Abuse – Certainly; But Torture?
By John D. Turner
12 May 2004

Torturenoun. 1. the act of inflicting excruciating pain, esp. as a means of punishment or coercion. 2. a method of inflicting such pain. 3. Often, tortures, the pain or suffering caused or undergone. 4. extreme anguish of body or mind; agony. 5. a cause of severe pain or anguish. 6. to afflict with severe pain of body or mind.

The pictures coming out of Iraq of laughing military members standing by piles of naked Iraqi prisoners are disturbing. They indicate a breakdown in military discipline, and a disregard for the rights of prisoners under the Geneva Conventions, to which we are a signature. But are they “torture”? I think not.

Mutilation or cutting off of body parts – that’s torture. Locking someone in an Iron Maiden, or forcing them to watch their wives and daughters gang-raped then murdered, that’s torture. Feeding people feet first into a plastic shreadder or feeding them to hungry wild animals - that could be considered a kind of torture, albeit short lived, as death is usually a fairly quick result. All the above are tortures perpetrated on Iraqis by the former Saddam Hussain regime. The events documented in the photos of U.S. prison guards, while humiliating, fall far short of these.

Does that make their actions OK then? No, it doesn’t.

The Geneva Convention is a lengthy document that covers all aspects of armed conflict and the treatment of prisoners of war. Under Article 3 section 1a, the following is prohibited: “Violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture”. Section 1c prohibits “Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment”. Claims were made by the perpetrators that they hadn’t been trained in proper treatment of prisoners, that despite asking for regulations on how to treat prisoners they were not provided, and that they were ignorant of their requirements under the Geneva Convention. If you want to read the entire document, click on this link.

Suffice it to say that the detainees in the prison were covered under the accords. And even if they weren’t, it should have been obvious to anyone brought up in the United States, particularly someone who worked in the prison system here in this country (as one of the Guardsmen did), that this is not the way prisoners are to be treated. It makes one wonder, in the case of the prison worker from Virginia, if this is how prisoners are treated in the state of Virginia.

There have been many arguments brought up to excuse the treatment, as well as arguments attempting to exploit it for political gain. None of them wash, in my opinion.

On the excuse side:

I was only following orders: This one was used at the Nuremburg trials after World War II, as an excuse for the evils perpetrated against Jews, and others the Nazi’s didn’t like. It didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now. We have in our military, the concept of a “lawful order”. You are bound to follow only “lawful orders”. Physical abuse of prisoners of war does not constitute a lawful order. While refusing a direct order is a bit of a sticky proposition, the result would be a trial by courts martial. I can’t imagine anyone giving such an order being willing to follow through and exposing the fact that they were giving an unlawful order, nor any courts martial failing to uphold the defendant in such a case.

It’s a war. Anything goes: Well, no it doesn’t. Quite aside from the moral aspects of a “just war”, we are signatories to the Geneva Conventions. We are bound by them, whether the other side is bound or not.

They have mutilated our people and dragged them through the streets. They have acted in an uncivilized manner towards us, therefore it is ok for us to act in an uncivilized manner towards them.: Put simply, we are supposed to be “the good guys”. It doesn’t matter how they act, as they are “the bad guys.” The bad guys are expected to act bad, that is why they are the bad guys. When the good guys act bad, they cease being the good guys, and in fact become “bad guys” themselves.

It’s worth it if it saves the life of a single American: Well, no it isn’t. Saving the life of a single American today (an unproven accomplishment anyhow) is not worth the damage caused if 1000 men join the forces fighting against us, at the cost of untold American lives in the future. We are fighting a “hearts and minds” campaign here, and pictures of humiliation and sexual abuse of prisoners is unlikely to win us many Iraqi hearts and minds.

The folks from Military Intelligence told us to do it to “soften up” the prisoners for questioning.: Did you get that in writing? Because that would be an example of an unlawful order. The perpetrators have claimed they were not trained in the proper handling of prisoners. Were they then trained on proper interrogation techniques? Highly doubtful. It may be that the folks at MI did condone, and even encourage the treatment shown in the pictures. If so, they are equally culpable and should be tried as well.

On the exploitation side:

Rumsfeld should resign: The typical Democrat response to anything that smacks of a scandal; let’s see if we can force some high-ranking Republican to resign. Failing that, let’s see if we can at least embarrass the Bush administration. In as much as Rumsfeld was not at the prison and didn’t perform, order, or condone the abuse, I fail to see how he is at fault, and should therefore resign. I do think, however, that Rumsfeld should have informed the President of the problem, and not let him get blindsided by it at a press interview. Not having done so is, in my mind, grounds for the President to fire him, and who knows? He might have done so…had not the Democrats called for his resignation. If Bush fires him now, it will look as though he has caved to the Democrats political pressure, and the Dems will be able to claim a victory.

The President should apologize: Why? He didn’t do anything. I would agree that the persons involved should apologize. Publicly. On Iraqi TV. And after that, they should be tried in a military court, and sentenced to an appropriate punishment, which should also be publicly announced. I have even heard a suggestion that the prison should be razed to the ground as a symbol that the days of Saddam are gone, and that the United States should not be using this prison, infamous throughout Iraq, in the first place. I would agree with that as well. But having the President apologize? No, I don’t think so.

To Continue…

Having said all this, another point needs to be made. Once again, we are misusing the English language. The pictures we have seen, though crude and despicable, are not pictures of “torture”, or “war-crimes”. We cheapen the terms when we use them in this manner. They are pictures of humiliation and abuse. Humiliation is defined as:

Humiliateto lower the pride or self-respect of; cause a painful loss of dignity to ; mortify; embarrass.

Humiliation has a valid place when attempting to get prisoners to divulge information they would not ordinarily tell. This is normally done, however, by professionals who are trained in such techniques, not willy-nilly by amateurs who are merely having fun at the prisoner’s expense. What we see here in these photos is more appropriately labeled “abuse”. Abuse is defined as:

Abuse - 1. to use wrongly or improperly; misuse, as in “to abuse one’s authority” 2. to treat in a harmful, injurious, or offensive way, as in “to abuse a horse; to abuse one’s eyesight” 3. to abuse oneself, to masturbate 4. wrongly or improperly use or misues, as in “the abuse of privileges” 5. bad or improper treatment; maltreatment.

There are additional definitions for “abuse” in the dictionary; I have excerpted these, as they certainly apply to this situation.

Which brings up an interesting point. If the perpetrators of this abuse of prisoners are tried and convicted, as the abuse is of a sexual nature, will they then become registered sex offenders, with all the restrictions such registration implies? I don’t know how the UCMJ handles such.

Rush Limbaugh has gone on record saying that what was depicted in the photos is no big deal. That it is no worse than what one might see in a Madonna or Brittany Spears concert or rock video. Or at a fraternity initiation. Perhaps. But there is a glaring difference. Should such scenes appear in either venue, however repulsive they may seem to me, at least they would be voluntary on the part of the participants. It is quite another thing to be forced to perform such acts at the end of a gun.

And will we feel so sanguine about all of this when we start seeing pictures of Americans treated thusly at the hands of Arab militants? It is only a matter of time. It isn’t as if it is particularly hard to get your hands on Americans in Iraq these days, between the military and civilian contractors, the place is swarming with them. And that’s assuming you are picky, and are only interested in Americans in Iraq. If you don’t really care where you get them from, it’s even easier. Americans are everywhere.

In any event, the damage done by the exposure of these photos, in my mind, far outweighs any intelligence value that might have been obtained from these prisoners. In the end, the actions of a few enlisted guardsmen (and the officers in charge) may result in the failure of the entire mission in Iraq, and ultimately, the removal of the current administration from office in the aftermath of the November elections.

Archimedes said that if he had a long enough lever and a place to stand, he could move the world. Last I checked, our planet was still in its orbit around the sun. However, the events of the past week demonstrate how the actions of a few can have an enormous effect on the leadership and direction of the greatest power on Earth.

Dictionary used: The Random House College Dictionary, Revised Edition, Copyright 1980.