When I first saw the now-infamous pictures of our soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners of war at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, my initial reaction was downright Churchillian: "Never, in the field of human conflict, was so much good carried out by so many, negated by so few." However, the more I thought about it, the more I decided that an anonymous Pentagon official had a better description of them: "You mean the six morons who lost the war?"
It is now obvious to most people that there have been serious crimes committed by some of our military personnel in Iraq. It is also obvious that these despicable acts have brought shame to the nation. They have also brought shame to the tens of thousands of brave men and women who are risking their lives on the front line every day in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There's no getting around it, this is a public disaster of nightmarish proportions. President Bush has issued a public apology to Jordan's King Abdullah. There are already calls for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to resign. Equally disturbing is the follow-up story that the military was already investigating prisoner murders at other installations. There are also allegations that some members of the military tried to conceal their crimes, though the scope of any cover-ups is currently unknown.
Sadly, the torture pictures also are completely overshadowing the more positive news coming from Iraq. Yesterday some of Iraq's most influential Shiite leaders at last publicly condemned the insurgency of renegade cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. They demanded that Sadr renounce violence, stop turning local mosques into ammo depots, and withdraw his militias from the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.
While the Shiite leaders' actions will certainly help us in the long run, in the short term we will still have to endure the shrill voices of indignation coming from the Arab press. Ironically, if this were Egypt, Syria, or pretty much any other Middle Eastern country, there's little doubt that the prison guards would not have been punished. If this were Saddam's Iraq, they probably would have probably gotten a promotion and a nice bonus. In fact, considering the rampant human rights abuses throughout the region, one might say the Arab press doth protest too much.
Abu Ghraib may have been an isolated incident or it may be part of a widespread problem in our coalition forces. However, I seriously doubt the problem is with the military. Everyone in the Army seems to be both repulsed by what happened and resolved that justice will be done. In fact, it was the Army's own investigators who actually uncovered the abuses. As a friend of mine at West Point wrote, "Do not lose faith in your Army and your military. There is not a single cadet or officer here at West Point who condoned the events in Abu Ghraib."
A nation's greatness is revealed not just in its triumphs but in its tragedies as well. The immediate demand by most Americans that the guilty be punishedrather than excuse the soldiers using a double standardis surely a greater confirmation of what America is than the crimes committed at Abu Ghraib. In 1975, the Soviets were positively shocked that Richard Nixon was forced to resign over Watergate. Despite our massive arsenal or robust economy, what truly floored them was how we hold everyone equal before the law and never hesitate to punish our own.
Tragically, even a state like ours cannot escape the inevitable bad apples produced by human nature. For all of our great achievements, saving the world from fascism and Communism, there are the inevitable My Lai's and Wounded Knee's. However, despite these sins, we still remain a beacon of hope and liberty to the world.
No one can predict what effect this sordid incident will have on American-Iraqi relations. But consider Hayder Sabbar Abd, interviewed in a May 5 New York Times article. Sabbar Abd was one of the prisoners tortured at Abu Ghraib, and he recounted his ordeal to the Times in nauseating detail. Though he feels ashamed and believes the United States should compensate him for what happened, he added that "he would not refuse an offer to move to America."
As the Wall Street Journal observed, "That says it all, doesn't it?"