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May 2004 (Updated by the 15th)



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by Jessica Kuzmier

     The recent reporting of the torture of Iraqi troops by American and British forces have sparked debate on both sides of the war issue. On the one hand, those against the war may say, look at what war degenerates to; look what good people resort to doing. On the other hand, those who still support the Iraqi war effort may see the whole scenario as a ploy to show a few bad men as representative of the entire military. Look how the media are taking advantage of the situation and endangering our men by exaggerating isolated occurrences. In any event, the fact that abuse is happening at all forces any official involved to ask hard questions.

     War reportage, by its very nature, is intended to cause an emotional reaction. Recently, a local newspaper showed a picture of the four civilians who were killed in Iraq and hanged from a bridge. Subsequently, many people wrote to the editorial board to express their disgust that such a picture was displayed. They felt reportage of this photograph would distress those who had family members serving in Iraq, that it served as an antiwar message at a time when the troops needed our undying support, and gave credence to the criminals who committed this offense by giving it a forum to be broadcasted. Such a picture is obviously controversial. But war coverage of any type is bound to be controversial one way or another, depending on the viewpoints held by the media's audience. To blame the media for displaying what really happens in war is missing the point.

     Of course, media differ according to the slant of the editorial boards involved: the Wall Street Journal will have a much different perspective than the New York Times, for instance. But regardless of the leanings of the media, they are there to report what seems sensational. Media will generally not report the daily drudgery and boredom that goes along with being a troop on patrol, except for the occasional profile. And, to be frank, if abuses are being committed by either side of the war equation, it is safe to say that on some level the media have an obligation to report what is happening. This goes for publicizing the photos of the mutilated bodies of the American citizens, and for the reports of abuse of POWs by coalition forces.

     The danger of reportage of events such as the POW abuse is that it can lead to overreaction, or underreaction. In many ways, something like this can uproot deep-seated fears. An Associated Press photo showed a man of Arab descent in London holding a poster of one of the tortured Iraqi POWs with the caption "Is This Your Freedom?". Along with other demonstrators, he chanted, "Bomb London, bomb New York." Though the likelihood of this person or anyone else actually bombing either city is minimal, hearing the exploitation of people of his race by the government of the country he lives in was likely to give rise to latent fears of racial prejudice and exploitation. Exploitation of a weaker group by a group in power is likely to spur feelings of revenge in some members of the underdog group. Though it is only a few military troops that are committing atrocities, it may provoke distrust of all the military for those who identify with the exploited victims. People such as this British individual may have always thought that everyone in the government was against him, and anyone of his race. To him, the abuse of Iraqi prisoners only confirmed his worst fears.

     To wit, the amount of prisoners tortured and troops actually committing atrocities is proportionately infinitesimal: the Associated Press reported that as of the beginning of May, the U.S. Army documented 35 investigations since December 2002, while the amount of Iraqi prisoners in detention have ranged from 10,000 to 40,000. Perhaps this number overlooks minor abuse that is harder to prove, such as sleep deprivation, but even if the number was fifty times higher than the thirty-five, it would entail less than a fifth of the inmate population at the minimum figure. These figures might lead to an underreaction: why should we be concerned with such prisoners, when this is war, they are probably terrorists, or at the very least, probably did something wrong? This was the argument of some people when they heard of abuses committed by American troops in Guantanamo Bay. A recent interview with a local individual yielded the opinion of well, they did it to us, so why shouldn't we do it to them? This person wasn't talking about September 11th. She was referring to the recent reports of the al-Sadr uprising in which coalition civilians were being taken hostage, such as the four Halliburton employees being kidnapped, and the revenge killing of businessman Nick Berg is likely to spark similar reactions. In other words, if they want to play dirty, why should we behave any better? What's the big deal of torturing a couple of these nuts after what they've done to us?

     Another underreaction could be that this whole thing is a hoax, or at the very least one person did something, so now let's put the whole military under the microscope and come up with a witch hunt. This idea of a vast left-wing conspiracy may not be so out of line: media have very often been used as propaganda, and certainly Saddam Hussein, bin Laden, and even the so-called objective al-Jazeera have used the airwaves for propaganda reasons. Maybe one person in the Army, being there too long, lost it and then had those under him or her torture several prisoners. After just a small spattering of such abuse, the opposition realized they might have a tool in the war of manipulation. Other claims might be some kind of digital manipulation, video overlay, and maybe those people coming to the cameras displaying their wounds supposedly inflicted upon them by the Army instead allowed themselves to be beaten up by their associates for the sake of the camera and publicity purposes. Besides, Saddam Hussein never apologized for the myriad of human rights abuses he perpetrated. Why should Rumsfield, Bush or Blair feel overly responsible for such a a small amount of inappropriate behavior on the part of the American and British military? In this viewpoint, the "scandal" is nothing more than a distraction, intended to deflect attention away from the fact that there is still a war going on, and we need to defend ourselves in it. Or it takes away the attention from all the good things that the military have done, such as creating the governing council and allowing freedom of religious practice.

     There are dark sides to both those who overreact and underreact. The problem with overreaction is that it could lead to the stereotyping of the entire coalition force: a person might justify guerilla or terrorist activity under the guise of what the "West" has perpetrated, when in fact, only a small number of forces were ever allegedly engaged in abuse. Arabs who feel the West shouldn't have been there to begin with might use these abuse allegations as carte blanche excuse to back up extremists instead of using nonviolent tactics to combat Western influence. In other words, this is fodder for their own revolutionary thoughts. At the very least, it can be used to increase the anti-West sentiment that is prevalent throughout the Middle East. If this sentiment leads to increased terrorism, it would be understandable for those in the West to believe that these people were only looking for an excuse to wage guerilla warfare, and this abuse scandal just happens to provide the perfect justification. Westerners who take this position will probably believe that the terrorists would have struck anyway, believing the terrorists to be nothing more than violent thugs who were itching for a fight. If those who overreact take their feelings to the extreme, vendetta will lead to vendetta. At the very minimum the constant retaliation back and forth will lead in a never-ending standoff, rather than the free democracy that the Bush administration seeks in this military campaign.

     Minimizing the importance of the allegations leads to other problems as well. Believing that the Iraqi prisoners "got what they deserved" in Abu Ghraib leads to a certain callousness of consciousness. That this is "no big deal" or "all is fair in love and war" or "it has nothing to do with me" minimizes the importance of international law in military engagement. Without question, the idea that anything is game on the battlefield is against a host of laws in the Geneva Convention. There are rules of engagement, and violations of them are considered war crimes. As permanent members on the U.N. Security Council, both the United States and the United Kingdom have special obligations to make sure they engage in what Aristotle calls "just war", which amounts to just reasons for going to war, and just methods in engaging in warfare. In other words, it is a "big deal" if there are any illegal tactics used at all in procuring information, whether it is to prevent terrorism or not, especially in a war that was waged ostensibly to promote freedom and human rights. And if the Red Cross' estimation of 70 to 90 percent of the inmates being wrongly detained is anywhere near correct, at the very minimum the military are wasting time harassing mostly innocent or nearly innocent civilians, while big guns such as al-Sadr and "al-Zarqawi" remain free, kidnapping and executing coalition civilians.

     The abuse scandal has probably not made anyone change his position on the war. If anything, it will most likely solidify his view points. Those who support the war believe that the revenge tactics perpetrated on Western civilians is even more of a reason that we should be in the Middle East, promoting democratic values. Those against the war will see the abuse instances and increased violence as proof that things have gotten out of hand, and at the very least, if we don't pull out entirely, we should turn this "mess" over to the United Nations. Regardless of what the final outcome in the abuse scandal becomes, the fact that it occurred at all is cause for consternation. If this is a war for freedom and the promotion of human rights, then as difficult as it may seem, it needs to be waged with tactics that reflect that ultimate goal. Reducing standards of behavior to allow torture does not promote the cause of justice, or eliminate terrorism. It is a way of letting the terrorists win by default: in the cause for justice, dehumanizing any prisoner, even if it is Saddam Hussein, causes one to lose the values that men and women are fighting to preserve. Instead of a war against terrorism, it is reduced to a street fight where anarchy prevails and freedom is a lost dream, because the only ruler is fear. The indifference to humanity that was visited on the West by al-Qaeda is just served back, not quelled. The rules of engagement in the Geneva Convention exist for a reason. War is depraved enough, but international law tells everyone to remember their humanity, and the humanity of those whom they engage in warfare with.

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