Last week’s release of previously unseen photographs and videotapes from the U.S. Army prison at Abu Ghraib has thrust the putrid details of the 2003 prisoner-abuse scandal there back into the global consciousness. The new images make many of the older ones look tame in comparison, depicting prisoners tortured with dogs, cells and hallways streaked with blood, a prisoner forced to perform self-sodomy, and the grizzled beaten body of a dead prisoner.
While all of these images were recorded in late 2003—at the same time as those that first surfaced in the spring of 2004—they nonetheless are of tremendous importance today. Not only do they underscore how atrocious the abuses at Abu Ghraib were, but they reconfirm our reproach of the Department of Defense for its brazen and unapologetic refusal to mete out punishment to those who are truly responsible for these crimes.
The release of these new images further exposes the depravity of Abu Ghraib and further stains the global image of the United States, endangering American troops and civilians and injecting rage and resentment into the insurgency in Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein’s regime of oppression, Abu Ghraib was an epicenter of cruelty and suffering for the Iraqi people. To the Arab world, the United States, the self-styled “savior” of the subjugated Iraqi people, has made little improvement upon the agony and persecutions of Hussein’s deposed regime.
After the initial breaking of the story, many felt that the U.S. must actively work to dissociate itself from those who allowed such atrocities to take place. Its citizens expected their leaders to act quickly and decisively to reaffirm that the U.S. would neither practice nor tolerate such a heinous breed of behavior and, moreover, prove to a skeptical global community that this was not the true face of America.
In the intervening year, U.S. leaders have spectacularly failed at this with their muted, secretive, and disingenuous response. To date, only low-level Army personnel—nine enlisted soliders—have been convicted or pleaded guilty in detainee abuse trials. No high-ranking military officials have been held accountable for the abuses, and an Army report last year was quick to clear all commanders in Iraq and the Pentagon of any responsibility.
It is inconceivable that both the acts of torture themselves and the images thereof—thousands of photographs and hours of video recordings—were the handiwork of a mere nine bad apples operating without the knowledge or blessings of their commanders. Pfc. Lyndie England, the first to be convicted in conjunction with the abuses, testified that she was following the orders of her superiors. The Central Intelligence Agency, responsible for at least one confirmed prisoner death at Abu Ghraib, has yet to have any officer prosecuted in connection with Abu Ghraib. The evidence is damning, and yet, U.S. military leaders arrogantly expect the world to accept as apt retribution the sacrifice of a few at the bottom of the military food chain. There has been a noticeable absence of any sort of evaluation of the prison’s military culture and whether this, and not the actions of soldiers under heavy stress, was the ultimate cause of the abuses.
Quite simply, such an insincere response is not acceptable. The military as an institution is built on a culture of accountability. Culpability for a calamity like Abu Ghraib must flow all the way up the chain of command. Beginning with Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, the ranking officers and administrators who failed to properly oversee the prison should not be permitted to shirk from the stain Abu Ghraib has cast over the U.S. armed forces. For this reason, we called for the secretary’s resignation in May 2004—a demand that has not been assuaged or tempered by the passage of over a year.
Rumsfeld testified to a congressional committee last week, “I’m told that these photographs that are coming out now are nothing more than…the same type of behavior. That behavior’s been punished.” The White House added that in spite of the new images, the military had already dealt with those accountable.
The Pentagon’s decision, however, to only target low-level personnel, protect its own brass, and declare a matter of such gravity as closed is a grave injustice to both its own soldiers and the abuse victims. This deceit has further tarred the United States’ global image, and repairing this image must start with the acceptance of responsibility through the immediate resignation of Rumsfeld, lest this sort of gross negligence at the highest levels of our military go unpunished.