Getting to the Bottom of It
by Lou Plummer
May 11, 2004

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One Friday in my early twenties, I took off my camouflage fatigues for the last time. The following Monday I reported to the best civilian job I could get. I was given a new uniform, a can of mace, a set of handcuffs and the keys to a cellblock at a state prison in North Carolina.

Although I was no longer in the infantry, my boss was still a sergeant and his boss was still a lieutenant. The paramilitary replaced the military but there was still an enemy and a mission. I no longer trained to kill Central-American communists. Instead, every day, I faced a prison population that was nearly eighty percent African-American in a state with a population that is nearly eighty percent white.

It was my intention to treat the inmates I was charged with supervising in much the same way I had been treated as a junior enlisted soldier in places like Ft. Benning, GA and Ft. Hood, TX. I had been belittled and dehumanized in the name of discipline. I intended to use the same tactics to control the criminal scum I was assigned to manage.

I was quickly disabused of that notion by more seasoned guards, and surprisingly, by inmates who, SHOCK! GASP!, werenít mindless crack addicted drones. I was reminded that Iíd volunteered to be in the military and that none of the prisoners on C-Block had signed a contract assigning them to their current surroundings. It wasnít a matter of coddling anyone. It was a pragmatic approach to effectively managing other human beings in a high pressure situation.

I also quickly learned that the management of the prison where I worked was intensely interested in keeping their jobs. They didnít want to rehabilitate anyone. They didnít want to heal anyoneís inner child. They didnít want to cure anyoneís psychological disorders. They only wanted to continue to operate their little fiefdom as far from public scrutiny as possible. They werenít even especially interested in getting promoted. Self-preservation was their goal.

It appears as though that model is not the one used at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. The management of that institution is intensely interested in more than just self-preservation. Theyíve been presented with a unique opportunity to take advantage of a hellish situation to advance themselves in ways they never dreamed possible. They have an almost unlimited supply of evildoers from whom information must be extracted so that they can be BROUGHT TO JUSTICE! And, hey, if a few higher-ups can make their bones at the same time, thatís just icing on the cake.

To accomplish this noble mission, the officers and administrators of Abu Ghraib have a contingent of young soldiers much like I once was. These young men and women are products of a military that gave them a one-hour class on the Geneva Convention during their first month in the military. They have been trained and trained and drilled into mind-numbing unquestioning obedience ever since that moment. Few of them have the slightest idea on how to refuse an unlawful order, much less on how to report a war crime.

Just as I didnít question my place in a prison system that was blatantly racist, these soldiers place undeserved trust in the system, in their superiors and in the righteousness of their cause. Untold millions of dollars and hours of clandestine research have gone into studies on the best ways to extract information from human sources. The Central Intelligence Agency has been repeatedly sanctioned for offenses so horrendous that recounting them reminds us of bad spy novels: LSD experiments, assassination programs, and exploding cigars.

Is anyone really surprised that in defending themselves, the working class scapegoats of this whole horrible situation are pointing the finger at their superiors, at OGAs (Other Government Agencies) and at that new phenomenon in the out-sourced military of the 21st century Ė civilian contractors (i.e., mercenary corporations)?

These soldiers, many of whom have been conditioned to accept racism and human degradation by working in US prisons, are as much to blame for the outrages in Iraq as I was to blame for the conditions of the prison I worked in.

All of us participated in a state-sanctioned evil. There is an attitude in our country that trains us to accept the fate of those who we are told are less deserving than ourselves. It isnít the little people on the bottom who can be condemned for designing the system. It is the self-serving masterminds at the top who should bear that burden.

President Bush says that he intends to get to the bottom of this situation. I suggest that he forgo that plan. He should instead get to the top of it instead.

Lou Plummer is a member of Military Families Speak Out and the Bring Them Home Now campaign. He can be reached at: lou.plummer@mac.com.   

Other Articles by Lou Plummer

* The Anti-War Movement in a Military Town