Vol. 12, No. 3,009 - The American Reporter - October 19, 2006

On Native Ground

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

Printable version of this story

DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal is heading down a well-trod path.

If you want to see how the rest of this mess turns out, go down to the video store and get a copy of the 1980 Australian film, "Breaker Morant."

If you're unfamiliar with the film, it is based on the true story of three Australian lieutenants who fought in the Boer War in a light horse unit called the Bushveldt Carbineers. The Boers were among the pioneers of guerrilla warfare. They wore no uniforms, specialized in hit-and-run attacks and showed no quarter to the British forces.

In August 1901, Capt. Frederick Percy Hunt was wounded and captured in an ambush and later tortured, mutilated and killed by the Boers. Hunt was the best friend Lt. Harry "Breaker" Morant - a horseman, fighter and poet who was on his second tour of duty in South Africa - ever had.

Enraged at his friend's death, Morant vowed revenge. A short time later when Morant's unit captured a Boer fighter who was wearing Hunt's clothes, they executed him on the spot, along with other Boer prisoners and a German missionary suspected of being a spy.

Morant and his fellow lieutenants, Peter Handcock and George Witton, claimed they were only following the orders of Lord Kitchener, the British field marshal, who told his troops to take no prisoners.

As a peace treaty was negotiated, Kitchener - under pressure from the German government, which threatened to enter the war on the Boers' side - ordered the three Australians to face a court-martial for the killing of the Boer prisoners.

The trial, which began in January 1902, was a sham from start to finish. An inexperienced Australian lawyer, Maj. J.F. Thomas, was given one day to prepare his defense of the accused. Despite clear evidence that Kitchener and others in the British command had ordered the killing of Boer prisoners, Morant, Handcock and Witton were found guilty. Morant and Handcock were executed by a firing squad on Feb. 27, 1902, while Witton got life in prison - a sentence that was later commuted.

Not much has changed in the intervening century. Colonial wars have been fought all over the globe, and there has always been a need for scapegoats when things go badly. When scapegoats are needed, it is almost always true that the people who carry out the orders, and not the people who issue the orders, pay the price.

Morant, brilliantly portrayed in the film by Edward Woodward, alludes to this when he quotes from someone he calls "a minor poet, called Byron."

The poem is Lord Byron's "When a Man Hath No Freedom to Fight for at Home," and the words echo through the ages all the way to Baghdad:

When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home,

Let him combat for that of his neighbors;

Let him think of the glories of Greece and of Rome,

And get knocked on his head for his labors.

To do good for mankind is the chivalrous plan,

And is always as nobly requited;

Then battle for freedom wherever you can,

And, if not shot or hanged, you'll get knighted.

War is never clear-cut and tidy. There is no defense for what the U.S. soldiers did to Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib, but there is also no defense for railroading these hapless soldiers through a show trial while letting the people who drafted the policy of torture and ordered it to be implemented in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanimo Bay walk away without punishment.

It has been reported that President Bush, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Attorney General Ashcroft signed off on a secret system of imprisonment and interrogation that circumvented the Geneva Conventions, a secret system that has only come to light with the release of thousands of photos of prisoner abuse in Iraq.

While Bush, Rumsfeld and Ashcroft didn't explicitly authorize torture, they approved what's become known as "stress and duress" techniques - isolation, humiliation and deprivation of varying degrees of intensity - designed to break down prisoners. These techniques were tested and refined at the Bagram AFB in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay before they were exported to Abu Ghraib.

"If you don't violate someone's human rights some of the time, you probably aren't doing your job." Those were the words of a person whom The Washington Post described as "an official who supervised the capture and transfer of accused terrorists" at Bagram in Dec. 2002.

That was the policy. But Bush, Rumsfeld or Ashcroft won't be punished for it. Nor will Brig. Gen Janis Karpinski, who was in charge of the 800th Military Police Brigade that was running Abu Ghraib. Nor will the CIA operatives, military intelligence officers and private contractors who carried out the interrogations. Nor will the captains and majors and colonels who were nominally in command.

No, the blame will fall squarely on the enlisted men and women. They won't face a firing squad like Breaker Morant, but they will likely be subjected to the same sort of sham justice.

There are bigger crimes in this war. Start with the invasion itself, a preemptive attack that stands in violation of the UN Charter. Continue with the inability of the U.S. occupation forces to maintain public order and provide food, medical care and relief assistance to Iraqi civilians. Add that to the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets, the recent siege in Fallajah being just one example.

Everything in war is a crime, but the real criminals are the ones who make the decisions to go to war and then look for people to blame when things don't go as planned.

If there was any sort of justice at all, President Bush would be standing in the dock at The Hague, on trial for war crimes along with everyone else in his administration who helped to concoct and carry out the invasion of Iraq. But that's not going to happen. The hope is that offering up a few soldiers accused of committing atrocities that, in the larger scheme of things, are quite small, will be enough to placate the rest of the world.

Or, at least, that's what the Bush administration hopes. The rest of us know better.

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 2006 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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