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0505.US Brutilitarianism Comes to Iraq
Part I: Rogue Behavior, Sheer Stupidity, or Something More?
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4510. Iraq: From a Strategic Standpoint, We've Already Lost
Strategic Anomalies, Denial, Redoubling, and the Case for Withdrawing Now

Sunday, May 09, 2004

04509.US Brutilitarianism Comes to Iraq
Part II: The Roots of Brutality

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"No country has better motives for all the damage that it does."
--Graham Greene, 1956
“There were three types of guards. First, there were tough but fair guards who followed prison rules. Second, there were "good guys" who did little favors for the prisoners and never punished them. And finally, about a third of the guards were hostile, arbitrary, and inventive in their forms of prisoner humiliation. These guards appeared to thoroughly enjoy the power they wielded, yet none of our preliminary personality tests were able to predict this behavior.”
--Stanford Prison Experiment, 1971
“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds. ...We have learned the art of equivocation and pretense. Experience has made us suspicious of others And kept us from being truthful and open. Are we still of any use?”
-- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian and anti-fascist, 1937
“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
-- Thomas Jefferson

In the midst of all the hoopla and finger-pointing over Secretary Rumsfeld’s apology for the Iraqi prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, we seem to have avoided getting to the bottom of the fundamental question begged by all those ugly photos: why did it happen?

In other words, how could young American soldiers, raised in a nominally democratic, civilized “Judeo-Christian” society, and members of the world's most advanced military, which has no business being in Iraq if not to “liberate” it from precisely this kind of oppression, come to act in this way?

From this angle, whether or not Rumsfeld or a few military commanders resign is beside the point – a juicy chance for Senator Kerry and his supporters to make political hay, perhaps, but largely irrelevant to our understanding of these disturbing events and the prevention of their recurrence.

This is especially true if, as we will argue here, they may have been part and parcel of the very nature of this ethnically-divisive dirty little urban guerilla war.


At this point, the official US investigation, as well as press accounts, of the recent abuses at Abu Ghraib prison are incomplete. Already, however, there are several conflicting explanations.

“Exceptional Evil-Doers.” As noted in Part I of this series, the prevailing view of US officials is the “bad apple” theory -- in President Bush's words, "the wrongdoing of a few." This explanation -- which has deep roots in American culture, dating as least as far back as the Salem Witch trials, and is also at the heart of our conventional view of "terrorists" -- attributes the problem to brutal, distinctly “un-American” misbehavior by handful of “bad” people. In this view, this tiny group is clearly distinct from the vast majority of decent, Geneva Convention-abiding US military personnel. This explanation has been adopted by a wide variety of political and military leaders, from President Bush, Secretary Rumsfeld, and General Myers to Senators MeCain, Kerry, and Clinton. It also appears to be the predominant view in the mainstream press, perhaps because it lends itself to the kind of lengthy profiles of soldiers that, for example, the New York Times and the Washington Post have both front-paged several times this week. It is also necessarily more comforting to supporters of the Iraq War -- including all the leaders and newspapers just mentioned -- who view this scandal as an embarrassing, unhelpful distraction from the immediate task at hand, which is to get on with "stabilizing" the security situation in Iraq (e.g., crushing the resistance).

This kind of explanation is a standard one for individual criminal conduct in general. Typically it locates the roots of abusive behavior in the supposed predispositions of particular abusers to commit them. The contributing dispositive factors may vary -- pathological or "authoritarian" personalities, genetic defects, retributions for perceived injustices, inadequate schooling, too much TV, weak role models, or Salem witchery, for all we know. Whatever these underlying, the indicated prescription focuses on identifying and and handling these “bad seeds,” and in this case, any individual commanders who may have also “failed” to supervise them.

(to be continued....)

May 9, 2004 at 02:55 PM | Permalink


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04509.US Brutilitarianism Comes to Iraq
Part II: The Roots of Brutality


Remarkable writing. To the point, clear-- important!
Thanks. Am forwarding this material to many.

Have gotten very very positive feedback from Canadians with whom I ahve shared your book. Many have worked in Central and South America and know the characters well. Kudos.( I have been working in Canada recently)

Posted by: L MCINTYRE at May 8, 2004 7:57:18 PM

The "bad apple" excuse was pretty improbable from the start, just on the prima facie evidence of the pictures. General Taguba's report confirms this impression. These acts are not the sick fantasies of uneducated Middle Westerners suddenly given power; they are precisely focussed on the vulnerabilities of men from a culture of whose inner workings few American soldiers would have had any knowledge.
Some of the techniques are general: lack of sleep, fear and uncertainty. Keeping prisoners naked is a basic tactic in breaking them down; forcing naked men to mime sexual acts in public is humiliating. The pictures show much more subtle intent. To do these things in front of jeering women is to a Muslim devastating, women being inferior and always subject to a man's will; to be forced to crawl naked on the floor wearing a dog leash held by a laughing woman is even more so, the dog being an unclean beast. Think of what could be done to an Orthodox Jew or high-caste Hindu, given their complex belief systems and rituals, and you will have some idea what these acts were aimed to achieve.
I believe that the pictures show a programme of acts targeted on the sensibilities of Muslim men with the intention of breaking down their identities in preparation for questioning. The word from Iraq is that some pictures were kept on display in the prison, presumably to show prisoners what they were in for.
Such acts were designed by people who know enough to target the vulnerabilities of the culture - presumably the MI specialists and contractors and almost certainly not the ignorant US soldiers in the pictures. (They cannot deny their responsibility for that at least.) Yet it is the dumb soldiers who are going to be made responsible if Bush and Rumsfeld have their way. What price American justice? We shall see. Oddly enough, I am optimistic although I think the Bushies have shown a sneering contempt for the safeguards of America's magnificent Constitution.

Joe Roeber

Posted by: Joe Roeber at May 10, 2004 11:47:03 AM