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Lifting the Censor's Veil on the Shame of Iraq
Published on Thursday, May 5, 2005 by the New York Times
Lifting the Censor's Veil on the Shame of Iraq
by Bob Herbert
 

"Nobody wants to come forward about this," said Aidan Delgado. "I didn't want to come forward about this."

One of the distinctive things about the war in Iraq is the extraordinary proliferation of photos taken by G.I.'s that document the extreme horrors of warfare and, in many instances, the degrading treatment of Iraqi civilians by American troops.

When Mr. Delgado returned to Florida last year from a tour of Iraq that included a traumatic stint with a military police unit at Abu Ghraib prison, he thought he could pretty easily resume the ordinary life of a college student and leave his troubling war experiences behind.

But people kept asking him about Iraq. And he had many photos, some of them extremely difficult to look at, that were permanent reminders of events that are likely to stay with him for a lifetime.

There are pictures of children who were wounded and barely clinging to life, and some who appeared to be dead. There was a close-up of a soldier who was holding someone's severed leg. There were photos of Iraqis with the deathlike stare of shock, stunned by the fact that something previously unimaginable had just happened to them. There were photos of G.I.'s happily posing with the bodies of dead Iraqis.

This is what happens in war. It's the sickening reality that is seldom seen in the censored, sanitized version of the conflict that Americans typically get from the government and the media.

Americans' attitude toward war in general and this war in particular would change drastically if the censor's veil were lifted and the public got a sustained, close look at the agonizing bloodshed and other horrors that continue unabated in Iraq. If that happened, support for any war that wasn't an absolute necessity would plummet.

Mr. Delgado, 23, is a former Army reservist who was repelled by the violence and dehumanization of the war. He completed his tour in Iraq. But he sought and received conscientious objector status and was honorably discharged last January.

Some of the most disturbing photos in his possession were taken after G.I.'s at Abu Ghraib opened fire on detainees who had been throwing rocks at guards during a large protest. Four detainees were killed. The photos show American soldiers posing and goofing around with the bodies of the detainees.

In one shot a body bag has been opened to show the gruesome head wound of the corpse. In another, a G.I. is leaning over the top of the body bag with a spoon in his right hand, as if he is about to scoop up a portion of the dead man's wounded flesh.

"These pictures were circulated like trophies," Mr. Delgado said.

Some were posted in command headquarters. He said it seemed to him that the shooting of the prisoners and the circulation of the photos were viewed by enlisted personnel and at least some officers as acceptable - even admirable - behavior.

Mr. Delgado said that when his unit was first assigned to Abu Ghraib, he believed, like most of his fellow soldiers, that the prisoners were among the most dangerous individuals in Iraq.

He said: "Most of the guys thought, 'Well, they're out to kill us. These are the ones killing our buddies.' "

But while at work in a headquarters office, he said, he learned that most of the detainees at Abu Ghraib had committed only very minor nonviolent offenses, or no offenses at all. (Several investigations would subsequently reveal that vast numbers of completely innocent Iraqis were seized and detained by coalition forces.)

Several months ago Mr. Delgado gave a talk and presented a slide show at his school, New College of Florida in Sarasota. To his amazement, 400 people showed up. He has given a number of talks since then in various parts of the country.

His goal, he said, is to convince his listeners that the abuse of innocent Iraqis by the American military is not limited to "a few bad apples," as the military would like the public to believe. "At what point," he asked, "does a series of 'isolated incidents' become a pattern of intolerable behavior?"

The public at large and especially the many soldiers who have behaved honorably in Iraq deserve an honest answer to that question. It took many long years for the military to repair its reputation after Vietnam. Mr. Delgado's complaints and the entire conduct of this wretched war should be thoroughly investigated.

© 2005 New York Times, Inc.

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