On Abu Ghraib: Shoulda-woulda-coulda and what now?

Posted: May 13, 2004 12:00 AM

And so, Abu Ghraib goes into the lexicon with My Lai and other locales of infamy.

What went on there is no less incredible, repugnant, devastating and absurd than it was - retrospectively - all but inevitable. Before the moral obscenities perpetrated at Abu Ghraib play out, they may yet ramify the departure of a stellar secretary of defense, the defeat of the best president since Ronald Reagan and the compromising of the Iraqi mission.

Beyond the obscenities depicted in the photographs, the more we learn the more the confusion mounts:

- At Abu Ghraib in that grim October-December period, who was running the show? Was it the military police, ultimately commanded by Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, head of the 800th Military Police Brigade? Was it the CIA? Was it military intelligence?

- How far up the chain of command did awareness of the excesses at Abu Ghraib go? It didn't take long for Howard Baker's gloomy question about Richard Nixon and Watergate to be applied to President Bush: "What did he know, and when did he know it?"

- And what about training, discipline and leadership? The first individual indicted - Jeremy Sivits, charged with maltreatment of detainees, conspiracy to maltreat and dereliction of duty - was a specialist in the 372nd Military Police Company. Yet he was trained as a mechanic. As a hometown neighbor asks, "Why would they put a guy in the motor pool in a place like that? And in a job like that? Are our military forces so short of personnel that we must make custodians of engine blocks unsupervised custodians of detainee cell blocks?"


- If the military is no different from the civilian sector, if the two have similar sets of problems, are the culture's rising incivility and diminishing sense of shame escorting the nation to unimagined destinations such as Abu Ghraib? Americans overall are hugely commendable people, interlaced with the predictable percentage of bad apples. The military probably has the same percentage of the bad as society at large. Through training, the military can purge or control the savagery within most of the recruits it receives, though not all. But close oversight is crucial if some are not to revert to the savagery William Golding depicted so powerfully in his "Lord of the Flies."

- Aside from matters of command, culture and oversight, is Abu Ghraib an example of the Reserves giving active-duty forces a bad name? The Army pooh-poohs the notion. It insists it is all one Army, insists all its personnel - active, Reserve or National Guard - receive identical training. But all that may not be true. Not only has downsizing widened the gap between the nation's civilian and military communities, between their respective values and beliefs. It also has required putting Reserve and Guard troops in forward positions to an extent not recently seen - with possibly catastrophic consequences.

Those are some questions and reflections. These are others...

While it is not necessarily helpful to compare the degrees of enormity committed by Saddam's regime generally and by American troops in Abu Ghraib, it is greatly useful to note an operative double standard: Many of those most outraged by the latter were conspicuously silent about the former. Which raises the matter of motive. Here and abroad, do those now so incensed not see a distinction between the terror policies of Saddam and proliferating Islamofascist groups on the one hand (most recently with the beheading of a vagrant American), and isolated lapses on the other? Here and abroad, do the excessively incensed actually seek to exploit Abu Ghraib for the defeat of the American enterprise?

Shoulda-woulda-coulda: Given its standing as Saddam's most egregious house of horror, Abu Ghraib should have been bulldozed a year ago - thereby symbolizing the end of such treatment of the Iraqi people. Instead, we left it standing for graphic display of the reversion of a few Americans to the basest human instincts, an incident waiting to happen - thereby inviting the proposition that the American regime is no better than Saddam's.

What now? Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has apologized. So has an outraged and dismayed President Bush. Aside from investigations, prosecutions, and (yes) probably the release of still more and still grimmer photographs, the proper thing now is for the United States to keep on. To keep on with pacifying the Iraqi insurgency. To keep on with moving Iraq toward liberty, sovereignty and democracy. To keep on keeping on.

Oh, yes - and bulldoze Abu Ghraib, even at this late hour. Bulldoze all Saddam's former prisons as well.

Abu Ghraib or no Abu Ghraib, we must not fail. We must remain in country to provide security and help Iraq's liberty and democracy grow. Can we prevail in this war declared against us by Islamofascism? Perhaps. But certainly not if even a few cretins in the U.S. military, in ways such as at Abu Ghraib, are left to themselves to serve the best interests of the other side.