When confronted with the photographs of abuse and humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, President Bush’s first reaction was to call the spectacle "abhorrent," and to admit in the non-committal passing tone that "mistakes are made." Luckily, and also passively, Bush assured us that "people will be brought to justice."
Now, Bush has finally apologized, saying he is "sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners and humiliation suffered by their families."
The War Party would like Americans to believe that the photographs of U.S. military personnel abusing Iraqi prisoners — forcing them to stack themselves naked in pyramids, making them balance on boxes with sacks on their heads, and even holding one by a leash — in no way represent the typical behavior of U.S. forces in Iraq.
But even if they do, Donald Rumsfeld has attempted to calm our worries by clarifying that the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners, albeit cruel "humiliation," is "technically different from torture."
And we thought Clinton was slick with his various definitions of "is" and "sexual relations."
Even if Rummy does not consider the depravity at Abu Ghraib torture, the Iraqi victims do. How the U.S. government plans to sell itself as a savior and a bringer of freedom to Iraqis with these images circulating around the world is a mystery.
In response to the murder of two Iraqi prisoners, Colin Powell promised that "no stone will be left unturned to make sure that justice is done and to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again." And what is the U.S. government going to do to guarantee this? Send more troops? Allow Ascroft’s Justice Department to launch an investigation of the CIA, which may indeed share responsibility for this enormity? Allow Rumsfeld to form an "independent panel" to investigate the abuse, even though he does not consider it, technically speaking, "torture"?
The Bush administration engineered an unnecessary war that has killed thousands of innocent people, and yet it acts surprised when incidents of barbarism come to light. Is anyone to believe that the administration can successfully "reform" the occupation and purge it of its depraved elements? Does the administration believe it? Opponents of the war have insisted from the beginning that the war would involve assaults on common decency, not simply because of the particular motivations or shortcomings of the administration, but also due to the very nature of war. War does not lend itself to an easy bureaucratic fix. Because of these reasons, among others, a free society should always resist unnecessary wars.
To many Iraqis, who have endured torture at the hands of U.S. forces for a year, the photos of Abu Ghraib typify the entire occupation. That the Commander in Chief of their occupiers naively acts surprised upon catching a tiny glimpse of brutal reality must aggravate them further.
However, in all fairness, even the president appears to realize how difficult it will now be for the U.S. government to prove to Iraq that it knows best how to implement freedom there. Referring to the photos, Bush offered what is perhaps his best observation thus far:
"I think people in the Middle East who want to dislike America will use this as an excuse to remind people about their dislike. I think the average citizen will say, u2018This isn’t the country I’ve been told about.’"
This may be an understatement, and somewhat incoherent, but it is still refreshingly wise and honest coming from the president.
Condoleezza Rice, echoing the War Party line, tells us:
"Apart from the specific cases of those particular photographs, Americans do not dehumanize other people. That is not why we’re in Iraq. We’re in Iraq to liberate a people, to help them."
According to a wide variety of sources, the dehumanization has been common, and has gone on for quite a while.
Sgt. Mike Sindar, who worked at Abu Ghraib, says he "saw beatings all the time."
Nada Doumani of the Red Cross says her organization was "aware of what was going on" at the prison and that the Red Cross "repeatedly requested the U.S. authorities to take corrective action."
David Kay says he tried to report prisoner abuse to authorities, "and no one wanted to deal with it."
And is it any surprise that only now the abuse receives wide coverage? The government has kept a firm grip on the press for the entire war.
In fact, the War Party, inside and outside government, has made every effort to sugarcoat the war’s realities to the American people. The government banned photography of flag-draped caskets returning from Iraq, as if the images are worse than the deaths themselves. The war’s cheerleaders shunned Ted Koppel for reading off the names of Americans who have lost their lives. Some have advocated keeping the press away from Fallujah, so as to prevent Americans at home from losing their stomachs for this war upon seeing the U.S. military exacting revenge on civilians.
Remember when members of the War Party were proud of their war? They applauded the "Shock and Awe" last March, as the bombs fell on Baghdad. They triumphantly celebrated the sight of Saddam’s statue coming down in a ridiculous publicity stunt. They revered George W. Bush standing on an aircraft carrier, claiming victory, and later sneaking into Iraq on Thanksgiving.
If the war is such a great accomplishment of human liberty and democracy, why shouldn’t we hear the names and see the coffins of those who died for it?
The War Party’s attempts to cover up the sad realities of this war may reveal a silver lining. Perhaps the War Party is finally becoming embarrassed, however slightly, of its own handiwork. The war’s proponents originally told us this would be a cakewalk. They shrugged off the civilian casualties, the random killings, the lootings, the rapes, and the suicides. They tried to convince us that the insurgents were all Saddamites or al Qaeda operatives. But now they feel a bit uneasy at the sight of Iraqis humiliated at the hands of U.S. forces. It’s kind of odd: one look into a couple atrocities in a war involving thousands of atrocities, and they lose their blindness and arrogance, if only for a second.
Whereas the massacres of Americans in Fallujah made the hawks rabidly thirst for the spilling of more innocent blood, perhaps many of the hawks mean it when they express disgust at Abu Ghraib. Maybe they realize that Iraqis do not like seeing photos of their countrymen disgraced and abused in the newspapers any more than Americans appreciate seeing the same done to their countrymen and women.
Perhaps there is some hope that more and more Americans will realize that the horror stories of Abu Ghraib, disgusting as they are, are not isolated incidents, but rather unusually publicized symptoms of a terrible war that was destined from the beginning to yield such horrific abuses.
Perhaps the War Party will find itself divided, with the more civilized members truly repulsed by the results of what they once advocated, slowly distancing themselves from the unmovable warmongers, some of whom shed crocodile tears at the sight of blood and torture even as they call for more, and some of whom come close to defending the abuse outright.
Even the administration seems increasingly divided, as even Bush becomes "unhappy" with being kept out of the loop. Maybe the war’s planners never told the president about the downside of war. Maybe Bush never knew it would get this bad, and genuinely feels some remorse. Of course, this does not excuse him from blame. He should have known better.
There is no way to bring back the dead, and the momentum of the occupation will probably mean many more deaths in vain before the United States finally leaves Iraq.
But perhaps there is at least hope for the future, and it will be harder to sucker Americans into another unjust war.
Let us hope.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history at UC Berkeley, where he was president of the Cal Libertarians. He is an intern at the Independent Institute and has written for Rational Review, Strike the Root, the Libertarian Enterprise, and Antiwar.com. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.