Blogs > Cliopatria > Led into temptation

May 9, 2004 7:24 pm


Led into temptation



Some people decry the brutalizing of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. Some say it’s just Americans blowing off steam. Some say it’s part of a greater necessity to protect our troops. Others say the news these actions may help intimidate our enemies.

Yet it in all of this I have seen very little, nothing really, on the harm these actions had on the soldiers involved. And the harm I speak of has nothing to do with the publicity or with courts-martial.

Look into your own hearts. At a young age--and most of these soldiers seem awfully young--you are encouraged to brutalize people who are in your power. Your enemies. You are told to treat them like animals (or at least as something less than human). And you do. And maybe for one or two of these people, someone says,"Hey! You helped to break him! Good going. You helped your country." But for most you won't get that word.

And let us suppose that there is no publicity, no video, no trial. You and the others will do your time in the service of your country and then go home.

Will none of you be damaged by the actions you were encouraged to commit?

Some may have moments of guilt; some more than moments. What will be in your dreams, and the dreams of your comrades, over the course of your lives? And what will those dreams do?

Some may have tasted the lust of sadism. Not you, of course. Still you and the others were put into a place where sadism was encouraged. Will the taste of sadism do them harm? What will be in there dreams, and in their lives?

And some may go home and sleep the sleep of the just. Will that mean that no harm was done?

A final thought:
The Geneva convention is usually portrayed as protecting the captured. May I suggest that, when obeyed, it also protects the soldiers who imprison the captured and the country they represent.

It delivers them from the temptations of their power. It delivers them from the evil that their officers may do.

(Note: an earlier version was submitted to ConservativeNet, where at least one historian is arguing that these actions will help intimidate our enemies.)

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Name Removed at Poster's Request - 5/15/2004

"Josh --
"First, let me apologize for my tone last time, though I did feel a bit patronized to."

That's okay. I didn't mean to come across in a patronizing manner. Perhaps my approach was more appropriate for a non-historian, since Americans are normally so damned unhistorical and so ready to forget things that they've lived thru or so uninterested in learning about things that happened in their youths or shortly before they were born, so my apologies on that.

"1) I am a modern American historian. Suffice it to say I feel a bit qualified to speak about Vietnam, especially in this context, even if it is not my main field of research."

Okay, good to know.

"2)Um, we're not acknowledging that a bad thing happened now? Hello, straw man! Further, what on earth could yopu have devined from my post that would indicate to you that I do not think that it is a bad thing?"

Derek, I also said we need to face the full scope of the bad thing that happened. That means not letting go the intelligence figures and high administration officials that made this happen while hanging the MPs, especially the low-ranking ones, out to dry and pretending it's an aberration. I'm not saying you're doing this, but I think claiming "we're better than this," when we actually seemed quite capable of doing it, is a possible first emotional step toward warding off the truth by minimizing it. I can't assume that's where you were going, but I also can't assume that's NOT where you were going, since "America is better than that" carries more emotional than factual content and allows for some ambiguity.

"3)You believe what is "evidently true" except that is not what your first post said at all. While here you are trying to make it seem as if your criticisms are selective, the fact is that your initial post impugned all of America and all of American policy."

Whoa, you read all that into what I wrote? I thought I'd communicated that we are not "better than" the torture because Americans sure as heck did it. Not all Americans, but enough of them to cause this scandal and blacken all our eyes. As to policy, no, I wasn't attacking all of American policy, but was clearly implying there was a policy and behavioral continuity between the rampant human rights abuses perpetrated by our forces in Vietnam and those perpetrated in Iraq, and I'll add in Guantanamo as well. I'm not saying that all Americans are responsible, but there does seem to be a problem in our armed forces and intelligence agencies.

"Maybe you were just being sloppy. But on top of this, when you say "I wouldn't have bothered mentioning the torture scandal" it strikes me as a bit solipsistic. When "you mentioned" it? You mean when you mentuoned it in response to an article already mentioning it? To my post mentioning it? I am unclear what you mean here."

Okay, I wouldn't have gotten involved in this discussion at all if I'd thought we as a country couldn't do better than occupying a country of 25 million people for no good reason and abusing, killing and torturing many of them. If I thought there was no hope of improving on our present, I would not have wasted even the small effort of posting.

"4)Good point, and a fair point. And not the most important point, at least not now. Further, one condition of these people ever seeing the light of day shopuld be precisely that they never have the opportunity to serve in such a capacity again. I am fine about rehabitilating people, but known torturers should not be working as cops any more than known pedophiles should be working in elementary schools. Call me old fashioned."

They have to be caught at it first before a potential future employer can be informed. That's why I want to see a VERY wide-ranging inquiry. My apprehension is that these lower-level MPs will be scapegoated for something that was initiated far higher up and which involves many more low-ranking perpetrators than just the presently spotlighted group.

As far whether the torture and sexual abuse scandal is "an aberration" or something that flows all too easily from current American ways of thinking, here are two articles that I think are worth reading and considering:

http://www.antiwar.com/reese/?articleid=2578
http://atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/FE15Ak03.html


Derek Charles Catsam - 5/13/2004

Josh --
First, let me apologize for my tone last time, though I did feel a bit patronized to.
1) I am a modern American historian. Suffice it to say I feel a bit qualified to speak about Vietnam, especially in this context, even if it is not my main field of research.
2)Um, we're not acknowledging that a bad thing happened now? Hello, straw man! Further, what on earth could yopu have devined from my post that would indicate to you that I do not think that it is a bad thing?
3)You believe what is "evidently true" except that is not what your first post said at all. While here you are trying to make it seem as if your criticisms are selective, the fact is that your initial post impugned all of America and all of American policy. Maybe you were just being sloppy. But on top of this, when you say "I wouldn't have bothered mentioning the torture scandal" it strikes me as a bit solipsistic. When "you mentioned" it? You mean when you mentuoned it in response to an article already mentioning it? To my post mentioning it? I am unclear what you mean here.
4)Good point, and a fair point. And not the most important point, at least not now. Further, one condition of these people ever seeing the light of day shopuld be precisely that they never have the opportunity to serve in such a capacity again. I am fine about rehabitilating people, but known torturers should not be working as cops any more than known pedophiles should be working in elementary schools. Call me old fashioned.
dc


Name Removed at Poster's Request - 5/13/2004

Derek, four things:

1) Do you know enough about the Vietnam War to decide whether or not it works as an analogy to the present Iraq War? (I don't mean this question rhetorically.)

2) We as a nation have to acknowledge that a bad thing happened, and in its full scope, before we can determine how to stop it from happening again.

3) I don't believe the worst of Americans, I believe what is evidently true. I wouldn't have bothered to mention the torture scandal if I thought we couldn't do better than this.

4) One reason the effect of wartime torture on torturers matters is that they someday have to come back to the U.S. and resume civilian lives. Do we know how torturing soldiers act when they go back to a domestic peacetime lifestyle? For instance, it would be natural for an MP to become a police officer after the war. Would you want yourself or any relative to be stopped by a cop with such a background?


Oscar Chamberlain - 5/12/2004

I just had a former student, recently back from Iraq, talk to my US survey class today.

He communicated so much. A lot of it had to do with the decency of the soldiers we have there and how well they do their daily jobs. (He's in a reserve engineering unit). He gave examples of how disciplined soldiers were about who they fired on. And he "hates the media" for it showing just the worst, particularly when they show the same worst over and over again.

His unit's encounters with Iraqis ranged from friendly to hostile; not surprisingly his attitude toward them was over the same range. Some of his language toward them was harsh; but he talked with deep respect about others that he met.

His opinion on what we are accomplishing echoes much of the rising criticism. We don't have nearly enough troops to set up a stable democratic Iraq. We either need a lot more troops there, or we need to be looking for a quick way out.


Derek Charles Catsam - 5/12/2004

America is better than this, Josh. That things happen is not what is at issue. It is how we respond to them. And if you don't think America is better than this, than why ask for things like this to stop?
As for the patronizing and obnoxious (enlighten me, oh wise one), "I guess you don't remember Vietnam" I am of two reactions. First, from a literalist vantage point, no I do not. Given that I was born in the 1970s, and that the end of America's involvement in Vietnam happened just about the time that my biggest concern was making sure not to miss the Electric Company, I cannot say that I remember that war. But I'm glad you raised what is fast becoming the most jejune of analogies, the Vietnam spectre. My second point, which ties in with this vacuous and noisome analogy, is that I have yet to be sold on the fact that any of these atrocities truly are systematic, inasmuch as I do not believe that they are policy. I believe that the President was truly outraged, though he should have known about this in January and thus that outrage should have abated. You believe the worst about America, and thus taint the majority of our troops by association. I believe that what has been happening with these prisoners is an outlier, that the majority of our military prison guards and the POW's have not in fact perpetrated on the one hand, or fallen victim to on the other, such malignancy. This is a loathsome exception and one that should be dealt with harshly, but it is not the rule, caricatured takes on history notwithstanding.
dc


Name Removed at Poster's Request - 5/12/2004

"I've heard too many blanket handjobs about how all soldiers are, by virtue of being soldiers, heroes. This just dirties those who truly are heroes. And it hurts my country. It hurts it profoundly. I hope the perpetrators, and their bosses, and their boss's bosses, pay a steep, steep price. But Amereca is better than this."

I don't think America is better than this. It's happening and it is apparently systematic, and was encouraged by intelligence types and basically blessed in a few ways by Rumsfeld.

I guess you don't remember the Vietnam War then? The tiger cages and the field telephone wires attached to genitals, the ear collections, the Phoenix program and American complicity in heroin smuggling into the US? When I read the revelations about US and British torture and abuse in Iraq, the deja vu feeling I'd been having ever more strongly this year became unavoidable: we're back in Vietnam again. I'm not sure we learned a single things morally since 1975, other than not to train soldiers to refer to the natives in country in racist slang terms.


Oscar Chamberlain - 5/11/2004

Jon, Thank you. You have articulated much of what I hoped to do far better than I did.

I had one other goal: To get at least some of the people who wanted to dismiss these events to think about them. The media horror show isn't doing it. Indeed, I have the fear that the dribbling out of pictures may reduce the horror to a sort of creepy background.

So I shifted from the horror to corruption of the souls of the participants and the imposition of that corruption by superiors in some combination of incompetence and willful, criminal policy.

In doing so, I do not condone the actions of the soldiers who participated; I do not excuse. There are people who said no to this; more should have done so, and those who actively participated have a debt to pay.

But I don't want the buck to stop with them.


Jonathan Dresner - 5/11/2004

While I sympathize, there's a larger question that Oscar, et al., are trying to get at: are these pathological people in a fundamentally functional institution or is the institution itself pathological? It doesn't really affect the question of guilt (much) but it does affect the question of remedy.

And, in a larger sense, it affects the question of how we, as a society, train, treat and demobilize our military and paramilitary personnel in such a way as to minimize the long-term damage to them and ourselves.

As a citizen, in the short term, I am with you. As an historian, and as a long-term perspective, this question is worth following.


Derek Charles Catsam - 5/11/2004

Seriously, am I awful? I don't care about how the process of dehumanizing others might at the same time dehumanize the perpetrators. I could give a f^&* about some skank who can sit there dragging on a cigarette clearly invigorated and gleeful about her dehumanization of prisoners under her charge. I don't want to hear the rationalizations. I don't want to hear about soldiers as victims. I don't want to hear about how the perpetrators loved puppies and their mom and apple pie. You know what is right and wrong. I've heard too many South African Police, too many Arafat Press Conferences, too many white supremacists babble their babble to give this too much credence. I've heard too many blanket handjobs about how all soldiers are, by virtue of being soldiers, heroes. This just dirties those who truly are heroes. And it hurts my country. It hurts it profoundly. I hope the perpetrators, and their bosses, and their boss's bosses, pay a steep, steep price. But Amereca is better than this. I won't weep for those who weaken us, by way of rationalization. And weaken us they have.
dc


Name Removed at Poster's Request - 5/11/2004

That's nice, Charles, but the USSR disbanded itself over a decade ago, while the Iraq War torture scandal is happening now.


Anne Zook - 5/10/2004

Thank you for posting this.

This problem has been worrying at me and you've articulated it well. As we write, the first court-martial has been scheduled, and it's of a line soldier, not of an officer.

As someone else pointed out, if you look at these pictures, the brutality is almost less horrifying than the glimpses of other, indifferent soldiers going about their business in the background. Not only those "caught" but all of the soldiers in the prison seem to have been brutalized.

I can't even imagine the feelings of the soldiers' families and loved ones viewing these pictures. I can't begin to imagine what these soldiers must be going through.

Taking into account military training as discussed here and elsewhere, the first failure in this kind of situation is a failure of leadership. Shouldn't the "reprimanded" officers be facing court-martial?


Oscar Chamberlain - 5/10/2004

Of course there are conservatives who oppose what happened. Many, thank goodness. Some are on conservativenet, too. But the voices who would like to downplay this issue are . . . .

I nearly said on the right, but given the conservative/neo-conservative split on the War, and given the libertarian opposition, perhaps that is unfair.

Perhaps I should simply say people who have invested a great deal emotionally into both the war and the administration and are subordinating their moral responses to that investment.


Charles V. Mutschler - 5/10/2004

Before we get too comfortable remarking about the ideological blindness on the Right, let us go back and re-read Professor Luker's review of Haynes & Klehr's _In Denial: Historians, Communism & Espionage_ which appeared here on Cliopatria about a week ago. There would seem to be a long and well established case of equally irrational defense of views that would be undercut by an impartial, objective, (there's that term again!) analysis of the emperical evidence.

Are there honorable conservatives who are outraged by the US getting involved in toruture? Senator John McCain comes to mind immediately. I only wish the history profession could muster as much outrage over the failings scholarship on the Left as it does on the Right. A bit of balance and less ideological writing posing as scholarship would be good for all of us, I think.

Charles V. Mutschler


Ralph E. Luker - 5/10/2004

Oscar and I have lost several allies in discussions at ConservativeNet. They asked to be removed from its list because of the growing barbarity there to which Oscar refers. I see it as a kind of desparation to defend policies which have become near indefensible on any decent ground.


Oscar Chamberlain - 5/10/2004

The editor there has never posted all my comments, but has, in the past, posted a fair number. He does not message back when he does not post something. When I posted this here, I was not positive that he had rejected the earlier version.

I am far less bothered by this comment not getting into conservativenet than by, as Ralph notes, a growing barbarousness--I can find no other word for it--in many of the Conservativenetposts on this topic. I feel like I am watching a number of intelligent and, I think good people doing their best to divest themselves of morality in regard to the question of the American use of torture.


Ralph E. Luker - 5/10/2004

If I'm not mistaken, the editor of ConservativeNet objected to what he saw as an assumption in Oscar Chamberlain's post that the guards were acting under orders. The post at ConservativeNet which I found most objectionable and to which Oscar obliquely refers suggested that the offensive acts committed by the prison guards would ultimately have a benign effect in cowering Muslim enemies and helping to bring a stable democracy to Iraq.


Christopher Riggs - 5/10/2004

If I may ask:

(1) What justification did the Conservativenet editor give for not posting Prof. Chamberlain's message?

(2) What is the nature of the objectionable comments being made by professors on Conservativenet? I take it some of the academics who post there are trying to justify the torture of Iraqi prisoners? If so, that is disturbing but not entirely surprising. There was a thread on H-Diplo in Oct-Nov 2001 in which some posters suggested torturing real or suspected terrorists was morally justifiable.

See postings titled "National Security and Human Rights,"
http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=lx&list=H-Diplo&user=&pw=&month=0110

Thanks for your time.


Oscar Chamberlain - 5/10/2004

Thanks. Certainly you are right that arguments like mine can be used to deflect attention from the true victims here. (And even if these victims are guilty of great crimes, they are still victims.} I do not want that forgotten. Still, it sounds like a lot of these soldiers really were just tossed into this hell.

The waging of war brutalizes those who wage it, regardless of the rightness of the cause. That is why rules of war, as strange as they sometimes seem, are so essential. They remind us that we are falling--if not fallen--and, if those rules are followed at all, they set a floor to our actions above that of utter depravity.


Jonathan Dresner - 5/9/2004

And I'm sure something calling itself "ConservativeNet" is patting itself on the back for its "support for our men and women in uniform"....


Jonathan Dresner - 5/9/2004

Agreed. The point of enshrining high principles in law and treaty is to bind the future to those principles, because our past experience was unbearable.

There need to be limits on what we do to each other, including what we do to our own soldiers. This does not absolve their responsibility, but it does implicate the military, the government, and ultimately, all of us.


Ralph E. Luker - 5/9/2004

The editor of ConservativeNet confirms that he refused to post an earlier version of this statement. I have suitably denounced him for that and am glad that Cliopatria is here for responsible, uncensored discussion.


Adam Kotsko - 5/9/2004

This type of argument is not used very often, and I don't think it should be used more often than the standard approach, but you're exactly right: oppression dehumanizes the oppressor as well.

(I often wonder about those countries where children are involved in fighting brutal civil wars: how can they possibly ever live a normal life again?)

Hopefully these terrible events will at least produce some awareness of the kind of country we have actually become, and not just under George W. Bush.


Ralph E. Luker - 5/9/2004

Oscar, I'd like to know whether your earlier version of this, submitted as you say to Conservativenet, was circulated there or not. Some of the pieces which have been posted there recently by historians who are currently teaching American college students have just been unbelievably perverse, stupid to the point of imbecility. In order to find anything quite so ignorant, you have to go over to FreeRepublic. I've recently taken to the use of profanity about it with Concervativenet's editor. I am not the only historian whose posts to Conservativenet are rather regularly censored. Was yours?

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