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The Cleveland Plain Dealer (Ohio)

Abu Ghraib: Top-Down Responsibility, Bottom-Up Accountability

Elizabeth Sullivan

The only Army officer to be court-martialed for Abu Ghraib abuses just got off with a tap on his oak leaf -- a reprimand but no jail time.

The shaky case against reserve Lt. Col. Steve Jordan did little credit to the military justice system. It also showed how readily the Pentagon dispensed with accountability, lessons learned and moral courage in the search for easy scapegoats for prisoner abuse.

Jordan, a stocky 51-year-old from Virginia, wound up convicted merely of not following orders to keep his mouth shut about the case. The military jury decided Wednesday that that deserved only a reprimand.

Jordan may have done wrong in ways not captured by the allegations. Yet he wasn't the only or even the key officer to do wrong. The taints ran right up the line -- through ground commanders who signed off on unorthodox and abusive interrogation methods to the secretary of defense's office.

It was Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld who first infected the system with the notion that terrorism prisoners could be treated outside military norms and the Geneva Conventions. It was Rumsfeld who fostered the layers of military yes men and yes women who encased the ill-planned Iraq occupation.

The fact that there were too few U.S. soldiers with inadequate preparation and supervision guarding too many Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib simply escaped notice. When the time for accountability came, it was "nobody's" fault.

A woman general in the Army reserves with a signally sloppy management style was reduced in rank. Other officers with the capacity to embarrass higher-ups found themselves absolved with quiet reprimands, or not charged at all.

Instead, a small mass of Army guppies -- the actual abusers and their immediate supervisors -- were the ones to take the direct hits.

Yet it turns out that behind the scenes, those rare officers who stood up against Rumsfeld's preference for collaboration or silence were themselves being quietly sidelined.

Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba knew he was putting his military career on the line when he pulled few punches in his initial Abu Ghraib investigation in March 2004. The Taguba report described "numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses" and urged more probes both up the line and outside the immediate chain of command.

Yet in a chilling post-retirement interview that Taguba gave Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker magazine earlier this year, he described how his career path was not just interrupted but how he personally was ostracized and mocked by Rumsfeld and his small coterie.

"From the moment a soldier enlists, we inculcate loyalty, duty, honor, integrity and selfless service," Taguba told Hersh, his bitterness showing. "And yet when we get to the senior-officer level, we forget those values."

Those sentiments, sadly, are not held in isolation.

Disillusionment and cynicism have taken hold among talented midlevel military officers and senior noncommissioned officers. In "Challenging the Generals," in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, writer Fred Kaplan describes how many are leaving, or thinking of leaving.

Propelling some of those views is the H.R. McMaster nonpromotion.

You might remember Col. McMaster. He was the genius of Tal Afar, the Army officer much praised by name by President Bush at the City Club last year for turning around that al-Qaida-infested city. The Tal Afar model arguably helped transform much of northwest Iraq by convincing other Sunni sheiks that there was a percentage in throwing in their lots with U.S. soldiers.

Yet McMaster, who wrote "Dereliction of Duty" about U.S. officers' failings in Vietnam, also is a rebel. He created the Tal Afar model on the fly; it wasn't doctrine. He's the sort of soldier's soldier whom office-bound, yes-men generals would just as soon not see join their ranks.

So McMaster, according to Kaplan, has been passed over for promotion to brigadier general for the last two years running.

These are the signals that talented military up-and-comers understand. When no one pays for the big mistakes and thinking officers are dispensable, it's not just the war in Iraq, but the heart of the world's greatest military that is threatened.

Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages. To reach Elizabeth Sullivan:

© 2007 The Cleveland Plain Dealer

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