Vol. 11, No. 2,553 - The American Reporter - January 5, 2005

On Native Ground

by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
Dummerston, Vt.

DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- I have only a modicum of experience as a soldier, but I remember one piece of advice I got from a first sergeant in one of the infantry companies I served with: "It's the private's job to f**k up. It's the sergeant's job not to let him."

As a sergeant, I had responsibility for the safety and well-being of my subordinates. It was my duty to see that they had everything they needed to do their jobs, including the proper training.

There are many reasons for the horrific instances of abuse by U.S. soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. But ignorance and sadism isn't necessarily endemic to the military. They can be controlled through the application of strong leadership - something that is clearly lacking in this whole mess.

"All it is [is] a lack of leadership, lack of instruction and lack of standard operating procedure and everyone at the top is covering their butts," Daniel Civits, the father of Spec. Jeremy Civits, one of the soldiers in the Army Reserve's 372nd Military Police Company who is facing a court-martial for his actions in Abu Ghraib, told The Associated Press. "My only question is this: Where is the leadership?"

Indeed, where were the leaders? What were they doing? Why weren't the enlisted men and women properly trained? Why weren't the Geneva Conventions enforced?

The answer to these questions is simple. From President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and the rest of the administration who decided to make torture part of the post-9/11 national security regimen, all the way down to the overwhelmed reservists who were thrust into an impossible situation without the proper training or guidance, there was no leadership throughout the whole chain of command.

Leadership is about setting high standards and enforcing them, something that apparently wasn't done in Abu Ghraib. Army Regulation 190-8 states that: "All persons captured, detained, or otherwise held in U.S. armed forces custody during the course of conflict will be given humanitarian care and treatment from the moment they fall into the hands of U.S. forces until final release or repatriation."

As we've seen, this regulation wasn't enforced. MPs were encouraged to "soften up" prisoners for interrogations. There were no apparent rules, other than whatever was made up as they went along.

Spec. Sabrina Harman, another member of the 372nd facing court-martial, told The Washington Post that members of her unit followed the orders of Army intelligence officers, CIA operatives and civilian contractors who conducted the interrogations. She said her unit never received training on the Geneva Conventions' rules for the treatment of prisoners.

"The Geneva Convention was never posted, and none of us remember taking a class to review it," Harman told the Post. "The first time reading it was two months after being charged. I read the whole thing highlighting everything the prison is in violation of. There's a lot."

Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba's report on conditions at Abu Ghraib echoed Harman's words. He wrote that "soldiers were poorly prepared and untrained to conduct I/R [internment/resettlement] operations prior to deployment, at the mobilization site, upon arrival in theater and throughout their mission."

One can argue that a soldier shouldn't have to be trained and ordered to treat a prisoner humanely. Human nature being what it is, we know in a hostile theater of operations, it doesn't take much for the veneer of civility to be scraped away. That's why strong leadership is needed to enforce the proper standards and quickly get rid of those who aren't keeping to them. It means instilling a sense of right and wrong among your subordinates so that when bad things happen, people feel an obligation to speak up and stop it.

Army Spec. Joseph Darby also served in the 372nd. He was so sickened by what happened in Abu Ghraib that he notified a military criminal investigator and later turned in a CD-ROM with more than 1,000 photos documenting the abuse.

"I have an obligation to the Army, and I have an obligation to follow orders," a soldier in a military intelligence unit assigned to Abu Ghraib told The Baltimore Sun. "I also have an obligation to be a decent person and do what's right and to do what I can to get the truth out."

These obligations are not contradictory. They are in keeping with how a professional soldier must act.

"War is too brutal a business to have room for brutal leading; in the end, its only effect can be to corrode the character of men, and when character is lost, all is lost," military historian Brig. Gen. S.L.A. Marshall wrote in "Men Against Fire," his landmark 1947 book on battlefield command. "The bully and the sadist serve only to further encumber an army; their subordinates must waste precious time clearing away the wreckage that they make."

Much damage has been done by the leaders in this war, starting at the very top with the commander-in-chief and his setting into motion an attitude that anything goes in the conduct of the "war on terror." This ends-justifies-the-means code of conduct has now made it impossible to prevail in Iraq.

Start with the creation of the gulag in Guantanamo Bay - a offshore prison not subject to U.S. law - and the conscious decision by the Bush administration to reject the Geneva Conventions and create a new status, "unlawful combatant," that circumvented international law.

Continue with the decision that, in the words of CIA counterterrorism chief Cofer Black, "After 9/11 the gloves come off." Nothing was out of bounds. "Sensory assault" - a euphemism for doing things such as leaving a prisoner naked, sleep deprived and confined in a pitch-black cell for weeks at a time - was rationalized as being something less than torture.

Then, make the decision to rush an army off to an unnecessary war of dubious legality and fail to take the time to properly train people in a sensitive occupation. Have little oversight of these poorly-trained people and ignore the reports of wrongdoing coming from soldiers who wish to uphold the proper standards. Punish the truthtellers and reward the liars.

Mix it all together, and what you've got is a scandal that has irreparably damaged the reputation and goodwill of the America for decades to come.

The last and most important element of leadership is responsibility. If mistakes are made, steps must be taken to correct those errors and prevent them from happening again. Everyone associated with what has happened in Iraq, from President Bush on down to the enlisted men and women guilty of abuse in Abu Ghraib, must take responsibility for their actions.

When anything goes, when there is no accountability for wrongdoing, when the principles of a just and humane society are discarded in the name of security, what you get is the images we've seen in the photos from Abu Ghraib - images of acts that are simply unacceptable in any context.

Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at randyholhut@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2005 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.