May 14, 2004 | Commentary on International Organizations

POWs, their jailers

Americans are struggling to comprehend what happened to the fresh-faced young people we sent to Iraq. While most are serving honorably and bravely under incredibly difficult conditions, six will soon be court-martialed for abuse of Iraqi prisoners, for behavior most of their countrymen find disgusting and sick. And in one of the very prisons Saddam Hussein's torturers used for their victims.

What happened, we ask? Iraqi prison guards may have tortured other Iraqis, but Americans are not supposed to do things like that.

Meanwhile, here in Britain, the full impact of the scandal has yet to hit. British soldiers have been implicated in similar scandals by Amnesty International and International Committee of the Red Cross reports, yet disbelief and suspended judgment still remain the prevailing emotions.

An editorial in the DailyTelegraph summed up the prevailing mod, "Our reputation as a country depends on our comportment abroad. If our servicemen have been unfairly blackguarded, they will be entitled to a handsome apology from several newspapers. But if they are guilty, they are a disgrace to Britain." Overall, there is a feeling that Americans may be capable of such outrages, but not the British. In other words, there is an outcry that is still waiting to happen. If or when it does, it will not be good for the already beleaguered government of Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The problem that we may have to deal with is that in the wartime absence of the societal rules and norms, proper leadership and training, some people do behave appallingly and criminally. Maybe more of us would than we care to think, if we were put to the test. But that is exactly why warfare has rules and standards of its own. Not so long ago, before going into Iraq, we were involved in discussions of the concept of "just war."

That is exactly what that discussion was all about.

To the British government, like the American, the reports of egregious abuse of prisoners in Iraq compound existing difficulties in an engagement that seems in danger of losing direction. The Blair government faces the added problem of widespread popular opposition to the war - a request from the American government for an additional 3,000 troops from Britain to make up for the Spanish pullout. In the House of Commons' question time on Monday, Defense Minister Geoffrey Hoon offered an "unreserved apology" to any Iraqis who were abused.

In the United States, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has come under heated attack and demands for his resignation are flying fast and furious from Democrats and liberal editorial pages. Yet, until anyone has demonstrated - as opposed to speculated - that any systemic problem exists for which Mr. Rumsfeld can be said to be responsible, that can hardly be considered more than political posturing.

All we know for sure right now is that six U.S. soldiers (two of whom are young women) acted in ways that were beyond the pale, inflicting treatment on Iraq prisoners totally unlike anything we would countenance for an American prisoner of war. What we know comes out of Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba's detailed 53-page report, and there is no denying it is bad.

But it should not be an indictment of the entire U.S. military effort in Iraq, of the secretary of defense or of U.S. foreign policy as a whole. Critics are now saying, as did an editorial in The Washington Post last week, that Mr. Rumsfeld himself created "a culture of lawlessness" that encouraged abuses to take place. This argument was extended in an article in the Wall Street Journal on Monday that suggested "the U.S. has set itself above international law." Now, that is getting your proportions all out of whack. On the other hand, some defenders of the war effort do their cause no good to argue that "this is war, what do your expect?" Or to trivialize the abuse by suggesting that worse is inflicted on prospective members of American fraternity houses. Or to bring up the horrible murder and mutilation of American aid workers by the hands of Iraqi mobs. That is not a standard American soldiers would want to be judged by.

So far it seems our problem is that boys - and girls - were sent out to do a man's job without adequate training and supervision. They may not even have been familiar with the Geneva Conventions. They went wildly astray as a result. Or as the father of Jeremy Sivits, the first to be court-martialed, put it, "My son is not a trained military MP. He is a trained mechanic ... Why was a mechanic allowed to handle prisoners?"

Only accountability, openness and thoroughness in the painful investigations and court-martials to come will even start to make a dent in that calamity.

Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation. E-mail: helle.dale@heritage.org. Her column ordinarily appears on Wednesdays.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: International Organizations

First appeared in The Washington Times