By now, most of you have seen the horrifying pictures of Iraqi prisoners beingabused and ridiculed by U.S. and British soldiers. Because the bulk of my work with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Iraq has focused on Iraqi detainees, I wanted to share some personal experiences and reflections about this.
Looking at these degrading pictures, the question in the hearts of most Americans is,- "How could young American men and women do such horrible things?" The gut response is "it must be an aberration. A few bad people." President Bush said as much when he stated that only a "few people" were to blame. (Reuters, May 2). He felt a "deep disgust" for the way the prisoners were treated, and asserted "That's not the way we do things in America" (CNN April 30).
Brigadier General Mark Kimmett was even more forceful: "No. 1, this is a small minority of the military, and No. 2, they need to understand that is not the Army," said Kimmitt. "The Army is a values-based organization. We live by our values. Some of our soldiers every day die by our values, and these acts that you see in these pictures may reflect the actions of individuals, but by God, it doesn't reflect my army" (60 Minutes II, interview with Dan Rather).
It is true that there ARE countless honorable soldiers who work in the militaryprisons in Iraq. One female officer in particular at Bucca prison camp in Um Qasr showed great compassion when CPT members talked with her about their concerns for a number of prisoners held without charge. This officer personally intervened on behalf of an innocent prisoner who tried to commit suicide because of his deep despair. Many Iraqis who tell us stories of degrading abuse also comment on the "noble soldiers" who protested such abuse and treated them with respect.
However, the sheer number of allegations of mistreatment, many of which I have heard personally, suggests that the problem is not just a matter of a few "bad people." The problem is very broad. CPT has been documenting abuses within the detention system for nearly a year, and these photos, tragically, were not a surprise to me.For months now, we have communicated grave concerns about the detention system in several meetings with U.S. military and Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) officials in Iraq, and with representatives in Congress.
Does this mean that most soldiers are sadistic abusers, whose crimes equal those of Saddam? No, of course not. Every case I heard about abuse also included testimony about good and honorable soldiers. Dr. Ali, a professor at Baghdad University, was held without charges for 38 days last winter. Before taking him to prison, soldiers kept him in the Green Zone in a cage meant for animals, under the open sky, for three days and nights. But when he was at the airport prison, his guard befriended him and said, "I hope you will be freed."
Other firsthand allegations of abuse I have heard: a man from Baquba told me "when the troops arrived last April, I was so overjoyed, I greeted them with flowers. But in August they imprisoned me." He said that he had his hands cuffed behind his back for 14 hours at a stretch, and also suffered water deprivation and beatings. His 15-year-old son was taken as well. Both were eventually released without charges. Another young man described how his elderly father suffocated and died of a heart attack as they both lay hooded and handcuffed in the back of a military vehicle. Still another young man brought us a hood with the slur "Wrongo Dongo Captain Stupid" written on it.
Again, does this mean that the soldiers are sadistic, "bad people?" No. But thisis what is so disturbing about the abuse: it is perpetrated by GOOD young men and women who have somehow become dehumanized enough, by training, combat stress, and neglect, to do these things. Therefore, the surface answer "this is just a few people" does not suffice. We need to look deeper, to ask, "How did this happen?" and "How can we prevent it from happening again?"