It’s the end of the semester at George Mason University, and for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been too busy preparing final exam harassment for my students to pay much attention to all the news stories about how U.S. soldiers were torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. Now that my spring semester’s work has just about been completed, I decided to bring myself up to speed on these American atrocities.
I braced myself for the worst. Part of my 1959 Fort Jackson, S.C., basic training involved lessons on evasion and escape. Our drill sergeant, who had fought in the Korean War, told us about how North Koreans tortured American prisoners of war. His graphic descriptions gave us added incentive to pay attention to what we were being taught about evasion and escape.
Remembering his graphic descriptions, and given the worldwide condemnation of our soldiers, I was prepared to see pictures of American soldiers engaged in atrocities such as: eye gouging, piercing of prisoners’ hands and knees with electric drills, beating soles of prisoners’ feet, cigarette burns, fingernail extraction, whipping and placing prisoners in acid baths. I also thought I might see pictures of Iraqis looking like the diseased and starved World War II American prisoners of the Japanese who were brutally marched from Bataan to Camp O’Donnell. When they were liberated from Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, many didn’t weigh much over 100 pounds, if that.
Much to my surprise, I saw none of this. What I saw in no way could be described as torture or atrocities, at least if we stick to historical definitions of torture and atrocities. Among the pictures I saw were: Pfc. Lynndie England with a dog leash tied to a naked Iraqi. Iraqi prisoners forced to parade naked before their jeering captors. Two American soldiers — a male and a female — forcing a group of Iraqi prisoners into simulating group sex. An American female soldier playing with two naked Iraqi captives. A British soldier urinating on an Iraqi prisoner. Of the pictures I saw, the worst act was a soldier putting a rifle butt to an Iraqi prisoner’s groin.
These acts aren’t anything that Americans should be proud of, but at the same time, they don’t qualify as torture and atrocities so far as those terms have been historically defined. Moreover, they are mild in comparison to the kind of prison treatment to which Iraqis have become accustomed.
Before we condemn our soldiers too much, we might consider that this war is the most humane war ever fought. In toppling the Saddam Hussein regime, there were relatively few non-combatant casualties. Afterward, our troops and American and foreign civilians went to great lengths to begin to rebuild the country, and much of that rebuilding has little to do with what was destroyed in war.
How has this unprecedented effort been rewarded? Our soldiers have been ambushed and murdered by Hussein holdouts and Muslim fanatics. American and foreign civilians have been brutally murdered and their corpses treated in unspeakable ways — and all of this to the glee of large Iraqi mobs. We should keep in mind that our soldiers are humans. I think it’s understandable that they might want revenge against perpetrators who’ve been involved with the murder and maiming of their comrades.
Don’t get me wrong about this. Their actions are not to be condoned. But if President Bush and Congress want to know whether our soldiers’ actions constitute torture, I suggest they ask former American Japanese POWs or, better yet, ask former Hanoi Hilton resident Sen. John McCain.
By the way, if our soldiers are to be court-martialed for anything, it should be for stupidity — stupidity of permitting photos to be taken of what they were doing.