The source of debauchery: Who ordered 'shock and awe'?
William Pfaff

International Herald Tribune
Wednesday, May 12, 2004


PARIS To what extent have the policies of the Bush administration - and the values and attitudes that have characterized the conduct of the so-called war against terror - contributed to a state of mind and morale in the American military that opened the way to the torture, abuse and, in some cases, apparent murder of prisoners in Iraq?

Even before the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration displayed hostility toward international law and treaty obligations that it considered as limits on U.S. national sovereignty or as obstacles to American national interest.

In the Afghanistan war it summarily shipped prisoners outside of the country, notably to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, without serious examination of their cases, and in disregard of Geneva norms concerning prisoners taken in war.

U.S. Army regulations on dealing with prisoners of war were bypassed, since these people were by presidential definition "enemy combatants," not prisoners of war.

Ordinary American norms of justice, requiring timely presentation of charges, legal representation and impartial adjudication, were ignored then and continue to be ignored.

While the administration's disregard for international, military and constitutional law was widely acknowledged at the time, there was little protest in the American press, and no effective challenge from Democratic Party leaders. There is a bipartisan responsibility for what has happened.

Some Afghan and other "war against terror" prisoners were transferred to third countries. Reporters were informed - with a smile and a wink - that this was because they could be tortured there. Again there was negligible reaction in U.S. press and political circles.

In Afghanistan, and subsequently in Iraq, an obvious reason for the involvement of civilian "contract employees" in intelligence and interrogations has been that they are not subject to military discipline, and responsibility for them and what they do can be "plausibly denied" by U.S. officials.

All this is consistent with an attitude toward violence characteristic of the neoconservatives in the Bush administration, who have for years insisted that history is made through violence, and that in the national cause a governing elite has the right to mislead the public in order to achieve goals that the leaders alone are in a position to understand.

This lies behind the administration's pressure for violent action to "change regimes" and intimidate so-called rogue nations, constantly described - however implausibly - by the president and vice president as threatening mass destruction attacks on the United States, jeopardizing national survival. Iraq had to be attacked before it was "too late."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld repeatedly says that those who oppose the United States in Iraq and elsewhere have to be killed. He does not speak in terms of defeating them, much less of negotiating with them, as the British do in southern Iraq.

Dehumanizing language has deliberately been employed to describe all those who oppose the United States. The cumulative effect of this has conveyed to American troops that international and national norms of lawful conduct have been suspended or crucially limited in the war against terror.

It can be argued that the Bush administration created a state of expectation, mode of conduct, hostility to traditional norms of military behavior, and attitude toward Iraqi, Afghan and other Islamic "terrorists," that opened the way to atrocities.

Finally, there is a problem with U.S. military doctrine. Offensive operations are intended to "shock and awe" opponents through massive use of violence, even when civilians are potential victims, as in the armored column assault that led the attack on Baghdad a year ago.

Additionally, American military doctrine of "force protection" mandates killing civilians perceived as being in any way threatening to American forces. This requires American soldiers to treat all Iraqis as potential enemies, and their lives as being of lesser worth than American lives.

A British officer recently complained to The Daily Telegraph in London - a pro-American newspaper - that Americans "don't see the Iraqi people the way we see them. They view them as untermenschen - subhuman, a term applied by the Nazis to Jews and Gypsies.

"They are not concerned about the Iraqi loss of life the way we are. Their attitude toward the Iraqis is tragic, it's awful ... As far as they are concerned Iraq is bandit country and everybody is out to kill them."

But that is what they have been trained to think. One result of that training was what happened in Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.

Young military reservists from small American towns do not spontaneously torture, humiliate, sexually abuse and obscenely mock powerless prisoners unless people in authority over them have ordered or encouraged them to do so.

An American friend who works in Saudi Arabia recently e-mailed me to say "it's all over with those pro-American Arabs who until now have credited Washington with good intentions in Iraq. Photographs of American women soldiers sexually taunting and abusing naked and bound Arab men says to them that the United States is a totally depraved society."

But who debauched these young American men and women soldiers? I would argue that the moral debauchery came down the chain of command from Washington.

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