Weren't those pictures of abused Iraqi prisoners unspeakably obscene?

Looking at them, your stomach turned, didn't it? You wanted to turn the page, change the channel, leave the room, take a walk.

By contrast, the other recent batch of controversial pictures - caskets nestled in cargo bays - were unspeakably sad. Your gaze lingered. You felt a mixture of pride and sorrow, I'll bet.

Flags draping the coffins lent patriotic order to these somber scenes-perhaps belying the suffering that preceded the journey and the intense grief ahead of the dead soldiers' families. But those pristine images made us pause to think about sacrifice. For most of us, thank goodness, pictures like these are as close as we'll get to combat. Perhaps as you looked, you said a prayer for the dead and survivors alike. But you turned the page. Life goes on.

Last week, the nation's pundits argued about whether it was appropriate to show the coffins, and whether it was right for Ted Koppel to read a list of the names of fallen soldiers and Marines on "Nightline." Critics said that both these tributes comforted our enemies.

The controversy about the caskets and the names of the people they hold vanished into insignificance after the photos of Abu Ghraib came into view. The sordid prison shots will haunt us far longer than the earlier images, and will cause us far more trouble in the world.

The terrible prison scenes are like the imaginings of Hell by Hieronymous Bosch. A young woman, smiling at the camera, cigarette dangling from her lips, points lewdly as a naked prisoner fondles himself. A hooded prisoner, his fingers wired, teeters on a small box: apparently, he's about to be shocked. In a third, naked men spill atop one another, their positions suggesting a mad, repulsive orgy.

One can imagine the Gestapo hatching such sadism, but Americans? G.I.s commanded by General Janis Karpinksi? Until this mess, she seemed an able leader of our diverse, all-volunteer Army.

But before pointing fingers, we need to remember other images.

We were attacked on September 11th. Our current war started with terrible televised images of the Twin Towers collapsing, the Pentagon smoldering, and wreckage in Pennsylvania. We have good reason to seek vengeful justice. We're at war with terrorism. It's a legitimate war, one of aggressive defense. That's not a contradiction. It's a sound strategy.

We're fighting religious extremists who distort the word of God to their twisted, violent ends.

We had reasons for taking the fight to Saddam's Iraq, including freeing the Iraqi people from the tyranny of a cruel regime - but these reasons don't seem as noble today as they did last year. In looking at our own barbarities, perpetrated in the same prison where Saddam's henchmen did their dirty work, it isn't sufficient to argue that the scale of the horror we've inflicted is infinitesimal compared to Saddam's. No more than 30 Iraqis may have died in prisons at our hands, but hundreds of thousands died at Saddam's hands. Okay. Fine.

That's not good enough. It's not our military strength that will prevail over terrorists, but our moral authority-authority that seems to be waning with every passing day. In previous wars, we didn't systematically maltreat even our most bitter enemies (like the Nazis, the Japanese, or the Viet Cong) after we captured them. I asked my friend Frank McClellan, a retired 38-year professional soldier and combat veteran of Korea and Vietnam whether he'd witnessed similar prisoner mistreatment. "No," he said emphatically. "I told my men that anyone who messed with a POW was going to spend a long time in Leavenworth. If they thought the infantry was bad, a couple of years in a military prison would make them miss getting shot at."

We can assume that plenty of solid career soldiers like Frank are still serving today. Our military is better than it was when Frank and I were grunts in Vietnam.

So what went wrong? Who's to blame? The military itself? The dehumanizing war-making system? A handful of cretins?

It's the army's job to investigate the perverts who perpetrated these revolting deeds, and their superiors. The rest of us should look further. I personally blame others, the people who indulge in messianic, self-righteous thinking at the highest levels of command. We need more humility in Washington and across the Potomac at the Pentagon.

I blame the American public. The worst thing we've done to our troops is ignore them, pretending our SUVs and quest for lower gas prices have nothing to do with their sacrifices. We assume that armor and bullets and high-tech weaponry are all they need to prevail.

Don't misinterpret: I don't urge less resolution on our part. I think we need to beef up our military presence now that we're committed, strengthen our forces, and reconvene the draft. We need to democratize the war, even if it means upsetting a lot of coddled, comfortable, well-off American kids and their loving parents.

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