Sacrificial lambs

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 20, 2004

Bipartisan outrage over the Iraqi abuse scandal didn’t last very long. The party line hadn’t been developed when the photos were first released on &uot;60 Minutes II&uot;, so most Republicans were as sickened and appalled as the Democrats were.

That’s all changed now. Yes, a few prominent Republicans and conservatives have remained outraged by the continuing catalogue of abuses and reports that the genesis of these war crimes reaches into the Pentagon and the White House, but the Republicans have started circling the wagons.

A Republican congressman on &uot;Hardball&uot; Tuesday night not only asserted that the abuse is isolated to a handful of enlisted personnel, but also said hooding and stripping prisoners is standard operating procedure in any prison, including those in the United States for common criminals. In other words, sick low-life enlisted men did some not so very bad things to some very bad people. That’s the party line.

Luckily, few people are buying into this one. Yeah, the vast majority of us were snookered into believing the deceptions that led to the Iraq invasion and most people bought the line about freedom-craving Iraqis throwing flowers and blowing kisses at our troops as they marched by.

Forget politics for a minute: Whatever happened to idea of common decency? What happened to the concept of honor? I believe that good guys set a higher standard that all others feel compelled to follow or at least feel guilty for not following. I’ve always believed the United States to be the good guy of the world, but Bush has undermined all that because he operates with no sense of honor.

It infuriates me that these seven or eight reservists from eastern West Virginia are being blamed for these abuses. They were wrong to do what they did, but given the circumstances it is also understandable.

Bear with me for a moment. Put yourself in their shoes: You’re a high school graduate in a poverty stricken rural area who works as a minimum wage clerk. You can’t go to college because you don’t have any money and, let’s face facts, you’re not well educated or very bright. But you did join the reserves out of patriotism after 9/11, expecting to serve two days a month and two weeks in the summer.

You’ve received basic training in how to make a legal arrest and how to transport prisoners, but not much else, when suddenly your unit is called to active duty to take charge of one of Iraq’s most formidable prisons.

When you arrive there for duty, they put you on 12-hour shifts with no time off and nowhere to go if you did have time off. You can’t speak to your prisoners and can’t understand them, which is frustrating and annoying, but you do the best you can.

And then a bunch of James Bond types stroll in. Here are the men you’ve been watching in action movies since you were a child: brave, fearless, defenders of truth, justice and the American way. They’re not wearing uniforms. You don’t know their rank or even if rank applies to a bone fide secret agent, spook, spy, intelligence operative, etc.

They tell you that these Iraqis in your custody had something to do with 9/11 and that they have secrets. These secrets must be extracted to prevent another 9/11 and to save the lives of American soldiers that are being killed on the streets of Iraq. They tell you that the only way to get at this information is to humiliate and degrade them because they don’t fear death. Strip them naked because these Arabs are real funny about that – real fuddy-duddies. They consider it shameful to be seen naked by another person, especially a woman. Everybody gets a big laugh at that.

You’re not beating them or killing them, so where’s the harm? They are, after all, terrorists. You can trust me, I’m James Bond. I routinely risk life and limb to save the world from evil. Trust me, these guys are evil.

Do these uneducated, simple 20-something reservists even know they have the right under the Uniform Code of Military Justice to refuse an illegal order? If they do know, do they have the judgment needed to differentiate an illegal order from a legal one?

So they start humiliating the prisoners and James Bond keeps coming back and telling them they are doing a super job in the War on Terror. Keep it up. In fact, let’s ratchet it up just one more notch.

While this is going on, the entire command structure of the military says it didn’t know a thing. Yeah, right. The Red Cross told them. Iraqi prisoners told them. Some military personnel told them. The spooks in charge might not have told them, but you’d think someone would have suspected something was not right.

Nothing was amiss until January when the higher ups discovered that authorized photos of the abuse were out in the world. Military personnel who speak out can be quickly shut up with the threat of imprisonment. Iraqis can be ignored. Arab media reports can be dismissed as biased. The Red Cross can be ignored and stonewalled because they don’t usually take their findings public.

But photographs that the American news media can get access to presents a whole new problem. The order goes out to arrest those whose faces can be seen. Keep it quiet and maybe the photos won’t be seen by the public, but if they are we have these sacrificial lambs.

Despite the soldier’s testimony from Wednesday, anybody who believes these young, na¨ve and foolhardy young people acted solely on their own volition is even more na¨ve and foolhardy than they were.

Ignorance is no excuse for inhumanity, but it should be taken into account during their trials. And the people who gave the orders, tacitly allowed these abuses to occur, or set the wheels of injustice into motion should be punished for the savvy, amoral manipulators they are.