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Of Bad Apples, Scapegoats, and the Camera's Eye


Wednesday, Sep. 28, 2005

It was the photos that grabbed the public's attention. Had it not been for the photos of naked, scared, and humiliated Iraqi detainees, the reports of beatings and sexual abuse at Abu Ghraib might have garnered a few news articles, but probably little more.

Still, the photos, for all their importance, tell only a partial story. They expose the shameful acts of individual U.S. soldiers and provide compelling evidence to support the court-martial of these soldiers. They explain why Pfc. Lynndie R. England entered a plea of guilty to prisoner abuse in court last May, and why, when the judge presiding over England's case ordered that it go to trial, a jury of military officers convicted England of six criminal counts of abuse and indecent acts.

But the photos do not show context. They show abuses, but they do not reveal how or why the abuses occurred. They do not indicate what was ordered or condoned by those in charge at Abu Ghraib, what was considered appropriate treatment of detainees, and what was truly aberrational.

To reach a conclusion regarding ultimate responsibility for the abuses in Iraq, we need to look beyond the images. Before we are reassured by the punishment of a few low-level soldiers, we should investigate the policies and practices that governed their behavior.

And, to start with, we might consider the testimony of Capt. Ian Fishback, a U.S. Army officer who witnessed systematic abuses in Iraq.

Geneva Convention Violations Were U.S. Policy

Fishback is a West Point graduate who served in Iraq with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division in 2003 and 2004. He was stationed at a military base called Mercury near Fallujah, a stronghold of the Iraqi insurgency at the time.

Last Friday, Human Rights Watch released a dramatic new report quoting Fishback and two sergeants stationed with him at Mercury. According to the soldiers, members of their battalion routinely tortured Iraqi detainees as a means of intelligence gathering and for stress relief. The abuses took place almost daily and were often carried out under orders.

Fishback is the only one of the three soldiers whose identity has been made public. His stunning testimony suggests that what happened at Abu Ghraib was no anomaly.

During the time he was stationed at the Mercury base, he said, "we had prisoners that were stacked in pyramids, not naked but they were stacked in pyramids . . . . There was a case where a prisoner had cold water dumped on him and then he was left outside in the night."

As he explained it, "I witnessed violations of the Geneva Conventions that I knew were

violations of the Geneva Conventions when they happened but I was under the impression that that was U.S. policy at the time."

When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, Fishback heard familiar stories. "[A]s the week progressed I watched on the news and they showed some of the pictures -- not all of them -- a large portion of the pictures were in accordance with what I perceived as U.S. policy. Now all the stuff with sodomy with the chem light and all that was clearly beyond what I would have allowed to happen on a personal moral level and what I thought policy was. But the other stuff, guys handcuffed naked to cells in uncomfortable positions, guys placed in stress positions on boxes, people stripped naked. All that was…if I would have seen it, I would have thought it was in accordance with interrogation procedures."

It was not until Fishback listened to the testimony of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during congressional hearings on Abu Ghraib that he understood the disconnect between formal policy and approved practice. Rumsfeld asserted that the Army had followed the Geneva Conventions to the letter in Iraq, something Fishback knew was far from true.

Scapegoating the Troops

Pfc. Lynndie England, who was convicted of six counts of prisoner abuse on Monday, now faces up to nine years in a military prison. Seen in photos, most notoriously, holding an Iraqi prisoner by a leash, England became the smirking poster girl of the Abu Ghraib abuses.

But if an album of Abu Ghraib mugshots were to be assembled -- in a fairer world at least -- England's would probably not come first. As Fishback points out, "It's unjust to hold only lower-ranking soldiers accountable for something that is so clearly, at a minimum, an officer corps problem, and probably a combination with the executive branch of government."

Abu Ghraib was no anomaly, and the abuses committed by Lynndie England were no aberration. Unless a real investigation takes place - one that examines high-ranking civilian and military leaders -- the rest is scapegoating.

Joanne Mariner is an attorney with Human Rights Watch in New York. Her piece is based on a just-released Human Rights Watch report, "Leadership Failure: Firsthand Accounts of Torture of Iraqi Detainees by the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division."

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