Thanks to Rep. Heather Wilson, New Mexico Republican and a former military officer, we now know the sequence of events that led to the American military police abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison. A military investigation in late summer 2003 of the 800th Military Police Brigade under Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski by Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller found a breakdown in discipline at the prison. When told that her troops were not even saluting, the general refused to order them to begin doing so.
Central Command, concerned about the breakdown but apparently worried about disciplining one of the highest ranking female Army officers in Iraq, devised a compromise bureaucratic solution to hand control of the critical central interrogation prison at Abu Ghraib to the military intelligence unit questioning the prisoners. The critical order was issued October 12, 2003, and was confirmed by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez in November. This put the interrogators in charge and was the precipitating event for what investigating Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba called sadistic criminal abuses, the first one of which apparently took place on October 17, 2003.
Army policy is to make MP’s responsible for order within the prisons and for the physical safety of the community and the prisoners. In order to prevent abuse, interrogators are limited to a staff role so that the simple existence of the MP’s becomes a restraint upon what they are able to do. Interrogators seek information that may save the lives of their comrades and have a tremendous incentive to use intimidation right up to the boundary of acceptable use. Once the interrogators were placed in charge, the limits were removed and they directed the MP’s, unfamiliar with the limits and undisciplined by previous experience, to soften up the prisoners — which, together with broader powers ceded to interrogators in 2000 — led to the horrific acts and the damning photographs.
To a personnel officer, the worm in the apple was a simple bureaucratic decision, the equal opportunity assignment to unit command without consideration of sex. While Congress has insisted upon restricting women from direct combat roles in the military, the male officers have been unwilling or unable to stop the steady spread of women into close support positions, as the casualty figures in Iraq demonstrate. They would have to take on the whole liberal culture of the American media and social establishment, including many Republicans, to do so. A movement lead by Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness only to separate men and women in basic training has met a stone wall in the Pentagon and White House.
Given the sensitivity of these issues, caution was certainly understandable. In some ways, getting around replacing Gen. Karpinski by shifting responsibility was a brilliant bureaucratic maneuver. But, as we see now in 20-20 hindsight, when mixed with a dose of juvenile American hedonism and broader standards, this led to actual torture and severe cultural humiliation. No values are higher in the Arab world than male honor and female purity. Placing a woman in charge of Iraq prisons when the U.S. was trying to win the hearts and minds of the population was an affront to this culture. But the cultural belief that sex is meaningless in deciding opportunity for jobs blinded all to any possible problems.
When The Washington Post first published the picture of the female U.S. MP smirking and obscenely pointing to the private parts of a naked Iraqi prisoner, the caption of the picture did not identify her as a woman but only as a “soldier.” The picture was blurry enough that sex was not obvious. The accompanying thousand-word story did not reveal the soldier’s sex either. Indeed, Gen. Karpinski was not identified as a woman, and in these days of sex-neutral first names, who could be sure? While it was refreshing to find The Post so demure, the Arab world was not fooled and erupted into an anger that has set the U.S. mission on its heels. Even when Gen. Karpinski was finally disciplined, the liberal cultural niceties remained so powerful that she was merely given a letter of reprimand that would keep her from being promoted, when she had already decided to retire.
So a little bureaucratic rule based upon progressive utopianism and political correctness collided with a foreign culture based upon male honor. The resulting pictures will fill al Qaeda’s ranks with terrorists for generations to come. One can reject this culture while still understanding that is how the Arab world operates. If one is to direct its destinies, one must at least be aware of its cultural myths. Such is the danger of creating an American empire — a little cultural blindness on the part of the imperial power and its natural bureaucratic opaqueness has the potential to bring the whole enterprise down.
Donald Devine, former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is editor of ConservativeBattleline.com, the American Conservative Union Foundation’s opinion journal.