May 21, 2004

Read It and Weep

I spent two years of my life with the International Rescue Committee in the former Yugoslavia.

My main responsibility was to interview refugees and act as their advocates to secure them refugee status in the United States.

During this time, I interviewed hundreds of people who had suffered immensely. Young women raped by Bosnian Serb paramilitaries in Sarajevo, a Bosnian Muslim man who had escaped Srebrenica, another man from the Prijedor area who had lost his mother, father and all of his seven siblings to a massacre.

I would, as best I could, write up these horrors and console myself thinking that these wonderfully resilient human beings would at least have a chance to start anew in the United States--which, of course, appeared a utopian beacon of liberty to these so brutalized individuals.

Which brings me to Abu Ghraib and this very disturbing story in today's Washingon Post.

Go read the article. Take a good look too at the new pictures that haven't yet been aired. Then begin to read over these sworn statements from former Abu Ghraib detainees.

The original documents (in PDF format) are hauntingly real with their grainy quality and ink blotches. The actual sworn statement forms starkly stare back at us in all their routineness and bureaucratic blandness--with information about who translated the document, who verified the translation, who made up the prisoner interrogation team.

For me, as I read over these gut-wrenching sworn statements, my mind flashes back to the reporting forms I used to fill out to chronicle horrors that had taken place in Bosnia. Not, of course, because Bosnian Serb genocidal rampages can be equated with what went on in Abu Ghraib. But simply given the astonishing fact that individuals in U.S. captivity would be filling out reports that, in form at least if not in substance, would so vividly remind me of the forms I used to prove political persecution of refugees back in the mid-90s.

Put differently, never in my wildest imaginings--while working in the Balkans in the mid-90s--did I think that, someday, I might see sworn statements detailing American abuses of the scope and nature of Abu Ghraib.

So perhaps I'm something of a sucker, but even after having followed this Abu Ghraib story for weeks now, I still feel like I was punched in the gut all over again.

To be sure, investigations are underway.

Yes, we are not perfect and never claimed to be.

Yes, we are showing that a democracy polices itself (too slowly, in my view, with worrisome whiffs of too much buck-passing, ass-covering, avoidance of taking real responsibility--as opposed to merely stating that one assumes responsibility-what, finally, does responsibility mean then?).

You know, we are all doubtless very busy. We lead rushed, hurried lives. We likely don't wish to stop and spend a couple hours poring through these gruesome accounts of abuse and torture.

But do go read just this one sworn statment.

Then ask yourself, how did we let this happen?

What, exactly, was the "systems" failure that allowed such grotesqueries to take place--even after ICRC reports had been issued to U.S. military authorities?

How was it that such conduct was not deemed to rise to the level that POTUS was not briefed contemporaneously?

To what extent were such policies, for instance, to blame?

No, dear readers, this is a failure of leadership--not merely the work of a few 'bad apples' on a frat-like hazing frolic that got a tad out of hand.

Not to mention that such abuses and/or tortures almost certainly occurred in locales beyond Abu Ghraib.

The Rummy Angle

Don Rumsfeld has had a fine run in both the public and private sectors for many long years.

I was happy we had such a strong Secretary of Defense in the aftermath of 9/11. Gosh, I remember feeling in downtown New York a few days after the attacks--thank God Gore lost the election! We have a strong national security team at the helm!

But Rumsfeld, like many strong talents, has come undone by his hubris. His aggressive insouciance regarding Geneva Conventions fostered a culture of treating detainees in a manner which was, to use his words, "un-American".

Further, even without seeing the photographs, the textual description of the acts that had taken place merited airing to POTUS immediately. That this didn't happen, to me, indicates that Rummy didn't take all this seriously enough.

Nor has he shown any genuine contrition, in my view, since this scandal has unfolded. No, I don't want to see him lying prostrate in front of varied Arab potentates (who have done much worse, of course, but, on the other hand, aren't telling us what form of government would work best for us in Washington) begging forgiveness. But I want to see more than a 'boost the morale of our troops' (subtext: I, Don Rumsfeld, ain't going anywhere, folks) lap around Abu Ghraib.

But It's Bigger Than Rummy

There are so many other factors at play in all this, of course, far beyond Rummy.

The utter bestiality and shock of the 9/11 attacks have led to a strong undertow of anti-Arab racism too, I suspect. The better to have un-muzzled and well-fed, well-groomed attack dogs glare terrifyingly at haggard, naked Arab males prostrate before the canines in detention centers.

Yes, de-humanization of the enemy occurs in all conflicts. This is the nature of war. But it is harder, I suspect, to imagine that we would have treated Bosnian Serb detainees, for instance, in such a manner (just like we likely treated the Japanese worse than some Germans during WWII).

We must remember, after all, that the 19 hijackers do not represent all Arabs--just like those U.S. soldiers smiling and flashing the thumbs-up over the corpses of Iraq detainees beaten to death don't represent all Americans.

So, should Rummy resign? Yes, he should.

Will he? Probably not.

Does it really matter at this point? I don't know.

Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy!

I guess I was something of a naif.

Many of us have been, I fear, over the past few months.

Remember all the empty cheerleading in the blogosphere of around a year back: "Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy!"?

Democracy has proven elusive.

Sexy has been more West Virginia amateur porn with tinges of snuff thrown in.

And the whiskey was some of us drunk on simplistic nostrums of democracy exportation and chest-thumping triumphalism.

Am I being too harsh?

Yes, likely, a little--I'm angry and disturbed.

And, to this day, I believe we were right to unseat Saddam.

And I still believe we can make the Iraq project work. After all, this effort must be measured in years, not week by week.

So yeah, it is and will remain a long, hard slog. We must soldier on, persevere.

But I think we will require some new policymakers at the helm.

Fresh, vigorous, serious policy re-thinks need to pursued by individuals whose reputations are not(rightly) greatly suffering.

This is critical towards remedying the grevious errors that have been committed in Iraq, both tactically and morally, since Saddam was unseated.

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