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April 30, 2004

U.S. Forces Abuse Prisoners of War

By now, most people will have heard that photographs have emerged documenting members of the U.S. military humiliating and torturing Iraqi captives in a prison outside of Baghdad. George has a round-up of links to a variety of sources on the story. These photographs are among the most disturbing images I've seen since the beginning of the war, and they represent a serious threat to Bush's assertion that the US has eliminated the human rights abuses experienced under Saddam Hussein, and these images will only exacerbate negative perceptions of the United States in Iraq:

"This is the straw that broke the camel's back for America," said Abdel-Bari Atwan, editor of the Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. "The liberators are worse than the dictators."

"They have not just lost the hearts and minds of Iraqis but all the Third World and the Arab countries," he told Reuters.

To be fair, President Bush and military leaders have acted quickly to investigate the charges and to prosecute the guilty, with Bush himself expressing "deep disgust" over these actions, but the power of these images threatens to linger long after Bush's apology (note this USA Today poll taken before these images were made public).

The situation raises any number of questions about the US military effort in Iraq, including the appropriateness of using mercenaries, as Daily Kos points out. Perhaps most disturbingly,

One civilian contractor was accused of raping a young, male prisoner but has not been charged because military law has no jurisdiction over him.
Kos has frequently been critical of the use of mercenaries, I think, with some justification, given the confusion about military law.

Several soldiers, most notably Staff Sgt Chip Frederick , have emphasized that they have been assigned tasks that they were not trained to perform. Frederick's lawyer, Gary Myers, noted that his client (who has been charged with posing in a photograph sitting on top of a detainee, committing an indecent act and with assault for striking detainees) had not even read the Geneva Conventions. While this lack of training does not excuse Frederick's actions, it does indicate what might be a larger problem regarding the training of soldiers and the deployment of mercenary soldiers.

I'm also trying to think through Henry at Crooked Timber's concerns that

there seems to be a persistent unwillingness among many Americans to acknowledge the ugly things that are being done in the name of their national security.
I do believe that this story will lead many people to rethink their position on the war, but in an atmosphere in which even the Nightline tribute to US troops is being regarded as a politicized anti-war action, I'm not sure this will happen.

I do think it's wrong to suggest that these actions are due to the military recruiting from "the bottom rung of society" as one Crooked Timber commenter suggests (scroll down in the previous link). The suggestion that working-class and poor people are more likely to be predisposed to violence is rather unfair. In part, I'm drawing from my experiences with students who are members of ROTC and family members who were in the military, and while some mebers of the military may be attracted to the big guns, to attach that attraction to a specific social class simply seems wrong and makes it entirely too easy to dismiss these actions as the behavior of a few bad apples rather than a larger systemtic problem in which prison gurads have not even been made aware of the most basic aspects of the Geneva conventions.

Note: The Mirror.co.uk has posted several stills from the video footage. I'm ambivalent about linking to these images, but documentation seems crucial here.

Posted by chuck at April 30, 2004 7:30 PM

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