Tim Furnish: Why I Am Appalled by Abu Ghraib

Roundup: Historians' Take

Tim Furnish, Assistant Professor of World History, Georgia Perimeter College (Dunwoody), in a special piece for HNN:

As a former 101st Airborne Arabic interrogator, I am appalled by the photos of abused Iraqi prisoners. As a conservative, I am disgusted by Republicans who dismiss the mistreatment as just desserts for "thugs." And as an American, I am revolted by liberals who are exploiting this rare lapse in military discipline to go after the U.S. military and the Bush Administration.

There is still more heat than light being produced by the debate over what happened at the Abu Ghraib POW camp. There are no indications anyone was actually tortured, which is defined as "inflicting excruciating or intense pain." That said, what was inflicted upon the Iraqis there violates section 89 of the Army's Law of Land Warfare (drawn from the Geneva Conventions): "Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated [and] protected...against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiousity." And while some at Abu Ghraib may not actually qualify as POWs but "detainees"--by virtue of their having engaged in acts of sabotage or irregular warfare against American forces--they "shall nevertheless be treated with humanity..." (section 248). Being slapped and beaten--or, perhaps worse for Arab Muslims, forced to lie naked on top of fellow detainees--hardly qualifies as humane treatment, even if it is not torture.

So far the breakdown that allowed this to happens seems the result of bad planning in a war zone, rather than--as some on the Left would have it--a policy of intentional oppression of Muslims dreamed up in Crawford, Texas. Normally a U.S. Army POW camp is administered by an active duty military police (MP) unit, which is responsible for housing, administering and feeding the POWs. MPs do NOT interrogate prisoners. That job is supposed to be done only by trained linguists/interrogators, a totally separate military occupational speciality. That the reservist MPs were not sufficiently trained, as alleged, is unforgivable; that they were being ordered to abuse POWs by interrogators who WERE trained, and should have known better, would be revolting.

But MPs and interrogators were not the only players here. The CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and probably the National Security Agency would have wanted a piece of the action, as well, and they seem to have farmed out much of the work to private contractors. Reports indicate it may have been these civilians who instructed young, ill-trained MPs to harass and intimidate prisoners, in an effort to help crush the lingering resistance in Iraq and get wind of any planned terrorist strikes on America.

Nonetheless, the U.S. Army was running Abu Ghraib, and so SOMEONE in the Army chain of command was responsible. Is Brigadier General Janis Kapinski, the former prison commander, just a scapegoat as she alleges, or truly at fault?. We shall see whether this scandal will cost Defense Secretary Rumsfeld his job, but certainly someone else shares blame in-between the privates and sergeants in the pictures and the top brass.

One other question that needs answering is: why were women MPs allowed to interact with Arab Muslim POWs at all--much less lord it over them with dog leashes? That culture is quite patriarchal, and if only for utilitarian intelligence-gathering purposes it's folly to allow such cultural oafishness. Still, contrast the American indignation over this with the calls by Muqtada al-Sadr's deputy for his militiamen to keep captured female British soldiers as slaves. How long will we wait for an imam to condemn that?

The U.S. military should show no mercy to enemy combatants during hostilites. But once its enemies have been defeated and incarcerated, it should treat them magnanimously--and in fact might well heed the Qur'an:

When you encounter the unbelievers, strike off their heads till you have made a great slaughter among them; of the rest make fast the bonds. And afterwards let there be freeing or ransoming, till the war is over. (Sura Muhammad [XLVII]: 4, 5).

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Timothy Furnish - 5/12/2004

I wrote this piece before the brutal decapitation of Mr. Berg--please keep in mind.
Tim Furnish