By now, most of you have seen the horrifying pictures of Iraqi prisoners being abused 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 military prisons 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 this is 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?"
When I witness the experience of the soldiers in Iraq, I see several sources for the patterns of abuse. First, consider the incredible stress of warfare. Soldiers are constantly under attack by any number of armed groups. I have some post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms simply from being near bombs and gunfire, but the soldiers are actually sitting in the tanks and humvees that might be bombed at any time by various militia groups.
I have experienced mortars flying over the van as I rode along the highway, but the mortars actually landed near the watchtower manned by soldiers. To feel a constant threat to one's life, coupled with the psychological stress of being separated from home and family, is devastating. One soldier said to a CPTer, "I work 12 hours a day, seven days a week [at Abu Ghraib prison]. I can't take this anymore."
The fact that so many soldiers do manage to maintain great integrity and courage under such stress is a testament to the inherent goodness of the people in the armed services. However, the stress of warfare creates conditions that lead too many soldiers to express their anger, fear, and frustration with abusive behavior.
The military ideology that separates the world into "good guys" and "bad guys" (I constantly hear this language) sees all security detainees as potential "bad guys." If a soldier who has watched his or her friends die and who feels threatened all the time must take out his or her anger on someone, it is all too easy to abuse the "bad guy" nearest at hand, although that "bad guy" might very well be a 15-year-old boy scooped up in a house raid because his uncle was a suspected Baathist.
Many of the routine orders in Iraq involve behavior that many American people would consider abusive. For example, consider the following basic facts about the detention system in Iraq. A CPA official with whom I communicate regularly said that more than 35,000 Iraqis have been detained in the past year. More than 10,000 are still in prison. Under the 4th Geneva Convention, an occupying power can imprison "security detainees" without charge and without trial, indefinitely. All that is required is that the occupying power review each case every six months.
The methods of detention chosen by senior military officers systematically cause great suffering for thousands of Iraqis. By their own admission, military officials have chosen to cast a wide net when hunting for insurgents. A CPA official said to a CPT colleague: "There are thousands of Iraqis in prison who should be at home right now."
In order to capture one suspect, the Coalition forces arrest all of the male members of a household, during chaotic midnight raids that terrify entire families and sometimes end in the injury or death of women and children. I and other CPT colleagues documented a case in which Coalition forces arrested 83 out of 85 men and boys in the village of Abu Sifa, leaving the women and children to maintain all of the farming and other heavy work for months. Once the men are in detention, families find it extremely difficult to secure information about them, and do not know if they are alive or dead. The waiting period for visits can be up to five months. Many women and children who rely on the male breadwinner become homeless while he languishes in jail. Thousands of such detainees have eventually been released, without ever finding out what was the reason for their arrest.
There are many Iraqis who are guilty of terrible violence: one only has to watch the daily news to hear of regular, lethal attacks on young soldiers. But the methods used to capture, imprison, and interrogate such Iraqis is so violent that the Coalition only creates more resisters.
And the devastation to Iraqis is only part of the suffering. What about the psychological and spiritual devastation to the soldiers who witness and perpetrate acts of violence upon Iraqi detainees? Who will care for these soldiers when they come home? Who will change the military system so that this does not happen again?
Please do not settle for the answers of Brig. General Mark Kimmett. He is right when he says that thousands of soldiers live by high values, and countless soldiers serve with great courage and honor. But the number of soldiers who are becoming dehumanized by a system based on violent force is not negligible. We are all responsible for them. We are all responsible for these actions. And so we must all be part of the healing.