As If She Wanted To Change Her Skin
Guest post by hilzoy
"I get a call from a mother. She wants to see me somewhere in northeastern America. I go see her. There's a kid that was in the unit, the 372nd. They had all come home early. If you remember the timeline, they did their stuff in late 2003, reported in 2004. This mother is telling me -- I'm writing in the spring of 2004 -- March of 2004, the kid had come home in the same unit totally changed. Young, pretty woman, vibrant. Depressed, disconsolate, inconsolable, isolated. Had been newly married. Left her husband, left the family, moved to a nearby town, working a night job or whatever. And nobody could figure out what's going on.
She sees the stories about Abu Ghraib. She goes, knocks on the door, shows the young woman the newspaper, and door slams, bam! And at that point, as she tells me, later -- as she tells me in real time -- this is May, early May -- she goes back, the kid had been given a computer, a portable computer like. (...) So she claims -- this not a woman familiar with Freud or the unconscious -- she claims at that point she just decided to look at the computer after hearing about Abu Ghraib. She said she had -- she just hadn’t looked at it. She just was going to clean it up and take it to her office as a second computer. No thoughts. And she is deleting files. She sees a file marked “Iraq.” And she hits it, and out comes 60 or 80 digital photographs of the one that The New Yorker ran of the naked guy standing against a cell in terror, hands behind his back so he can’t protect his private parts, which is the instinct. And two snarling German dogs -- shepherds. Somebody said they're Belgian shepherds, perhaps, but two snarling shepherds, you know, on each side of him. And the sequence -- in the sequence, the dogs attack the man, blood all over. (...)
So she looks at this stuff and eventually calls me. And we do it all, and we get permission. We run the photographs, just one -- how much -- and the thought there of the editors was how much do you humiliate the Arab world and the Arab man. One is enough. You know, we can describe what else is on the picture. We just don't need more than one. And then, later the mother calls me back, and we became friends. This happens a lot to people in my business. You get to like people. And she says, you know, one thing I didn't tell you that you have to know about the young woman, when she came back, every weekend, she would go and get herself tattooed, and eventually, she said, she was filling her body with large, black tattoos, and eventually, they filled up every portion of her skin, was tattooed, at least all the portions you could see, and there was no reason to make assumptions about the other portions. She was tattooed completely. It was as if, the mother said, she wanted to change her skin." (emphasis added.)
We went off to fight a war we did not need to fight, and which we had decided to fight long before we had begun to exhaust our diplomatic options. We went in without a plan for our occupation of Iraq, with too few troops to maintain security, guard weapons caches, or nip any insurgencies that might arise in the bud. Why was that? Our clever Secretary of Defense wanted to prove his theories about a new leaner military. He originally considered going in with even fewer troops than he eventually sent, while the army originally wanted hundreds of thousands. And so:
"The challenge here for Rumsfeld is, he's got a guy [Tommy Franks] who comes really out of the classic Army background who is going to think, yep, let's go in big and heavy. Now, you know you don't have to go in as big in heavy as you did in '91 because Iraq has been under sanctions for 10 years ... but Franks wants still several hundred thousand troops to go in. And Rumsfeld has this process where he kind of chips away and chips away at this belief asking questions: "Why do you need that? Why do you need that?" The Pentagon dubs this "iterative process." Really, I think it is more process of erosion. And after several months into this, Franks is more or less persuaded."
And lo and behold, it turns out that the Army was right. We had an insurgency on our hands. We were desperate, and started to pressure people for more and better intelligence, and they in turn put pressure on the undertrained, understaffed reservists who were guarding prisoners at Abu Ghraib. But we would not have been so desperate had Rumsfeld listened to the Army in the first place and sent enough troops to maintain order. Nor would we have been in as much trouble had he bothered to formulate an actual plan for the occupation, other than trusting Ahmed Chalabi.
Here's a quote from an interview with Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper (U.S. Marine Corps-Ret.):
"I heard about the prison scandals like everybody else, in the media. I was horrified. It goes against anything I've ever seen in any of our armed forces. I think it's the result of two things. One is, it's Mr. Rumsfeld stepping above the law in some of the things he's supported, and that transfers down through the ranks quicker than you might imagine. And some of these things, which allegedly first occurred in Guantánamo, got transferred out to Iraq. That's the one side. The other side, if you have a unit that's poorly led and it gets this sort of a license, even if it's second-, third-, fourth-order information they get, it will get out of control very quickly. But it's not the American military, any service that I've ever known in the 41 years that I served. (...)
-- How rapidly does something like that move down through the ranks?
Months. [Over] several months, something like that can happen, not in terms of any sort of written instructions, not in terms of direct guidance, but you set this sort of a climate. Commanders at one level see it. Others witness it, like the results, or feel that it unencumbers what they're trying to do, and they pick up some version of it, usually a more expansive version. Even if it's constrained at one level, it becomes more expansive as it goes down. In a disciplined unit, you might be able to hold it together, but when you reach a level where the discipline is not what it should be, it all falls apart, and we get these tragic results.
And there is no excuse for it in terms of what the soldiers should have understood. Every person who comes in the military understands the Geneva Conventions. There are classes on it. They clearly understand this is not proper. In fact, what most of them are told, if not in these words, is something along this line: Treat every other human being with respect. You don't have to like them, you don't have to agree with them, but treat them with respect. And even if they're prisoners, there's a certain respect that they're due. That went out the window."
So: because we did not send enough troops to secure order in Iraq, and because we did not plan for the occupation, we were not able to suppress the insurgency we had, amazingly, failed to anticipate. Our officials pressured the military to get more and better intelligence, and as a result, Iraqis, many of whom were innocent of any crime, were humiliated, tortured, and killed. The Army is clear about how such failures are to be dealt with. Phil Carter quotes the Army Field Manual (Appendix A of FM 22-100):
A-18. Command responsibility refers to collective or organizational accountability and includes how well units perform their missions. For example, a company commander is responsible for all the tasks and missions assigned to his company; his leaders hold him accountable for completing them. Military and DA civilian leaders have responsibility for what their sections, units, or organizations do or fail to do."
And (Chapter 8 of FM 27-10):
"501. Responsibility for Acts of Subordinates
In some cases, military commanders may be responsible for war crimes committed by subordinate members of the armed forces, or other persons subject to their control. Thus, for instance, when troops commit massacres and atrocities against the civilian population of occupied territory or against prisoners of war, the responsibility may rest not only with the actual perpetrators but also with the commander. Such a responsibility arises directly when the acts in question have been committed in pursuance of an order of the commander concerned. The commander is also responsible if he has actual knowledge, or should have knowledge, through reports received by him or through other means, that troops or other persons subject to his control are about to commit or have committed a war crime and he fails to take the necessary and reasonable steps to insure compliance with the law of war or to punish violators thereof."
That's not how we responded to Abu Ghraib. George Bush talks about personal responsibility:
"we stand for a culture of responsibility in America. We're changing the culture of America from one that says, "If it feels good, do it," and, "If you've got a problem, blame somebody else," to a culture in which each of us understands we're responsible for the decisions we make."
But even though the buck supposedly stops at his desk, he has never accepted any responsibility for Abu Ghraib, or for any of the other failures of judgment that have occurred on his watch. Donald Rumsfeld has kept his job, and has not been held accountable in any way for his decisions. The generals in command of operations in Iraq have been exonerated, in apparent disregard of the military's doctrine of command responsibility. Brigadier General Janis Karpinski's military career is over, and a few reservists have been sent to jail.
And while Rumsfeld goes on fretting about the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns, and Bush lectures Putin on the rule of law and the importance of free and open debate, a woman who was once vibrant and open, but who has now left her husband and will not speak to her family, slowly and methodically covers her body with black tattoos.