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Trickle-Down Morality
by William Rivers Pitt
May 20, 2004
First Published in Truthout

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I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears;
And caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts;
And buckled with a smile Mausers and Colts;
And rusted every bayonet with His tears.

And there were no more bombs, of ours or theirs,
Not even an old flint-lock, not even a pikel.
But God was vexed, and gave all power to Michael;
And when I woke he'd seen to our repairs.

-- Wilfred Owen, "Soldier's Dream"

Back in November of 2003, retired Special Forces master sergeant Stan Goff played the role of prophet in an open letter he wrote to American soldiers engaged in the occupation of Iraq. In his letter, Goff wrote:

"Bushfeld and their cronies are parasites, and they are the sole beneficiaries of the chaos you are learning to live in. They get the money. You get the prosthetic devices, the nightmares, and the mysterious illnesses. So if your rage needs a target, there they are, responsible for your being there, and responsible for keeping you there. I can't tell you to disobey...But it is perfectly legal for you to refuse illegal orders, and orders to abuse or attack civilians are illegal. Ordering you to keep silent about these crimes is also illegal."

Orders to abuse or attack civilians are illegal. Orders to keep soldiers silent about these crimes are also illegal. Six months after Goff wrote those words, we find ourselves drowning in the exact catastrophe he warned of. Seven U.S. service people are accused of visiting torture and abominations upon the bodies and souls of Iraqi prisoners in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. Prisoners were beaten, sodomized with chemical lights and bananas, raped, molested, attacked by dogs, and their dead bodies were mocked and defiled.

For the most part, these were captured civilians and not 'terrorists' or 'insurgents.' Photographs of this torture have reached all around the globe. One of the seven perpetrators has already been convicted. The Bush administration would have us believe this was a random aberration, the crazed behavior of seven sadists, and not a systematic process that came about because of direct orders from superiors.

This is, simply, not true.

Sgt. Samuel Provance of the 302nd Military Intelligence Battalion knows for a fact it is not true. Provance's battalion was stationed at Abu Ghraib last September, while the abuses at that prison were going on. He gave an exclusive interview to ABC news, despite the fact that his superiors ordered him not to.

According to Provance, dozens of U.S. soldiers were involved in the torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, not just the seven who have been scapegoated. "There's definitely a cover-up," he said to ABC. "People are either telling themselves or being told to be quiet. What I was surprised at was the silence. The collective silence by so many people that had to be involved, that had to have seen something or heard something. I would say many people are probably hiding and wishing to God that this storm passes without them having to be investigated (or) personally looked at."

As Provance is a member of Military Intelligence, and as it was Military Intelligence that was put in charge of Abu Ghraib, his perspective is noteworthy. The fact is that the horrors displayed in the photographs from Abu Ghraib are perfect depictions of interrogation tactics used to shake information loose from prisoners. The photo of dogs attacking a naked prisoner is a textbook example of 'stress and duress' interrogation. The photo of the hooded man standing with his fingers, toes and penis wired to electrodes is a tactic called 'The Vietnam.' Seven sick bastards did not invent this stuff. They were ordered to do it.

The road to Abu Ghraib was opened with deliberation and intent. According to a report by John Barry, Michael Hirsh and Michael Isikoff in Newsweek, "Bush, along with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft, signed off on a secret system of detention and interrogation that opened the door to such methods. It was an approach that they adopted to sidestep the historical safeguards of the Geneva Conventions, which protect the rights of detainees and prisoners of war. In doing so, they overrode the objections of Secretary of State Colin Powell and America's top military lawyers - and they left underlings to sweat the details of what actually happened to prisoners in these lawless places."

This Newsweek article goes on to suggest that, "No one deliberately authorized outright torture," but a memo from White House lawyer Alberto Gonzales clearly shows that, even two years ago, Bush administration officials were worried about going to jail. Gonzales was particularly concerned about the War Crimes Act of 1996, which described war crimes as "grave breaches" of the Geneva Conventions, and which applied to "U.S. officials." Violators of the War Crimes Act faced either prison or the death penalty. Therefore, advised Gonzales, declaring that Taliban and al Qaeda fighters did not have Geneva Convention protections would, "substantially reduce the threat of domestic criminal prosecution under the War Crimes Act."

It is safe to say that a majority of Americans would weep no bitter tears for any hard-core al Qaeda fighters left alone with several angry MI officers and a snarling dog, if such tactics would keep further 9/11 attacks from taking place. Such is the state of our morality in the 21st century, but for the moment, that is beside the point.

The point is four-fold:

a) The seven soldiers at the center of the Abu Ghraib scandal did not perpetrate these horrors on their own, but were ordered to do so. According to Sgt. Provance, those orders are now being covered up.

b) The torture took place because George W. Bush, Don Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft decided that Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners were not subject to the protections of the Geneva Conventions. The orders that created a torture-friendly environment came from the very, very top.

c) The strictures of the Geneva Conventions were deliberately removed because Bush administration officials feared war crimes prosecutions, as is clearly stated in the Gonzales memo.

d) The vast majority of Iraqis tortured in Abu Ghraib were not Taliban, were not al Qaeda, were not even 'insurgents.' They were civilians, among thousands swept up and jailed by American forces. However one may feel about terrorists being provided Geneva Convention protections, only a soulless fiend can devise a defense for the torture, rape, molestation and abuse absorbed by innocent people in Abu Ghraib.

A Marine named Staff Sgt. Jimmy Massey served in this invasion and occupation of Iraq. In a recent interview with the Sacramento Bee, Massey described the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent Iraqi civilians at the hands of U.S. soldiers, who were also following orders. Seeing this carnage repeated over and over turned him against the war. At the end of the interview, Massey said:

"I was like every other troop. My president told me they got weapons of mass destruction, that Saddam threatened the free world, that he had all this might and could reach us anywhere. I just bought into the whole thing. I killed innocent people for our government. For what? What did I do? Where is the good coming out of it? I feel like I've had a hand in some sort of evil lie at the hands of our government. I just feel embarrassed, ashamed about it. I've had an impeccable career. I chose to get out. And you know who I blame? I blame the president of the United States. It's not the grunt. I blame the president because he said they had weapons of mass destruction. It was a lie."

Massey is one of thousands of American soldiers victimized by what has taken place in Iraq. Beyond the 792 soldiers who have died there, beyond the thousands who have been wounded, there are whole divisions of soldiers whose humanity has been gutted and left hollow because they believed their leaders, because they did a soldier's duty and followed orders. They are not the only ones. We have all been made victims, moral casualties in this abominable catastrophe.

The Nuremberg defense has been disavowed for sixty years. Soldiers are responsible for their own behavior. Citizens, as well, are responsible for their own behavior. When leaders decree torture, revenge and bloodlust to be in the national interest, however, do not be surprised when morality ceases to exist among those tasked to defend and protect it.

William Rivers Pitt is the Managing Editor of, where this article first appeared (  He is a New York Times and international best-selling author of three books: War On Iraq, available from Context Books, The Greatest Sedition is Silence, available from Pluto Press, and Our Flag, Too: The Paradox of Patriotism, available from Context Books. Email:

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