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“Well, the oriental doesn’t place the same high price on life as does the westerner.” General William Westmoreland, from the documentary Hearts & Minds
As we watched the tortured testimony of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld before congressional committees, the more discerning of us saw the underlying truth: Despite a show of contrition, the secretary’s true outrage was not that such depraved acts were committed by our troops (and their contracted surrogates) but that the photographs were made public. If the visual evidence had not been captured in the media mainstream, there would have been no apologies. We would have heard no more than the tired cliché “a few bad apples.”
When the truth is finally and fully exposed, it will record Rumsfeld’s claim that he only understood the gravity of the crime when he saw the pictures as one more in a long line of executive lies. I defy the least talented writer among us to describe what happened at Abu Ghraib in any way that would not sicken the heart and stir the indignation of any decent human being. If Donald Rumsfeld saw the reports and did nothing, it is because he silently condoned the actions as within the boundaries of a new standard for the treatment of prisoners in the age of terror.
What of the president – the man who has proclaimed himself a War President? What of this Commander-in-Chief? If indeed there was and is a new code of conduct, operating under a military veil of secrecy, in open defiance of the Geneva Conventions, and this president did not know, then he is no longer Commander-in-Chief. He is a figurehead. He is a glorified front man but he is not the Commander. If, however, he is the strong, engaged president that Bob Woodward portrayed, then he knew and, at the very least, did not disapprove. To suggest that the treatment of prisoners and the limits of interrogation was never the topic of a policy discussion in the Oval Office is to suggest that the president was out of the loop. It not only strains credibility, it obliterates it.
The Secretary of Defense has bravely taken upon himself the burden of accountability while denying its logical consequence. The president has managed to express contrition without (once again) admitting fault or accepting responsibility. The president is wrong. I listened carefully to his straightforward apology. He said, “I view these acts as apporent (sic).” We assume that he meant “abhorrent” but I had to wonder if he had (once again) invented a word that revealed the truth. If the president’s new word had its root in “apportion” then he believes that these acts should be handed out proportionately – perhaps to the Iranians, the Syrians and Haitians as well as Iraqis.
The president is wrong. There is enough shame in these despicable acts to be handed out to all of us. We were warned. The administration told us they did not believe the Geneva Conventions applied to terrorists. They have shown nothing but contempt for international law and international institutions. They have targeted journalists and civilian infrastructures. They have punished a city and all its inhabitants for the crimes of a few. Americans can now begin to understand why this administration and its predecessor refused to sanction the International Court of Justice – an institution charged with prosecuting war crimes and the perpetrators of genocide when the offending nation is incapable of bringing justice to its own.
We will now see if our nation is capable of obtaining justice for these atrocities. If we observe nothing beyond criminal prosecutions at the lowest level and reprimands up the chain of command, it is doubtful that either the victims or the Iraqi people will feel vindicated. What we can be sure of is that it would not have gotten this far if those pictures had not found their way to the public domain.
Ultimately, this sordid and shameful affair should surprise no one. America has a long history of training terrorists in effective interrogation techniques (see the School of the Americas). It only adds to a portrait of gross incompetence that envelops this White House. It only adds to the self-righteous and self-aggrandizing nature of the religious zealots who inhabit it. Will the president consult the father of fathers in this matter and will the Almighty console him: all is forgiven in the cause of righteousness?
Our real enemies (not the citizens of Iraq but the terrorists of Al Qaeda) could not have orchestrated an environment more favorable to their cause. Our forces are spread thin and divided on two fronts with allied support eroding daily. We have fully allied ourselves with war criminal Ariel Sharon and silently sanctioned political assassinations and the apartheid wall. Now, we have displayed before the eyes of all nations the kind of behavior that can only be made possible by institutional dehumanization.
I am reminded of General Westmoreland’s comment in regard to Vietnam: “Well, the oriental doesn’t place the same high price on life as does the westerner.” He was rationalizing the death of literally millions of Vietnamese. The underlying truth was clear: Americans (or at least American generals) do not count enemy dead. To the soldiers serving under their command, the enemy is something less than human. How else can you continue to fight a war such as Nam?
Is this the reason we do not count Iraqi dead?
Hatred for America has never been greater.
Are we safer now, Mr. President?
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