Saturday, September 16, 2006

(Belated) Thoughts on Abu Ghraib

Over the last couple of days Noah and I have had an exchange over a Walter Williams column dealing with the imbalance in coverage of American and Iraqi Insurgent attrocities. Though we ended up agreeing on the important points (the same moral standards apply to "them" as to "us;" in practice it's inevitable that "their" attrocites will not garner much coverage because they're expected - i.e. not news), I left the exchange feeling unsatisfied. So I got some good time wasting in today doing internet research on and thinking about Abu Ghraib

Here are my unconnected, uncollected thoughs:

  • The Administration brought this on itself - To a certain extent, I think any unfair media criticism over Abu Ghraib is a result of the fact that Bush didn't have solid backing over the war. A simple majority is not the same thing as a united public. One annoying meme in the conservatives' commentary over press coverage of the War on Terror is that the press was much nicer about our handling of the occupations of Japan and Germany than they are today about our occupation of Iraq. I buy their argument to the extent that I think history shows the occupations of Japan and Germany were equally problematic at first (this is especially true of Germany, which was unmanageable for a year or so - the Nazis surrendered before the population). But I get impatient with it when I remember that support for WWII after Pearl Harbor was overwhelming. Support for the War on Iraq is no longer even at 50%, and those opposed are often heavily invested in their opposition emotionally. Not to mention, a lot of supporters of the war offer only qualified support (I would have to count myself in this number). To this extent, press coverage of attrocities in Iraq is probably pretty accurately geared to the reading public. It isn't, as conservative columnists like to suggest, that the press is any less loyal now than it was then. It's that the press is reporting to a different public about a very different war.

  • I'm tired of hearing talk about the Geneva Conventions - The idea that the US is obligated to follow the Geneva Conventions in its handling of Islamist prisoners in Gitmo and Abu Gharib is offensive. The Geneva Conventions are a contract between signatories. People who don't believe me need to read them for themselves here and get an education. Here is the relevant section:

    Although one of the Powers in conflict may not be a party to the present Convention, the Powers who are parties thereto shall remain bound by it in their mutual relations. They shall furthermore be bound by the Convention in relation to the said Power, if the latter accepts and applies the provisions thereof.

    If the latter accepts and applies the provisions thereof. Iraqi insurgents in particular and Islamofascists in general clearly do not qualify. So, under international law, the US is free to do pretty much whatever the hell it jolly well pleases with these people. Now, that is not to say that we should. Insofar as we style ourselves the "civilized" side in the conflict, we're obligated to hold ourselves to some kind of higher standard. Be that as it may, I think the soldiers in Iraq etc. deserve to be cut a little more slack than they generally are. They face an enemy that would not hesitate to do everything that happened at Abu Gharib to them and much, much worse if it gets the chance. This isn't just some academic notion to our soldiers - it's a very real danger. It's grotesque to expect them to follow to the letter the provisions of a treaty that doesn't even apply against an enemy that wouldn't mean it even if it did sign it.

  • Outrage is misdirected - In my reading on Abu Ghraib, the thing that was most shocking to me wasn't really the "torture" per se. It was the suggestion that screening procedures at the prison are inadequate due to lack of funding and oversight. This is indeed a human tragedy deserving of widespread condemnation. Related to the point above: I think it's important to make a distinction between people legitimately detained and those caught in the crossfire. I don't actually much care about the details of the soldiers' conduct to people legitimately detained because I don't think our soldiers have many (possibly any) moral obligations at all to people legitimately detained. I am free, in civilian life, to kill someone actively trying to kill me. I don't want to say that soldiers are free to torture people trying to torture them, but I will go so far as to say that I have a lot of trouble feeling sorry for torture victims I know would be just as happy to torture back (and face no consequences from their superiors for it, it must be added. Their superiors would actually encourage it). The only difference I can see between this torture and killing in self-defense, in fact, is that torture is something that people shouldn't want to do. Torture at Abu Ghraib seemed like things done for fun. I would say that means there are questions about the sanity of the soldiers involved, but I suspect that all of us have a side that enjoys this kind of thing and that civilization just keeps it under wraps. Who's to say what happens to us in a combat zone? I sincerely hope I personally never find out. But the point here is that the offense is not any kind of "moral outrage" against people legitimately detained. However, it very definitely is a moral outrage if done against innocents who happen to be in custody. Now - we have to fess up to a disturbing fact here, and that's that innocent people often are victims of war, and there's simply nothing that can be done about that. Mistakes will be made, and that sucks, but until I hear any interesting suggestions for how to prevent it or make it better, I don't think anyone has much to say about this. What we can do is our best to minimize such mistakes. We have an absolute obligation to do so, in fact, and if there is any outrage over Abu Ghraib that needs to be expressed, it's over the possiblity that such efforts were inadequate. I'm not really interested in whether combat-weary soldiers got some illegal off-color kicks taking revenge on people trying to treat them in kind. But I do very much care that people who are supposed to be on the sidelines receive as much protection as we are realistically able to give them. I wish the press would spend more time on that part of the story than on the actual details of the torture.

  • It is important not to lose perspective - One thing that is often forgotten in the reporting is that the Abu Ghraib incident did, in fact, receive a lot of condemnation from the public, and that the military punished everyone involved (some of them, in fact, received felony sentences). There are some lingering questions about whether some others higher in the chain of command need to be tried as well, and these should be addressed. But in the end, the result is satisfactory, I think. It is proof that the US Army doesn't have a free hand in Iraq, as it should not. The system works as well as it can be expected to. This in in sharp contrast to the other side, which does what it pleases. On the whole, the Abu Ghraib incident shows that the US is the civilized force in the conflict, and yet that is something rarely pointed out in the reports.

  • There is no need to lower our expectations of our own soldiers based on this - The perspective that says our soldiers are all "good" and theirs are all "bad" is fantasy. I don't know to what extent it is true that some armies are better behaved than others in combat. Clearly it is true to some significant degree. That said, I doubt if there is an army in history that has behaved itself really "well." I don't think reports of these kinds of abuses in war should be shocking, really. So I sort of take umbrage at Noah's suggestion that one interpretation of events is that we need to lower our expectations of our own forces. I think a more realistic attitude to take to the whole affair would be that abuses are inevitable. It is the responsibility of the command structure and the military trainers to try to minimize this. It is the responsiblity of the relevant authorities to identify it when it happens and prevent it from happening in the future (a responsibility they may have failed to fullfil in this case - some accounts say that nothing happened on reports of torture until the story came out in the press). But this is war and things go wrong. (I think it's fair to classify this as "things going wrong" for reasons outlined above - combat stresses, the nature of the enemy, etc.) To put it differently, we shouldn't have had such high expectations to begin with - and we shouldn't automatically assume that there is anything particularly bad about the American Army as a result. There is no cosmic debt that has to be paid here in terms of "face." There are 17 soldiers who failed to live up to their duties, they were punished, and the issue is still open to the extent that the relevant authorities may share in their guilt by not having given them adequate training and resources and not having monitored them to the extent that was their job. Naturally we want to minimize incidents like this. Our interest in doing so is practical as well as moral. But I think it is improper to think of this some kind of cosmic D&D game wherein the Army has an "image" score and is "penalized" on that count for each incident. (I should point out here that my own comments are just as guilty of this worldview - I talked about an accumulation of black marks on each side's record.) It would be more proper to allow it some slack within limits. If abuses become a general pattern, then the Army's image goes down rapidly. But one or two here and there is par for the course and should not be chalked up to anything other than the efficiency of the modern press in getting information and the extent of American involvement relative to other "coalition partners." It is, in fact, deeply unfair to the majority of soldiers who play more in line with the rules to slag on the Army in general over this. (However, see the first point. There is a certain amount of understandable "I told you so"s coming from the large portion of the population that never wanted the war to begin with. I don't feel that I can begrudge them their venting.)

Not a white paper, exactly, but stray thoughts I wanted to get off my chest. I've noticed that I'm recently much less interested in politics than I used to be - and I think a lot of it has to do with growing frustration over how I see issues characterized. See my post on gay marriage for a good example of an issue on which I think both sides grossly (and deliberately) miss the point. This is, to a lesser extent, another case in point. Most commentary on it I read is realtively shallow and emotional. It deserves more discussion than it gets, but it won't get any more because neither side (lefty or nationalist) trusts the other to come clean about it.


At 6:55 PM, Blogger noahpoah said...

I don't see why you take umbrage at my discussing the possibility of lowering our standards to justify the torture at Abu Ghraib. I don't think we should lower our standards, just that it is a logically possible response to immoral acts by 'our side'.

At 7:48 PM, Blogger Joshua said...

Then I no longer take umbrage :-)


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