty is context. Demanding that troops, who are subject on a daily basis to roadside bombs, suicide attacks, ambushes and rocket-propelled grenades, should respond without any cruel or unprofessional incidents would be a demand for sainthood. These troops face resentment and hatred from some of the very people they came to liberate and did liberate. Most coalition troops feel, mistakenly or not, that they are doing a favour to people with a personal animosity and primitive methods not usually found in Western warfare."

That's the best way to look at these pictures.