Who's Responsible for the Iraqi Prisoner Abuse?

by Harry Browne

May 7, 2004      

The revelations that Iraqi prisoners have been abused and tortured have prompted the typical deep thinking by America's pundits.

But, as usual, they are ignoring the central point: Atrocities and war go together like ham and eggs.

When soldiers — American, Iraqi, or of any nation — go to war, they are transformed into different people. This is because of the nature of war. Battles aren't fought in the clean, antiseptic style of a John Wayne movie.

In a real war, men's limbs are blown off, they see their insides pour out onto the ground, and they die in excruciating pain. Many "combat" deaths aren't caused by enemy fire; they result from dysentery, pneumonia, shock, a comrade's mistake, or even just fright.


The sight of these horrors is enough to transform almost anyone into a person quite different from the one who went to war to "defend freedom."

Eugene B. Sledge wrote about his reaction when, as a U.S. Marine fighting in the Pacific during World War II, he saw his comrades hosed down by machine-gun fire:

I felt sickened to the depths of my soul. I asked God, "Why, why, why?" I turned my face away and wished that I were imagining it all. I had tasted the bitterest essence of war, the sight of helpless comrades being slaughtered, and it filled me with disgust. . . .

We were expendable. It was difficult to accept. We come from a nation and a culture that values life and the individual. To find oneself in a situation where your life seems of little value is the ultimate in loneliness. It was a humbling experience.1

In World War I, a French soldier wrote in his diary:

Heaps of corpses, French and German, are lying every which way, rifles in hand. Rain is falling, shells are screaming and bursting — shells all the time. Artillery fire is the worst. I lay all night listening to the wounded groaning — some were German. The cannonading goes on. Whenever it stops we hear the wounded crying from all over the woods. Two or three men go mad every day.2

In this kind of environment, human beings become something quite different — and less human. When the boy next door comes home from Iraq, he won't be the same one who left. He will have lived in a world completely different from that of you and me — and completely different from the pictures shown on TV.

The Atrocities Follow

Quoting Sledge again:

Our code of conduct toward the enemy differed drastically from that prevailing back at Division CP. . . . We lived in an environment totally incomprehensible to men behind the lines.3

Thus we shouldn't be surprised to find soldiers taking delight in activities that disgust us. As Paul Fussell has pointed out, this is what happens "when you arm a lot of frightened boys with deadly weapons."4

It has happened in every army in every war — including the Iraqi War, and undoubtedly in areas of the Iraqi occupation that are yet to be revealed.

Fussell, in his book Wartime, wrote about atrocities committed by both Japanese and American soldiers during World War II — atrocities so repulsive they can't be described here in a family website.

In a kill-or-be-killed environment, emotions run high. Men don't just oppose the enemy, they hate him. And when they think information might save a buddy, they will commit heinous acts to extract the information from a prisoner.

There's only one way to stop such things from happening: don't go to war in the first place.


So if anyone is responsible for the atrocities that were recently revealed, it is the person that decided to send 150,000 Americans to a desolate area to kill or be killed.

I believe that person's name is George W. Bush.

But how can George Bush be held responsible for the crimes of subordinates way down the chain of command?

Well, Herman Goering was sentenced to death at the Nuremberg trials for crimes committed by his underlings.


According to Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush was informed of the abuses back in January. Apparently, nothing significant was said or done about the problem until CBS broke the story last week. Now everyone in the administration is feigning shock and awe over what happened.

But that's not the most remarkable aspect of this whole brouhaha. Long after George Bush knew about the prisoner abuse, he was still justifying the war on Iraq on the basis that Hussein had torture chambers. William Saletan of Slate has compiled an amazing chronicle of administration statements, made after Bush knew about the U.S. military's use of torture, implying that only Saddam Hussein did such terrible things. As recently as May 1, even after the scandal had been made public, George Bush was still talking about Hussein's torture chambers.

This indicates that, in addition to being dishonest, Bush also is a bit dense. An intelligent knave would have quit talking about Hussein's "torture chambers" the moment he discovered that his own army was using torture.


1With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene B. Sledge, pages 60,100; cited by Paul Fussell in Wartime, page 293.

2With the French Eastern Army by W.E. Grey, page 49; cited in The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman, page 241.

3With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene B. Sledge, page 120; cited by Paul Fussell in Wartime, page 294.

4"The Culture of War" by Paul Fussell, in The Costs of War, edited by John V. Denson, page 356.