L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 272, May 23, 2004
The Most Pathetically Incompetent Empire in History
The Truth Hurts
Special to TLE
There's a wonderful site on the Internet referred titled "Urban Legend Reference Pages" [http://www.snopes.com]. The information at snopes.com has proved an invaluable reference tool for me on occasion, and has prevented me from mistakenly forwarding false information to others more than once. My rule of thumb is typically this: If it's something so surprising or controversial I want to send it out to everybody right this very minute, it's a good idea to head on over to snopes.com first.
A little over a week ago, I received an email that alleged American soldiers in Iraq had been torturing Iraqi prisoners. The email contained a photo of some of this supposed abuse. Because I work with PhotoShop on a daily basis and am well aware that digital photo alterations are rampant on the Internet, I examined the picture closely. While I didn't see any telltale evidence of tampering, I was sure that such a thing could not have taken place. So I went directly to snopes.com to find the evidence I needed to refute this nasty rumor somebody was trying to spread.
Under the usual circumstances, I type a quick couple of words or a phrase into the site search at snopes.com, and I have an answer almost immediately. This time, I had no such luck. Hmm. Perhaps the rumor was too new for the snopes.com staff to have done their usual thorough research yet. I left snopes.com and headed for Google. At the very least, Google would provide me with other mentions of this sordid little story wherever they might have occurred on the Internet. I expected personal sites, anti-war sites, or perhaps The Onion [http://www.theonion.com/] or one of its parody competitors. But the number one mention Google returned was: CBS News.
In that particular story, CBS didn't have any pictures. But now that I knew there was some truth to this story, I kept going and found both more information and some of the photos that had been discussed. I was incredulous. American soldiers did this? And my second thought was that, by doing so, they'd given the Arab world everything it could possibly ask for in the propaganda arena. Now the various anti-American organizations had something to work with that had the incidental value of actually being true!
Within a couple of days, there was indeed word of some falsification of evidence. It seems that some Middle East publications were using photos from various porn sites used to fake American soldiers sexually abusing Iraqi prisoners [http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=38335]. Unfortunately, because the earlier photos turned out to be real, these faked photos passed muster more easily and deepened the disgust and fear the Iraqis were doubtless feeling for the American presence in their country. Meanwhile, the soldiers in the genuine photos were charged with crimes, some were suspended from duty, and a firestorm of criticism surrounded the entire matter.
Eventually, Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld apologized [http://www.gopusa.com/news/2004/may/0506_rumsfeld_apologizes.shtml] (I'm not sure why, since he didn't order the abuse and almost certainly knew nothing of it until the same reports we all heard), and then said he was taking responsibility [http://www.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2004/5/7/121822.shtml] for the actions of the soldiers in question (again, the most responsible action will be to identify and punish those who were actually involved). And as is to be expected, the families of a couple of the soldiers pictured in the photos are denying that their son or daughter would ever do such things, and claiming they must have been ordered to do so (I hope we don't really need to revisit the Nuremberg trials to understand that "just following orders" is no excuse).
President George W. Bush, in issuing something of an apology [http://www.cnn.com/2004/WORLD/meast/05/05/iraq.abuse.main/] for the incidents himself, said that Iraqis "must also understand that what took place in that prison does not represent the America that I know." Thankfully, most soldiers seem to agree. Returning soldiers are talking about detention camps [http://www.washtimes.com/national/20040506-114250-1758r.htm] and the fact that, while the camps are not comfortable, such abuse wasn't widespread. It does, however, strain belief to think that so few soldiers were involved out of the hundreds that worked at the prison and that not one of them ever reported these few soldiers who were abusing their authority. An article published in Australia [http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/05/10/1084041307261.html] purports to be based on evidence taken directly from a military investigatory report, and it suggests that military intelligence and some officers also bear a good deal of blame.
It's unpleasant, but I trust none of us are so naive as to think that interrogation under torture doesn't happen. But such actions are the province of ranking intelligence personnel, not of reserve unit men and women assigned almost by default to be prison guards (remember, too, that the general charged with oversight of this facility had no prison experience). It's also true that any necessity for such interrogations cannot be spread across groups of prisoners, but rather specific men who it is believed have stories to tell. The broad brush wielded in this case is in and of itself enough to make the circumstances suspicious.
A friend of mine posited the idea that orders were given to the guards for political purposes. While it sounds paranoid, it's also true that the unfolding evidence has the Secretary of Defense and the President alike on the defensive. It's energized critics of the war in Iraq. And it's unquestionably given the Iraqi opposition something to hold up and say, "I told you so!" There will doubtless be more details that will trickle out over time, many of which will be true and some of which will be yet more propaganda encouraged by one faction or another.
Perhaps the only thing we can know with certainty today is this: When Saddam Hussein's regime engaged in widespread torture and attempted genocide, eyewitnesses, victim testimony, photographs and video tapes, and the braggadocio of some of those involved didn't convince some in the US that Saddam Hussein was a very bad guy in charge of a very bad government. Yet when six or seven soldiers engage in the abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners, a relatively few photos and reports are more than enough to condemn the Bush administration in entirety. Regardless of the rationale behind the actions in the first place, and whether or not political purposes were at the heart of it all, it's clear that the results have proved to be political indeed.
ADDENDUM: Since I wote this column several days ago, the news has continued to focus on this story. Hearings are already being held in Congress, and several important pieces of information have come out accordingly. One of those important pieces of data - contained within the sworn testimony of an Army general - says that the abusive soldiers weren't ordered to do what they did [http://www.cnn.com/2004/ALLPOLITICS/05/11/politics.abuse.main/index.html], which means that this could be simply a matter of those with power over others becoming corrupt by it and taking extreme and inapprorpiate advantage of it (psychological testing has proved time and again that such disparities in power end with results similar to this one). Of course, that's immaterial to whether or not any of the involved soldiers should be held liable for the abuse. They should be. But the worst news of all, although released with little fanfare and even less commentary, is the story of reports that show that the Army as an entity "didn't really care about [the] Geneva convention" [http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=38460] all the way to the Pentagon level. Perhaps Donald Rumsfeld owes some apologies after all.
The Simon Jester Project