When soldiers in war are not properly trained and supervised, atrocities are all but inevitable. This is one reason why the military command structure is so important. There was a time, not so long ago, when commanders were expected to be accountable for the behavior of their subordinates.
That's changed. Under Commander in Chief George W. Bush, the notion of command accountability has been discarded. In Mr. Bush's world of war, it's the grunts who take the heat. Punishment is reserved for the people at the bottom. The people who foul up at the top are promoted.
It was a year ago today that the stories and photos of the shocking abuses at Abu Ghraib prison first came to the public's attention. It was a scandal that undermined the military's reputation and diminished the standing of the U.S. around the world.
It would soon become clear that the photos of hooded, naked and humiliated detainees were evidence of a much larger problem. The system for processing, interrogating and detaining prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in Iraq was dangerously out of control, and the command structure responsible for it had collapsed. Detainees were beaten, tortured, sexually abused and, in some instances, killed. Many detainees should never have been imprisoned at all, as they had committed no offenses.
So what happened? A handful of grunts were court-martialed, a Marine major was cashiered, and the Army plans to issue a new interrogation manual that bars certain harsh techniques. There was no wholesale crackdown on criminal behavior.
We learned last week that after a high-level investigation, the Army had cleared four of the five top officers who were responsible for prison policies and operations in Iraq. The fifth officer, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski of the Army Reserve, had already been relieved of her command of the military police unit at Abu Ghraib. (She has complained, and not without reason, that she was a scapegoat for the failures of higher-ranking officers.)
As Eric Schmitt wrote in The Times: "Barring new evidence, the inquiry by the Army's inspector general effectively closes the Army's book on whether the highest-ranking officers in Iraq during the Abu Ghraib prison scandal should be held accountable for command failings described in past reviews."
This is the way atrocities are dealt with in Mr. Bush's world of war. The higher-ups responsible for training, supervising and disciplining the troops - in other words, the big shots who presided over a system that ran shamefully amok - escaped virtually unscathed.
The abuses at Abu Ghraib, which seemed mind-boggling at the time, turned out to be symptomatic of the torture, abuse and institutionalized injustice that have permeated the Bush administration's operations in its so-called war against terror. Euphemisms like rendition, coercive interrogation, sleep adjustment and waterboarding are now widely understood. Yes, Virginia, it is the policy of the United States to kidnap individuals and send them off to regimes skilled in the art of torture.
Two things are needed. First, a truly independent commission, along the lines of the bipartisan 9/11 panel, should be set up to thoroughly investigate U.S. interrogation and detention operations, and make recommendations to correct abuses.
Second, the U.S. government should make it clear, beyond any doubt, that torture and any other inhumane treatment of prisoners is wrong, just flat wrong, and will not be tolerated under any circumstances.
"In our contemporary world, torture is like the slave trade or piracy was to people in the 1790's," said Michael Posner, executive director of Human Rights First, which is suing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over the prisoner abuse issue. "Torture is a crime against mankind, against humanity. It's something that has to be absolutely prohibited."
If the president made it clear that men and women up and down the chain of command would be held responsible for the abuses that occur on their watch, the abuses would plummet. Instead, the message the administration has sent is that its demands for accountability will be limited to a few hapless, ill-trained grunts.
The big shots who presided over behavior that has shamed America in the eyes of the world can count on this president's embrace.
© 2005 NY Times Co.