What are the thousand words, I wonder, that are worth the pictures of grinning US soldiers sexually humiliating Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison? An essay by Michael Ignatieff about human rights as the justification for war? An article by Samuel Huntington on the superiority of Western values? A rousing column by Tom Friedman calling on America to make Iraq a modern democratic state? Maybe Bernard Lewis could write up a talk about Islamic paranoia, or perhaps Alan Dershowitz could reprise in an op-ed his argument that torture can be morally permissible–a view that found a ready, even gleeful, hearing, I seem to remember, in journalistic circles after 9/11.
It’s one thing, though, for writers to euphemize about “rough treatment” and propose scenarios in which there is one man in custody who can prevent World War III–and another to look at those pictures. Who are those soldiers, looking so much like frat boys and mean girls on steroids, how did they come up with their pornographic tableaux, and what were they thinking when they took their snapshots? True, Saddam’s men tortured with impunity while our thugs will be brought to account (although maybe not those on contract–apparently even wartime atrocities are being outsourced now). Six supervisors have already been severely reprimanded and a seventh has received a “letter of admonishment.” When you consider that Lieut. William Calley spent just three days in prison for presiding over the mass slaughter of men, women and children at My Lai in March 1968, a blot on one’s résumé for overseeing prisoner abuse seems about on target. It was war. Things happen. And they take time to process: Maybe there were good reasons why the Army took no action for months after first learning of the abuse, why Gen. Richard Myers hadn’t read the report although it was completed in February, why he asked 60 Minutes II to postpone showing the photos, why Donald Rumsfeld took six days to comment and why George W. Bush’s early reaction was a peeved and childish “I didn’t like it one bit.” (Compare that with his comment in the State of the Union address on torture and rape under Saddam Hussein: “If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning.”)
The fact is, whatever the reason or excuse, however unrepresentative those photos are ever shown to be–and whatever punishment is eventually meted out to the perpetrators–the United States has just lost its last remaining rationale for the misbegotten invasion of Iraq. The WMDs are missing, the nuclear weapons never existed (even the “nuclear weapons program” has been dead since 1991); you don’t hear much anymore about Saddam having been behind 9/11, although thanks to the media’s slavish channeling of White House propaganda, 70 percent of Americans will probably go their graves believing him Osama’s best friend. Now the rescue of the Iraqi people from tyranny and brutality is turning out to be another fantasy. The humanitarian argument persuaded a lot of people–good people–to give this war the benefit of the doubt. Does anyone still think Iraqis are about to shower their invaders with roses and sweetmeats?
The Administration will do everything it can to portray Abu Ghraib as, in Rumsfeld’s words, “an exceptional, isolated” case. That seems unlikely: Human rights groups report many more instances of unlawful detention, torture and abuse, and there are at least ten pending investigations of prisoner deaths that we know of. Perhaps Western observers should have been less skeptical of reports that women inmates were raped and had pleaded to be saved, in smuggled leaflets. It is hard to believe human rights was one of the Coalition Provisional Authority’s primary concerns, considering that it has permitted private companies to hire for security work Serbian mercenaries and confessed members of South African pro-apartheid death squads.
The pictures and stories have naturally caused a furor around the world. Not only are they grotesque in themselves, they reinforce the pre-existing impression of Americans as racist, cruel and frivolous. They are bound to alienate–further alienate–Iraqis who hoped that the invasion would lead to secular democracy and a normal life and who fear Islamic rule. Abroad, if not here at home, they underscore how stupid and wrong the invasion of Iraq was in the first place, how predictably the “war of choice” that was going to be a cakewalk has become a brutal and corrupt occupation, justified by a doctrine of American exceptionalism that nobody but Americans believes.
In the United States that doctrine still burns bright. What, Americans commit atrocities? Our boys? Our girls? For having the courage to speak out in 1971 against rampant wartime atrocities in Vietnam–his finest hour–John Kerry has been demonized as a traitor, a defamer of servicemen who is unfit to serve as Commander in Chief. Tim Russert helped launch this line of attack on Meet the Press in April, when he offered Kerry the opportunity to distance himself from testimony that has been “discredited.” Now, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a hastily formed group with close ties to the Bush Administration and big-time Republican donors, is leading the charge, and cable TV commentators are debating the “questions” these GOP hacks have raised about Kerry’s patriotism. This, mere weeks after the Toledo Blade won a Pulitzer for its series on Tiger Force’s vicious rampage across the Central Highlands of Vietnam in 1967–a months-long fiesta of murder, torture, rape and mutilation. The Commander in Chief who avoided active service and has made such a mess of Iraq is honored as manly and decisive; the man who volunteered to serve and then protested a war few would defend today gets labeled a prevaricating shirker, unqualified to lead.
The big winners, as with so many steps taken by this Administration for our supposed protection–Guantánamo, the confinement of José Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi, the harassment and deportation of law-abiding Muslims–are Islamists and Al Qaeda. To their ideological bag of tricks, already bulging with religion, nationalism, misogyny, ethnic pride and antimodernism, they can now add the defense of civil liberties, human rights and the Geneva Conventions. Clash of civilizations, anyone?