Victor Davis Hanson: A Little Perspective Please About the Offensiveness at Abu Ghraib Prison

Roundup: Historians' Take

Victor Davis Hanson, in the WSJ (May 3, 2004):

Pictures of American military police humiliating and, in some cases, allegedly torturing Iraqi prisoners in Saddam's old Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad now flash across the world. "The Shame!," Egyptian papers blare out at the sight of a pyramid of contorted naked males amid a smiling female GI. Various human-rights organizations in the Arab World, we are told, are about to condemn formally such barbarism.

Good. These seemingly inhuman acts are indeed serious stuff. They also raise a host of dilemmas for the U.S. -- from the pragmatic to the idealistic. We must insist on a higher standard of human behavior than embraced by either Saddam Hussein or his various fascist and Islamicist successors. As emissaries of human rights, how can we allow a few miscreants to treat detainees indecently -- without earning the wages of hypocrisy from both professed allies and enemies who enjoy our embarrassment? In defense, it won't do for us just to point to our enemies and shrug, "They do it all the time."

The guards' alleged crimes are not only repugnant but stupid as well. At a time when it is critical to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, a few renegade corrections officers have endangered the lives of thousands of their fellow soldiers in the field. Marines around Fallujah take enormous risks precisely because they do not employ the tactics of the fedayeen, who fire from minarets and use civilians as human shields.

Yet without minimizing the seriousness of these apparent transgressions, we need to take a breath, get a grip, and put the sordid incident in some perspective beyond its initial 24-hour news cycle.

• First, investigations are not yet completed. Lurid pictures, hearsay and leaked accounts to the New Yorker magazine are not yet proof of torture, either systematic, brutal, or habitual.

• Second, already the self-correcting mechanisms of the U.S. government and the American free press are in full throttle. Responsible parties, from Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt to President Bush himself, have condemned the accused guards and promised swift punishment when and if they are found guilty.

The number of accused is apparently small. Six soldiers are facing court-martial. Their superior, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, along with seven others, have been suspended from their duties. Although all are innocent until convicted by a military court, the media, government, and officer corps by their initial public pronouncements have apparently erred on the side of the soldiers' guilt. But these are defendants whose military tribunals will not be as sensitive to pretrial prejudice as their civilian judicial counterparts.

• Third, we must keep the allegations in some sort of historical context. Even at their worst, these disturbing incidents are not comparable to past atrocities such as the June 1943 killing of prisoners in Sicily, the machine-gunning of civilians at the No Gun Ri railway bridge in Korea, or My Lai. Beatings and rumors of sexual sadism, horrific as they appear, are not on a par with executions that have transpired throughout all dirty wars -- such as the simultaneous reports that Macedonians are now accused of murdering Pakistanis -- but so far have not been attributed to Americans on either the Afghan or the Iraqi battlefield.

American soldiers are not ethnically cleansing Palestinians from Kuwait or executing Kurdish civilians, crimes that in the past went largely unnoticed in the Middle East. So far the alleged grotesqueries are more analogous to the nightmares that occur occasionally at American prisons, when rogue and jaded guards freelance to intimidate and humiliate inmates. The crime, then, first appears not so much a product of endemic ethnic, racial, or religious hatred, as the unfortunate cargo of penal institutions, albeit exacerbated by the conditions of war, the world over.

• Fourth, there is an asymmetry about the coverage of the incident, an imbalance and double standard that have been predictable throughout this entire brutal war.

The Arab world -- where the mass-murdering Osama bin Laden is often canonized -- is shocked by a pyramid of nude bodies and faux-electric prods, but has so far expressed less collective outrage in its media when the charred corpses of four Americans were poked and dismembered by cheering crowds in Fallujah. The taped murder of Daniel Pearl or a video of the hooded Italian who had his brains blown out -- this is the daily fare that emanates now from the television studios of the Middle East.

Indeed, if Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera could display the same umbrage over mass murder that they do over these recent accounts of shame and humiliation of the detained Iraqis, much of the gratuitous violence of the Middle East would surely diminish. The papers that now allege war crimes are the same state-controlled and censored media that print gleeful accounts of death and desecration of Westerners and promulgate an institutionalized anti-Semitism not seen since the Third Reich....

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More Comments:

Lisa Kazmier - 3/11/2005

Do you not think of "apologia" as "defending" versus "I'm sorry" as "apology." I meant the former, as in an "excuse."

Gary Ostrower - 5/8/2004

Perhaps only in our over-politicized and politically correct world is Hanson's piece going to viewed as an "apologia." A careful reading makes it clear that Hanson offers nothing close to an apology. Still, the fact that Hanson is right to offer needed perspective is less important than the fact that Abu Ghraib is a political My Lai. The U.S. has lost the moral high ground (I know, I know, some folks believe that the U.S. never held that high ground) and it isn't going to regain it in Iraq. Game over.

Lisa Kazmier - 5/8/2004

With the Red Cross speaking out about patterns of abuse, the story of "following orders" from one soldier's family and Rumsfeld's patent dismissal of the Geneva Convention and refusal to be interested enough in the issue to read an internal report (the former creating its absence in prisons such as Abu Ghraib) I wonder if this author is as much of the apologist urging "perspective" as he was when he wrote this...