Prisoners of war

Posted: May 06, 2004 12:00 AM

 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.

 That's good.

 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.

 A decision to reach plea agreements with soldiers involved with detainee abuses at Camp Bucca in May 2003 -- the worst punishment was a less-than-honorable discharge -- may have sent the wrong message. The hapless Army Reserve Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who was in charge of Iraqi detention centers, told Maj. Gen Antonio Taguba -- as he was preparing a report requested early in the year, before the story broke -- "the system communicated to soldiers (who mistreat detainees), the worst that's gonna happen is, you're gonna go home."

 Yesterday, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who is now in charge of detainee camps, invited the Red Cross to keep a close eye on Abu Ghraib to ensure that conditions improve.

 Here's a better suggestion: Tear it down.

 The Taguba report also notes that the detention camps are overcrowded -- and that many prisoners should not have been detained or now merit release. The jails are understaffed, and it doesn't help that they don't separate insurgents from career criminals.

 It's a recipe for disaster.

 Besides, it's bad juju to set up house in a one-time torture/assassination factory. Put impressionable minds in that madhouse, and they might get bad ideas. Continuing to use Abu Ghraib to incarcerate Iraqis sent the wrong message. What, if anything, were they thinking?

 Washington has to act. There will be a probe, and there will be trials, as there should be. But there also should be some permanent deconstruction in Iraq.

 The French tore down the Bastille. Let Iraqi civilians, led by Hayder Sabbar Abd and the children of Hussein's slain opponents, join with U.S. troops who worked in Abu Ghraib and tear down that the house of woe.