Sheila Provencher

By now, people all over the world have seen the horrifying pictures of Iraqi prisoners being abused and ridiculed by U.S. soldiers. The question in the hearts of most Americans, as they look at these degrading pictures, is probably, How could young American men and women do such horrible things? The gut response is that it must be an aberration. President Bush said as much when he stated that only a few people were to blame. He felt deep disgust for the way the prisoners were treated and insisted, That’s not the way we do things in America. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmett was even more forceful: Number one, this is a small minority of the military, and number two, they need to understand that is not the Army, Kimmitt told Dan Rather on television’s 60 Minutes. The Army is a values-based organization. We live by our values. Some of our soldiers every day die by our values, and these acts that you see in these pictures may reflect the actions of individuals, but by God, it doesn’t reflect my Army.

It is true that there are countless honorable soldiers working in the military prisons in Iraq. One female officer, for instance, at Bucca prison camp in Um Qasr showed great compassion when C.P.T. members talked with her about their concerns for a number of prisoners who were being held without charge. This officer personally intervened on behalf of an innocent prisoner who tried to commit suicide because of his deep despair. Many Iraqis who told us stories of degrading abuse also commented on the noble soldiers who protested such abuse and treated them with respect.

But the sheer number of allegations of mistreatment, many of which I have heard personally, suggests that the problem is not just a matter of a few bad people. C.P.T. has been documenting abuses within the detention system for nearly a year, and the photos from Abu Ghraib were no surprise for me. For months we communicated grave concerns about the detention system in several meetings with officials of the U.S. military and the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and with Congressional representatives.

Does this mean that most soldiers are sadistic abusers, whose crimes equal those of Saddam Hussein? Of course not. Every case I heard about abuse also included testimony about good and honorable soldiers. Dr. Ali, a professor at Baghdad University, was held without charges for 38 days last winter. Before taking him to prison, soldiers kept him in the Green Zone in a cage meant for animals, under the open sky, for three days and nights. But when he was at the airport prison, his guard befriended him and said, I hope you will be freed. Another Iraqi, an elderly man from Baquba, was captured in a house raid in August 2003 and held for four months. He described numerous abuses: Soldiers threatened him with attack dogs, made him stand for hours in the sun, with water bottles set nearby but out of reach, and forced him to sleep on the bare ground. But he also told of a noble soldier who finally asked, What crazy person imprisoned this old man? He could not even fire a weapon. The recoil would hurt him. Because of that soldier, the elderly man was freed.

I have heard firsthand other allegations of abuse. A man from Baquba told me: When the troops arrived last April, I was so overjoyed, I greeted them with flowers. But in August they imprisoned me. He said that he had his hands cuffed behind his back for 14 hours at a stretch and also suffered water deprivation and beatings. His 15-year-old son was taken as well. Both were eventually released without charges. Another young man described how his elderly father suffocated and died of a heart attack as they both lay hooded and handcuffed in the back of a military vehicle. Still another young man brought us a hood with the words Wrongo Dongo Captain Stupid written on it.

Again, does this mean that the soldiers are sadistic, bad people? No. But this is what is so disturbing about the abuse. It is perpetrated by good young men and women who have somehow become so dehumanized by training, combat stress and neglect that they do these things. So the superficial answer, This is just a few people, does not suffice. We need to look deeper, to ask, How did this happen? and How can we prevent it from happening again?

I see several sources for the patterns of abuse. First, there is the extraordinary stress of warfare. Soldiers are constantly under attack by any number of armed groups. I myself have some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from just being near bombs and gunfire, but the soldiers are actually sitting in the tanks and humvees that might be bombed at any time by various militia groups. I have experienced mortars flying over the van as I rode along the highway, but the mortars actually landed near the watchtower manned by soldiers. To feel a constant threat to one’s life, coupled with the psychological stress of being separated from home and family, is devastating. One soldier said to a member of C.P.T., I work 12 hours a day, seven days a week [at Abu Ghraib prison]. I can’t take this anymore. The fact that so many soldiers manage to maintain great integrity and courage under such stress is a testament to the inherent goodness of the people in the armed services. But the stress of warfare creates conditions that lead too many soldiers to express their anger, fear and frustration with abusive behavior.

Second, the military ideology that separates the world into good guys and bad guysthe terminology is in common usesees all security detainees as potential bad guys. If a soldier who has watched his or her friends die and feels threatened all the time must take out his or her anger on someone, it is all too easy to abuse the bad guy nearest at hand, even if this is a 15-year-old boy who was scooped up in a house raid because his uncle was a suspected Baathist.

Finally, the military’s hierarchical structure encourages fierce loyalty and deference to superiors. These abuses do not happen in a vacuum: Soldiers receive and follow orders. During an interview on the television program 60 Minutes II, one of the soldiers charged with abuse at Abu Ghraib stated that he never received training about the Geneva Conventions, standards for humane treatment of prisoners and that higher officers encouraged his abusive methods of interrogation. When there has been no appropriate training, obedience to illegal orders is more likely.

Numerous routine practices in Iraq involve behavior that many Americans would consider abusive. More than 35,000 Iraqis have been detained in the past year. More than 10,000 are still in prison. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, an occupying power can imprison security detainees without charge or trial and for no specified time. All that is required is that the occupying power review each case every six months.

The methods of detention chosen by senior military officers systematically cause great suffering for thousands of Iraqis. By their own admission, military officials have chosen to cast a wide net when hunting for insurgents. An official of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Anthority said to a colleague of mine, There are thousands of Iraqis in prison who should be at home right now. In order to capture one suspect, coalition forces arrest all the male members of a household during chaotic midnight raids that terrify entire families and sometimes end in the injury or death of women and children. The C.P.T. has documented a case in which coalition forces arrested 83 out of 85 men and boys in the village of Abu Sifa, leaving the women and children to carry on with all the farming and other heavy work for months. Once the men are in detention, families find it extremely difficult to secure information about them and do not know if they are alive or dead. The waiting period for visits can be up to five months. Women and children who rely on the male breadwinner become homeless while he languishes in jail. Thousands of such detainees have eventually been released without any disclosure of the reason for their arrest.

There are Iraqis who are guilty of terrible violence. One has only to watch the daily news to hear of regular, lethal attacks on soldiers and civilian workers. But the methods used to capture, imprison and interrogate such Iraqis are so violent that the coalition only creates more resisters.

The devastation to Iraqis is only part of the suffering. What about the psychological and spiritual devastation to the soldiers who witness and perpetrate acts of violence upon Iraqi detainees? Who will care for these soldiers when they come home? Who will change the military system so that this does not happen again?

Sheila Provencher, a Catholic member of Christian Peacemaker Teams, has worked in the Middle East since December 2003, mostly in Baghdad.