Published on Wednesday, April 26, 2006 by the New York Observer
Who Gets the Blame For Dirty Tactics in Iraq?
by Nicholas von Hoffman
The newest fall guy for the brass is U. S. Army dog handler Sgt. Michael J. Smith, 24, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Found guilty by a court martial, the young sergeant will spend six months in jail, be demoted and then thrown out of the service with a dishonorable discharge.
According to the Associated Press, “Smith let his unmuzzled Belgian shepherd threaten three detainees at the prison, conspired with another dog handler to try to frighten prisoners into soiling themselves and directed his dog to lick peanut butter off other soldiers’ bodies.”
The New York Times reported that Sergeant Smith’s defense was that “he was merely following interrogation procedures approved by the chief intelligence officer at Abu Ghraib, Col. Thomas M. Pappas. In turn, Colonel Pappas had said he had been following guidance from Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, commander of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay.” General Miller visited Iraq in September 2003 to establish conditions for what was called “enhancing prison interrogations.” General Miller had been dispatched to Gitmo by Donald Rumsfeld and his superior officers.
Throughout the months of the torture-abuses scandals, the conduct of the officers responsible for what happened can only be described as swinish. Sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, these men (and possibly a few women) failed to oversee what was happening and/or ordered it and, when the disgusting details came out into the open, denied authorship or even any connection.
You need more than a clothespin over the nose to avoid the stink hanging over the military establishment—which, if not taken care of soon, will besmirch the honorable along with indecent. The smell in question concerns more than torturing Arabs.
Wafting up from all kinds of dark, humid places are questions about how money has been handled, bribe-taking and the suspicious death in Afghanistan two years ago of Cpl. Pat Tillman, the Army Ranger who forsook a professional-football career to serve a nation that has not reciprocated. After no less than three investigations by the Army, countless official lies, fuzzinesses and the destruction of evidence relevant to the case, yet another investigation is underway. From the service-academy rapists to the Secretary of Defense, there appears to be too many people in positions of command who should not be leading others into combat. Conceded: There is no one-to-one correlation between moral cowardice and physical cowardice. Yet there must be some connection.
There is no measuring these things, but some of our moral decomposition might be blamed on the dirty war our politicians have involved us in. No rules govern these things, but history suggests that a bad war can do grievous things to decent people.
An inkling of what despicable things otherwise fine people can do in rotten circumstances can be gleaned from a book just out called My Battle of Algiers, by Ted Morgan (Smithsonian Books/Harper Collins). Mr. Morgan, a Frenchman who now lives in New York, was an officer serving in the French Army in the 1950’s as it struggled to retain Algeria as a colony.
The book has many passages that ought to be instructive for Americans now. Here is one worth thinking about: Mr. Morgan describes a conversation he had with a major in the French Army. The major, Mr. Morgan writes, says: “‘I fought in 1940. I was wounded.’ He pointed to his glass eye, ‘I fought in Indochina. I was wounded. I hope this time not to be wounded. But I confess I don’t understand this war at all. It’s the politics of the dead dog bobbing on the water, as General Navarre used to say. We’ll win battle after battle until we lose the war.’”
Our services have their share of men who lost an eye in various colonial escapades. We also have, as the French did, more than our share of enlisted and National Guards men pulling additional tours in Iraq with little belief in the way they have found themselves fighting.
As the Algerian conflict dragged on, small mutinies began to break out in the French Army. Mr. Morgan writes that “the men of the 401st Anti-Aircraft Regiment, who were being kept ‘under the flag’ an extra nine months, were sent on a training operation on the beach, where they took off their clothes and went swimming. Pamphlets began to appear in the barracks saying: ‘We who have lived under a foreign (German) occupation learned to hate the occupiers. We are not cowards or defeatists, but we refuse to fire on our Arab brothers, many of whom served in the French army in World War Two.’”
Americans seem to be more obedient than the French, who often protest and demonstrate in vast numbers, not only about wars but even about laws and regulations. Americans will demonstrate when their college or professional sports team wins a championship, but other than that, they pretty much do as they’re told. Nonetheless, a dirty war can only go on so long before even an American might do something untoward.
Prior to the Algerian war, terror—that is, the deliberate slaughter of civilians—had been mostly a tactic employed by what are sometimes called “advanced nations.” In World War II, the Germans did it—followed in short order by the British and the Americans. After the French massacred Algerians by shooting them through the bars of the jails, insurgents placed bombs in cafés, clubs and ocean resorts.
It wasn’t long before Frenchmen, fighting in a war they had no use for, were exacting atrocities on the other side. Mr. Morgan tells of an incident that, one suspects, has probably been played out in Iraq more than once these past three years:
“The fellagha (insurgent) had been strung up with his wrists tied over a horizontal beam, so that his feet didn’t touch the ground. He wore a khaki uniform without rank or insignia. His coarse black hair was cut short, and he had a bushy beard and a mustache. His gaze was more defiant than fearful.
“I asked him his name, but he did not reply. ‘Ask him the location of his base camp,’ Lastours (Mr. Morgan’s commanding office) said. I asked him, and he did not reply.
“‘Ask him a bit more forcefully,’ Lastours said.
“I punched him hard in the stomach.
“‘Hakarabi. Makache,’ the man said. ‘I swear I don’t know.’ I hit him again. ‘Hakarabi. Makache.’ Then something happened to me. I started to lose it. I was in an altered state, where my mental processes broke down. It was as if the scene had been rehearsed and choreographed. My role was to punch him, and his role was to repeat his line. This went on for about two minutes, and then he stopped repeating.
“Lastours felt his pulse and said, ‘He’s dead. And he didn’t talk.’
“I was horrified by what I had done. I had killed a defenseless man. I had not intended to kill him, but that didn’t make him any less dead.
“‘Place me under arrest,’ I said.
“‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Lastours said. ‘When you go to the hamam [steam bath], you sweat, and in war there are losses. It’s the logic of things. I’ll find a couple of men to bury him.’”
Like the French, our politicians encourage torture and lie about it. We call our concentration camps “detention centers.” We plant phony stories in the media; the French also. We kill people who should still be walking around, as did the French, but we do one thing the French didn’t do. They didn’t court martial their dog handlers.
Sale guerre. Dirty war.
Nicholas Von Hoffman is a columnist for the New York Observer and is the author, most recently, of "Hoax" (Nation Books, 2004).
© 2006 The New York Observer