As an army lieutenant during the Korean War, I was the admissions officer of the United Nations' prisoner of war hospital in Korea. Although American soldiers considered the Korean prisoners representatives of a brutal, communist enemy and were all outraged over the mistreatment and exploitation of our fellow troops as prisoners of war, each captured Korean soldier was treated with humanity.
The same cannot be said of the U.S. handling of the capture of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein this past weekend. The video images of a haggard, unshaven Saddam were played over and over on televisions around the world. The United States will pay a price in the Islamic world for our public debasement of Saddam.
Television was not omnipresent in Korea, but there were still some frontiers in decorum practiced by the media as well as the military. We would fumigate and cleanse a POW to inhibit the spread of parasites or disease. But we did not glaringly debase our enemies, as was done Sunday with Saddam. Poking through his matted hair for lice and probing his mouth by flashlight were probably necessary, but showing those acts to the world via a news conference was as much triumphalism as it was pragmatism.
The Bush administration and military officials have been quick to point out in their defense that Saddam's capture now will allay, once and for all, the concern of Iraqis that their former leader would return to power and re-establish his torturous Baathist regime, and that the pictures are proof that this really is Saddam.
Still, such a disrespectful display in a society that highly values personal dignity may generate sympathy for Saddam and disgust with us, as happened after the grotesque display of the bodies of his sons, Qusay and Uday. (And, in fact, the violence against our troops increased after their deaths.) When contrasted with the end of his sons, who fought overwhelming coalition forces to the death, how could Saddam, ignominiously captured without a struggle, appear any more weakened than he already was?
"No Arab and no Muslim will ever forget these images" shown at Sunday's news conference, Moroccan journalist Khalid Jamai told Reuters. "They touched something very, very deep. It was disgraceful to publish those pictures. It goes against human dignity, to present him like a gorilla that has come out of the forest, with someone checking his head for lice."
At the close of World War II, Nazi war criminals such as Hermann Goering were on the run. After Goering eventually was seized, his military captors duly checked his body for concealed drugs and poison capsules so that he would not cheat interrogation or a tribunal by committing suicide. But the examination was not done with waiting cameras for a worldwide audience. (Goering would kill himself anyway with an undiscovered cyanide capsule.)
Pre-Christmas spirit notwithstanding, what has happened to our sense of civilized values? Sunday's photos, and those of Saddam's sons, are not the only examples. For instance, we also have seen accused Iraqi war criminals trivialized by the Defense Department as figures on mock playing cards, as if bringing them to justice were a parlor game.
We are trying to win the hearts and minds of the people in a sensitive and explosive Islamic culture and establish a sense there of Western humanitarian values that we think are worth emulation. In this case, the administration has manipulated the media to our disadvantage. We may pay heavily in the Islamic world for this latest example of poor judgment.
Stanley Weintraub is author of 'MacArthur's War: Korea and the Undoing of an American Hero' and 'Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce'. His newest book is 'General Washington's Christmas Farewell: A Mount Vernon Homecoming, 1783.'
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