David L. Perry is Professor of Ethics at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. We interviewed him recently on the events at Abu Ghraib.

What do you know about the events at Abu Ghraib?
The concerns about treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib are now the subject of criminal investigations, and so it's not appropriate to comment on any specific charges against individual officers, NCOs or soldiers. I have not seen the classified report written by Major General Antonio Taguba, though I've read Seymour Hersh's article in The New Yorker, which apparently summarizes its findings. Second, none of my views should be construed necessarily to reflect those of the U.S. Government.

That said, I completely understand and sympathize with the sense of moral revulsion and outrage expressed across the world in reaction to the photos of prisoners apparently being humiliated by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib, as well as the associated reports of beatings, deprivation of food and toilets, threats of rape against them and their families.

There is a whole body of codes and conventions governing wartime morality. Where do they come from?
The current international laws of armed conflict are the product of well over a century of agreements between nations that seek to identify and uphold a set of clearly defined rights of civilians, war refugees, captured soldiers, and wounded soldiers. The Hague and Geneva conventions also form much of the content of the U.S. Army's code of conduct, Field Manual 27-10, "The Law of Land Warfare."

What relationship do these have to religious morality?
Those conventions are also rooted in ancient traditions of chivalry and humanitarian treatment of noncombatants that can be found in many different cultures and religious traditions.

To be sure, cultural and religious biases haven't always reinforced these principles. Various religious communities have sometimes labeled others as idolatrous, or subhuman to rationalize indiscriminate tactics, even wars of annihilation, have been rationalized. It took the global community a long time to reach the consensus that unarmed civilians and incapacitated soldiers may not be killed, raped, enslaved, tortured, humiliated, et cetera. It's vital that we not allow ourselves to slip backwards.

How does that ideal fare in real situations?
Unfortunately, the ideal does not always fare well. It's not enough for soldiers to receive briefings on the laws of war; they also need to be trained thoroughly to make the right decisions in all sorts of situations; and their commanders must lead them in ways that convey clearly the importance of upholding high standards of conduct.

Are we doing better or worse nowadays in this regard?
I think our military is doing all of those things much better now than during the Vietnam War, say. But we can never take these things for granted, even, or especially, when the enemy does not uphold the rules of war, or hides among the civilian population. We can understand how soldiers who've seen their comrades wounded or killed by shadowy adversaries could begin to blur the distinction between combatant and noncombatant, or to allow their rage to get the better of their judgment, though understanding such tendencies doesn't excuse them.

How has the war on terror changed our views on torture?
Our officers and soldiers in Iraq also seek to prevent further casualties among U.S. personnel or innocent Iraqis by interrogating people suspected of being insurgents or terrorists. We are a signatory to an important international convention against torture, but in practice there is a fine line between intense interrogation methods and torture--one that our domestic police also face in questioning criminal suspects.

Recently, both our government and citizens seem to be willing to allow our military and CIA to push that envelope to avoid another 9/11. But then we're horrified when we read what some of our soldiers have apparently done in our name.

So we haven't clearly determined as a nation which kinds of interrogation tactics are acceptable and which are not. On the other hand, as some of our officers and soldiers have said in reaction to the Abu Ghraib photos, our people shouldn't need a training session or a specific command to know that some ways of treating prisoners are clearly immoral and illegal. They also should've surmised that abusive treatment of prisoners would undermine the legitimacy of our occupation of Iraq and embolden the violent opposition.

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