May 3, 2004
CBS News recently exposed the torture of hundreds of Iraqi civilians by U.S. Army soldiers. Ironically this took place at Abu Ghraib, a prison where thousands were tortured when Saddam Hussein was in power. This notorious prison now houses thousands of prisoners again, including women and teenagers, many of them civilians picked up in random military sweeps and at highway checkpoints.
During a segment of the program "60 Minutes II", pictures taken by an unnamed U.S. soldier or soldiers showed nude Iraqi prisoners stacked in human pyramids and forced to perform sex acts, while their U.S. Army guards – both male and female – stood by smiling, laughing, pointing and giving the thumbs up sign. Other pictures showed a prisoner forced to stand on a small box with a hood over his head and electrical wires attached to him that he had been told would be used to electrocute him if he fell off the box. A photograph was described showing a prisoner with electrical wires attached to his genitals; another showing a prisoner being attacked by a dog. A 15-year-old male prisoner was reportedly raped by an interrogator.
An article by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker provides further grisly details. According to an internal Army report written last February, the abuses included beatings, pouring cold water and chemicals on naked detainees, sodomizing detainees with chemical lights and broom sticks, allowing a military guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was slammed against the wall. There were also pictures of two dead men whose bodies showed signs of torture.
The Army says its investigation of abuse started in January when a soldier came forward with evidence, including photographs. In March, the Army brought charges against six enlisted men who had served as guards at the prison. Now the Army says that 17 soldiers have been implicated in the abuse at Abu Ghraib.
Why did the investigation stop with the rank and file soldiers? The abuse of prisoners was clearly widespread, and knowledge and responsibility of it certainly reached up the ranks. Witnesses testifying at the hearings of one of the accused soldiers said that the soldiers participating in the abuse acted as if it were routine, business as usual. The accused themselves also testified that they acted under orders by their officers. In fact, that's what the photographs also seem to suggest – that these soldiers did not think they had anything to hide. The soldiers said that they were instructed to abuse and torture the prisoners to "loosen them up" for later interrogation by higher-ups. Often, these higher-ups were members of other agencies such as Military Intelligence, the CIA, as well as so-called "private military contractors" – that is, mercenaries especially recruited for the work.
After the mushrooming publicity in recent days, senior military and government officials, including President Bush, felt compelled to make statements to the effect that these were the actions of a few, and that those responsible would be punished. And yet, despite all the evidence, no higher-ranked officers have been charged so far. Some have simply been transferred to other assignments. In fact, the Bush administration and top military brass have shown exactly how they intend to deal with the situation by whom they chose as the new head of the prison system in Iraq: the former head of the Guantanamo prison. The same Guantanamo which is nothing but a concentration camp for the prisoners from the war in Afghanistan – prisoners who have been held there for two years now, isolated from the rest of the world, without being allowed to contact an attorney or anyone else.
If the horror of the prisons in Iraq poses a problem for the Bush administration and the U.S. military, it's because there is now too much publicity about it, not because they disapprove of it. For the abuse of Iraqi civilian prisoners is simply built into the situation: to occupy another country against the will of the population turns the occupying army into torturers, terrorists and worse. And they are doing it under orders – orders coming all the way from the top levels of the chain of command.