Imagine if the wish-you-were-here photos and video footage of the prisoner abuse in Iraq documented Americans murdering Iraqi detainees. Say there was film of two military intelligence soldiers sliding a sleeping bag over the head of an Iraqi and rolling him back and forth, sitting on his chest, and placing a hand over his mouth until he was asphyxiated. Might that generate front-page headlines and bipartisan denunciations on Capitol Hill?
The event happened, but no snapshots have materialized. An enterprising reporter at the Denver Post, Miles Moffeit, unearthed the next best thing: Pentagon documents detailing this brutal episode, which occurred in November at a detention facility in Al Qaim, northwest of Baghdad. The victim was Iraqi Major General Abed Hamed Mowhoush, who headed Saddam Hussein's air force. He had turned himself in, and interrogating him became the responsibility of two soldiers in the 66th Military Intelligence Company. After Mowhoush was killed by his interrogators, a cover story was concocted. U.S. military officials released a statement that noted Mowhoush had died during an interview: "Mowhoush said he didn't feel well and subsequently lost consciousness. The soldier questioning him found no pulse, then conducted CPR and called for medical authorities. According to the on-site surgeon, it appeared Mowhoush died of natural causes." Natural causes? Is being suffocated to death a natural cause within U.S. military facilities?
Unfortunately, that appears to be not so far-fetched a conclusion. The Mowhoush case is but one of dozens. Last week, a senior military official told reporters at the Pentagon that the Army has investigated—or is still nvestigating—33 cases involving the deaths of 32 detainees in Iraq and five in Afghanistan. This is eight more than the Army had previously reported. The documents obtained by the Denver Post detailed other instances when Iraqi detainees were killed by American interrogators. In a case that occurred at a classified interrogation facility in Baghdad, a detainee was killed by a "hard and fast blow" to the head while restrained in a chair for questioning.
The abuse (or torture) that went on Abu Ghraib was awful. But killing a prisoner is worse than making an inmate masturbate. In the murdered-while-detained cases, however, there have been no videos. The Denver Post scoop and the subsequent Pentagon acknowledgment suggest that the U.S. military's problems extend beyond the sadistic acts of what George W. Bush has called "a few American troops." Though the Bush White House and the Pentagon have claimed they abided by the Geneva Conventions—though there has been much confusion on this point—how do interrogation practices that end up with corpses fall under the Geneva Conventions guidelines?
A few dozen deaths of this
sort may to some (like Rush Limbaugh) not seem a lot. But they involved more
than the lethal acts of a few interrogators. The military's response (or
non-response) to these episodes has been scandalous. In the Mowhoush case,
the interrogating soldiers were merely reprimanded and the pair was barred
from questioning other detainees; no criminal action was taken. Such a light
punishment is a sign of what we now call a "chain of command" issue—that is,
colleagues of the Sleeping Bag Killers mounted a coverup and the
Another telling sign of the depth of the problem: the abuse at Abu Ghraib was too similar to abusive conduct that happened elsewhere. Days after the Denver Post article, The New York Times reported that the death of two prisoners in a U.S. military detention facility in Afghanistan in December 2002 had become the subject of homicide investigations. Two other Afghans who had been held there told the Times that they were tortured and sexually humiliated by their American captors. One of the prisoners died, according to the death certificate, as a result of "blunt force injuries to lower extremities complicating coronary artery disease." But at the time, U.S. military officials said he had died of a heart attack. Another coverup. The interrogations at this center were supervised by Company A, 519th Military Intelligence Battalion, which later oversaw interrogations at Abu Ghraib.
Just a few bad apples? Two weeks ago, The Los Angeles Times ran an article about a particularly gruesome episode at Abu Ghraib that implicated the CIA, not the now-famous shutterbug abusers of the Army. One day CIA officers arrived at Abu Ghraib with a prisoner whose head was covered by an empty sandbag. They ordered the Army guards to keep the man hooded and take him immediately to a makeshift interrogation area in a shower room. An hour later, the prisoner died while being questioned. The interrogators then removed the sandbag and found he had severe head wounds that had gone untreated. (One of The Photos shows the body, wrapped in plastic and covered in ice.) So does the lousy apples list also include officers in the CIA? A "senior intelligence official" told The New York Times that this prisoner—whose last name was Jamadi—was hooded when the CIA picked him up from the Navy SEALs who had captured him earlier and that the CIA people hadn't harmed him. A spokesman for the SEALs maintains they did not mistreat the man. Well, someone did. And the others did not bother to look under the hood to determine if he required medical assistance.
War breeds brutality. It is the ultimate in dehumanizing acts. As Kurtz (of Apocalypse Now or Heart of Darkness) might ask, if it is okay to mount attacks that kill innocent children (as tragic but unavoidable collateral damage), why worry about human pyramids and forcing male prisoners to don women's underwear? But in Iraq, Bush embarked on an elected war, first (supposedly) to find Saddam Hussein's (apparently nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction, and then, once the WMDs went poof, to bring liberty and democracy to the Iraqi people. If his goal was to export noble values to the repressed population of Iraq, Bush might have pondered the difficulty in doing so via war (which comes with excesses and savageness) and occupation (which comes with tremendous political, security and cultural challenges). But, as we know, he's not the pondering kind.
Abu Ghraib is not exceptional. It is metaphorical. Not that the troops are all fiends. But the nastiness at that particular prison is symbolic of extremism that happens during war—and that extremism runs from sexual humiliation to murder. What's been captured by pixels has dominated and defined the scandal. But the pictures tell only part of an ugly story. And that story, alas, is still expanding.
[UPDATE: On May 26, The New York Times reported on its front page that an Army summary of deaths and mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan "shows a widespread pattern of abuse involving more military units than previously known." The headline read, "Abuse of Captives More Widespread, Says Army Survey"]