Buck Stops at Prisoner Torture

Why am I not surprised at the news of the mistreatment of Iraqis in an American version of Saddam Hussein’s prisons, crimes, which in fact, occurred in the very same Baghdad prison that was notorious as a torture center in pre-occupation Iraq?

Take a group of American men and women in their 20s, mostly with high school educations, move them thousands of miles from their families, place them in dangerous situations amid an alien culture, provide them with little understanding of why they are there other than patriotic platitudes, surround them with a population that apparently hates them on sight and you have all the necessary conditions for what has been going on for some time behind the razor wire and the sandbags surrounding Abu Ghraib.

This is not intended to condone such conduct, but to explain it. Before joining in the deserved and universal condemnation that greeted the photographs and reports from Baghdad, it would behoove us to place them in context. And the most important context is that of war itself.

The purpose of war is to destroy the enemy by any means possible. It is not to die for your country but to make the enemy die for his. To this end, you bomb, shoot, explode, kill, maim and, in general, act in ways that would get you imprisoned or worse as a civilian.

Now, suddenly, you are expected to break all of the laws you were taught to respect back home and to do so with the full backing and approbation of the state, your friends and family.

The condition of war, in short, creates serious problems of cognitive dissonance in citizens of democratic societies. One of the reactions to this conundrum is to lash out in anger at the nearest targets available for blaming for the situation.

If they are helpless to strike back, and your superiors ignore or even encourage such behavior, so much the easier. My guess is that the offending troops slept well at night, much relieved of their anxieties.

I recall one incident from Israel’s War of Independence that occurred a few days after we wrested Beersheba from the Egyptians. Some of the Egyptians we had captured were kept in the courtyard of a mosque, and suddenly, one of our soldiers started tossing hand grenades over the fence and into the crowd.

No one moved to stop him, and when he used up his grenades, he walked away. I don’t know the toll of dead and wounded, but it must have been considerable.

It turned out that his brother, in another unit, had been captured by the Egyptians, cut up into pieces and left on a road for us to find. However inexcusable, one can understand the context of his action. I don’t think he was ever punished for it, and he was quietly discharged from the service.

The same happens in all armies. You need only read of the constant humiliations suffered by Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints, or the willful physical damage caused by soldiers breaking into Palestinian homes (the same complaint voiced by many Iraqis) to understand the mindless cruelties that even the most disciplined military units commit against the enemy, deserving or not.

The media are quoting the parents of the accused soldiers as refusing to believe that their sons and daughters could commit such atrocities. That is an understandable reaction, and they are probably right.

At home, they would never have acted in that way. They live in communities where everyone knows everyone else, community norms are respected, religion acts as a damper on aberrant behavior and from which they escaped by joining the military.

As of this writing, the Army has scheduled courts-martial for some of the easily identified of the troops and reprimands for others.

Harry Truman had a plaque on his desk that read "The buck stops here." In these situations, the responsibility for such behavior lies first with those who committed the indecencies. More goes to the unit’s commanding officers who condoned them. But beyond that, the blame must be shared by those political leaders who sent men and women into situations for which they were culturally unprepared, poorly motivated and badly trained.

The rest of us should be asking ourselves how we elected such people to office. In the end, the buck stops with us.

Yehuda Lev is a former associate editor of The Jewish Journal.