NYT - Lifting The Censor's Veil On The Shame Of Iraq
This article's caused a bit of a stir in the blogsosphere, apparently. What struck me first of all though was the ambiguity of the article's headline. What I wondered, reading it, was whether the Newspaper Of Record was finally going to deal with the media's shameful record of self-censorship during the Saddamite regime in Iraq.
Not yet, it seems.
New York Times
May 5, 2005
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."
And yet, somehow, he did.
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.
The extraordinary proliferation of photos, and their subject matter, aren't what's truly distinctive about the current war, see, after all, some of Brady's photographs from the American Civil War, but rather the digital revolution's impact on what I like to call "war porn."
With a digital camera, a laptop, and an internet connection, your picture illustrating the ugliness of war can be all over the world at speeds that were unthinkable even as recently as Gulf War I.
One should bear in mind that the person who caused the initial investigations into abuses at Abu Ghraid wasn't a reporter. He wasn't an officer or even a non-comm. He was a lower-ranking reservist who obtained a CD with some of the incriminating photographs and slid it under the door of an officer he believed would investigate the matter. Which he did.
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.
I'm constantly amazed at how relatively few pictures I took in all the time I was in Iraq, and yet there were soldiers who seemed to do nothing but take pictures. Taking pictures when they needed to have their weapon in their hands and scanning the countryside or rooftops. Taking their subordinates off the beaten track and into increased hazard to get "cool" pictures. When John Kerry's motion pictures from Vietnam were used as part of his presidential campaign, which depict him in full grunt mode as he took his crew out into the boonies to reenact firefights a day or so later, it put me in mind of a certain chief warrant officer who dragged his team along on little photo safaris, putting himself, and them, at increased risk to life and limb. That was when I knew for certain for whom I wouldn't be voting.
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.
Completely different than the media's self-censored, self-sanitized portrayal of Iraq prior to its liberation from Ba'athist tyrany.
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.
And if the same had been done during Saddam's reign, giving the American public a true picture of the horror and degradation that Iraqi daily had become, would the reverse have been true?
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.
Any thinking, feeling person is repelled by the violence and dehumanization of war: any war. What makes him so special? Ah, he's a conscientious objector. So be it; in fairness, he did his tour of Iraq, presumably honorably, and is making an informed decision about war and his participation in it. All wars, presumably, as a C.O., and not just this one; he just happens to have been to this one.
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.
One goofs around and poses for the cameras in the surroundings in which one finds oneself. Bear in mind that the majority of the troops fighting in this war are the same ages, just to give an example, as the young people one sees in Spring Break "Girls Gone Wild" videos. If one watches such things.
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.
And it's the digital revolution that's made that possible. One need not personally have a gruesome souvenier of some sort, a digital photograph will suffice.
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.
Soldiers are trained to shoot. Center of mass is preferable, but a head shot will do the trick as well. The gruesome head wound is gruesome yes, but it's still evidence of decent shooting on somebody's part.
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?"
A fair question, which has this past year been in the process, as it continues to be, of being answered in the course of many reports and investigations.
I'll take a cursory stab at it myself. At Abu Ghraib, the incidents ceased to be isolated and demonstrated, at least locally, a pattern. The pattern was indeed intolerable and was not tolerated, once it was brought to light.
The theory of a top-to-bottom, worldwide policy of mistreatment (to say nothing of torture, very little of which seems to have actually occurred, and never as policy) never quite seems to hang together in the daylight of the many investigations and reports thusfar. As the lack of such a policy represents a crushing disappointment and disillusionment for much of the anti-America, anti-military Left, they are resistant to accepting its reality.
And just a further word or three about Mr. Delgado himself. My wife wondered aloud to me how it was that he was a former reservist. After all, there's a war on, you know. Enlistment contracts are for eight years altogether; how could someone of such low rank, and apparently honorable enough service, already have completed their contract.
Now we know. He's a C.O. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that. I have considerable respect for those whose deeply held, often religious, beliefs preclude their service in uniform. Young Mr. Delgado has completed a tour of duty in Iraq already, far more than most of the young people of his generation have managed to do for their country during the current Global War on Terror. If his experiences in Iraq have caused him to adopt pacifism or pacifistic religious beliefs, than "Vaya Con Dios." However, his public statements, at least as reported in the press, could possible stand to have that little factoid a bit more front-and-center. Of course a conscientious objector is going to say the war in Iraq is wrong. Presumably he believes all wars are wrong.
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.
"Wretched war"? Hmm, I guess someone's already made up their mind about this one, although I suspect that occurred prior to his meeting Mr. Delgado. At least he was able to mention Vietnam at least once, even if it was a bit of a stretch and at the very last moment.