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     Volume 5 Issue 86 | March 17, 2006 |

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Food For Thought

Defense and the Indefensible

Farah Ghuznavi

Last month saw not only the emergence of more detailed revelations as to what actually happened in Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 (courtesy of the Australian TV network SBS), but also a fresh abuse scandal facing the British army in southern Iraq.

Yet perhaps the most troubling thing about these high-profile events is the degree to which they appear to have been "non-events". That is, information emerged - despite considerable (and ongoing) attempts to suppress it, in the first case; the news was greeted with shock and horror by a minority of recipients, and weary acceptance by a majority; there were the usual excuses and assurances of action from the concerned governments; and now, it seems, it's back to business as usual…

But why is it so? The "Abu Ghraib II" pictures speak for themselves, in more ways than one. Prisoners are shown in various states of exposure, undergoing calculated and explicit humiliation, while being cornered by guard dogs or "supervisory" soldiers. Despite the immense variety of pictorial materials already obtained by the Australian broadcaster - and there is reason to believe that these are only a fraction of the total that exist - we have been repeatedly asked to believe that these are somehow random or "isolated" incidents. In no way is anyone to believe that this may be part of a systematic process of interrogation, that reaches quite a long way further up the chain of command! Hmmm…

Meanwhile, the British Army is being careful not to make any patently absurd claims regarding the recent video of eight soldiers beating Iraqi youths. The violent images of unidentified British soldiers kicking and beating four young men with batons is accompanied by a laughing commentary from the soldier who is filming this brutal scene. The Ministry of Defence has already admitted that there is "little doubt as to the authenticity of the tape" (UK Independent), and has given assurances that it is taking the matter "very seriously". This has been reinforced by the British PM's promise that the allegations will be investigated "very fully indeed" (although he insisted on making the point that the "overwhelming majority" of British forces behave properly - no doubt true, but that does not really address this particular situation!).

As usual, it has been left up to the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Defence to clearly articulate that "Even the suggestion of abuse weakens our position in Iraq and makes the need for a coherent exit strategy all the more urgent… Parliament must be told if this is a one-off, as hoped, or evidence of wider abuses".

In order to determine what has actually happened in such cases, it is necessary to face up to some painful truths, rather than engaging in defensive posturing - as is too often the case. The British Army is generally considered to have high standards of ethics and efficiency, despite the existence of allegations like these. But then, so it should. After all, it can hardly claim the right to intervene or "police" other parts of the world without such impeccable standards! The absence of a similar image contributes greatly to the US Army's credibility problem…

The past record of investigation into such cases however, is far from reassuring - though not nearly as bad as the farcical investigations into the initial Abu Ghraib atrocities. In January 2005, three British soldiers appeared at a court-martial accused of abuse at Camp Breadbasket near Basra in 2003; charges were dropped against one soldier who pleaded guilty to assault, two other soldiers were found guilty of mistreatment and received sentences of upto two years, and the soldier taking the photographs was sentenced to nine months!

If light sentencing is one perceived problem with such investigations, another is the difficulty of obtaining adequate evidence. In 2005, seven defendants accused of murdering an 18-year-old in 2003 were subsequently cleared on grounds of insufficient evidence. Worryingly enough, as none of the Iraqis in the recent film have made complaints, the Royal Ministry Police - which plans to go to Iraq in order to trace them - has already stated that the task will be extremely difficult in Maysan, a hostile area where British forces have been involved in fighting Shi'ite militias. True? Probably. Convenient? Indisputably.

While the UK is very much seen as the "lesser evil" within the so-called coalition, that is not strange given the considerable criticism the U.S. Army has received for the Abu Ghraib debacle, as well as cases such as the chief warrant officer who was found guilty of killing a captured Iraqi general in November 2003 by stuffing his head into a sleeping bag and sitting on him (UK Independent)… By contrast to that, the British Army is undoubtedly doing a good job!

But disturbing similarities in some of these incidents lead to unavoidable questions. Why do coalition soldiers - any of them, however few! - consider it acceptable, let alone desirable, to behave in this fashion?

The News of the World, which published the pictures of the Iraqi youths being beaten, claimed that the tape was shot in 2004, and was shown at the troops' home base in Europe before being handed over by a whistleblower. The fact that soldiers take such "trophy photos" or films, presumably to share with others, inevitably raises questions about what constitutes accepted standards of behaviour!

At one level, of course, the number of incidents over such "trophies" begs the question of why the soldiers concerned never seem to learn not to take pictures - particularly ones that may be used as evidence against them at a later date! Maybe the military authorities concerned should do IQ tests before sending them out? Or perhaps these incidents are just proof of the arrogance whereby soldiers believe that they can do these things with impunity…

But perhaps the truth is even <>more<> frightening. Maybe it comes down to the fact that inadequately trained and equipped soldiers are being sent into highly tense, emotionally charged, intellectually challenging situations, where they just can't cope. Where the reality of being in a situation where normal rules don't apply, and soldiers not having the adequate emotional and intellectual resources to adjust to those realities, will inevitably result in such grotesque outcomes.

How do those who send such men and boys into the situations expect that they will somehow manage to survive - let alone overcome - the challenges that they are bound to face? The fundamental point remains that something that is considered the ultimate crime in civilian society i.e. killing someone, suddenly becomes transformed into something glorious (and unquestionably, the right thing to do) once men go to war. No wonder they're confused!

Denial and defensiveness about the performance of coalition troops in Iraq do nothing to address the problems that self-evidently exist. That requires action. So until political leaders and generals stop mouthing fatuous clichés about "guts-and-glory", and take more effective measures to prepare and support front-line soldiers in ways that enable them to retain a modicum of sanity in the midst of war, we will hear many more stories like these…

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