The Abu Ghraib Atrocity

You can’t really avoid the talk in the news about the torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Gharaib prison at the hands of U.S. soldiers. The digital pictures and videos make the incidents impossible to ignore, yet another impact of technology and our fast food media culture. While they’re not excusable, I imagine these kind of abuses have long existed beside war. Technology is only giving us a front row seat to atrocity.

As I read the articles and hear the reports, I’m struggling with how to respond. At times I feel like I’m witnessing another milestone that will make it into a thick and dusty volume of history ages from now. This type of incident is a turning point in history, like Sept. 11, a rallying cry, a tipping point, that first lethal spark. Unfortunately, it’s a spark for all kinds of bad things like hatred, revenge, and more fighting.

The U.S. military amazes me sometimes. For all our billion dollars of equipment, for all our capabilities to blow up a needle in a haystack from miles away, for our medical advances that save soldiers as good as dead in previous wars — for all of that, we stumble against ragtag guerillas, we’re tripped up by improvised bombs, we can’t maintain peace, and we can’t run a simple prison. I know it’s more complicated than all of that, but it amazes me. How can we invest so much in the latest technology, but we don’t bother to properly train prison guards? Or if we do allow that to happen, why is it that it continues for months until digital pictures are leaked to CBS? Then suddenly people care.

This is a sad time for our country. Justification for this war has been a hard fought case, the insurrection that followed didn’t help, and now we find incredible abuse within the ranks that ruins any rapport we had built with the Iraqis. While we can’t just pull out, part of me wishes we would.

I find the Christian responses intriguing, some condemning, some calling for Rumsfield’s resignation, some arguing about whether or not this is a case of a few bad apples, and others even throwing election year bombs and arguging about the role of women in the military. But I most resonate with Richard Mouw, Fuller Seminary President, talking about original sin:

“When I recoil in horror, then, at the sight of American soldiers torturing Iraqi and Afghan prisoners, it is not because I am witnessing an evil that is unfathomable to me. That kind of evil is all too familiar to me. I see it lurking inside me, and once again I cry out to God for mercy and forgivenness, on my own behalf as well as for people whose misdeeds right now have become a matter of public record.

“As a Christian, I certainly do not believe that our only recourse is a fatalistic acceptance of the reality of evil. Both my theology and my experience tell me that divine grace is possible. Humans can, with God’s help, resist doing the evil that might come “naturally” in horrific wartime situations. And, with grace, we can be forgiven for even the most depraved sins against our fellow human beings. With repentance, great sinners can recreate their moral lives.

“This is an important time for the American people to admit to the rest of the world that, though we often act like we are morally superior to the rest of the human race, we are as capable as anyone else of horrible acts of injustice.” (link via Bloggedy Blog)

This world is a broken place, and despite our perceived military might, our economic muscle, and our moral superiority, we are a broken people. To the Iraqis, Muslims, Arabs, and the world at large, I apologize. Words probably mean nothing in the face of such actions, but they’re all I have. I am dismayed that my nation steps forward against such odds with such noble and worthy goals, only to fall in the same places others have failed.

Powerful words about freeing Iraqis from the tortures of Saddam Hussien now ring hollow and bitter. We have replaced one tyrant for another. We closed the terrible Abu Ghraib prison where Saddam brutally tortured his people, and then reopened it for more of the same.

May God have mercy on our souls: the terrorists, the soldiers, the prisoners, the presidents, the civilians, the children, and me.

3 thoughts on “The Abu Ghraib Atrocity”

  1. Agreed. There’s no excuse for that behavior. Even in the situation where someone deserves to be killed (which was not this situation), it should be in the swiftest, most humane way possible. Stuff like this is completely separate from that, of course, and cannot be allowed.

    Still, there are other issues underneath all this ugliness, too. I don’t know that you owe an apology, Kevin. Certainly, the people who are in the line of responsibility for controlling that prison, and the people who were involved in those beatings owe an apology (or actually a lot more than an apology. Prison, really.) But you didn’t tell those guards to act that way. You didn’t allow it. And if you were ever behind the war, the abuse of prisoners wasn’t on your list of things you hoped would happen. It wasn’t your sin. It wasn’t America’s sin. It was the sin of those people who could have done something to make a change for the better, and didn’t.

    This is part of the problem. The hatred America has garnered because of this particular event is due to the same mistake you’ve made here. The “haters” should be hating the guards and the military personnel responsible for keeping the guards in line, but they shouldn’t be hating America as a whole. That stuff isn’t how we operate. It’s not acceptable, and it’s not on America’s agenda. That wasn’t America acting, it was a bunch of idiotic prison guards. As soon as those guards step out of America’s agenda, they step out of their role as representatives of America, and America as a whole must not be blamed for their actions. America must do something about it to fix it and prevent such stupidity in the future, but Americans shouldn’t be apologizing.

    If you don’t see that as an American citizen, how do we expect the rest of the world to see that?

  2. I think a distinction needs to be made between those directly responsible (the guards who did it, their officers who allowed it, etc.) and those who are implicated by association (ie. all Americans).

    Our troops are the face of America in Iraq and their actions reflect on us as a nation. If they build schools, repair rodes, establish democracy we are proud and our nation’s standing in the world improves; but if they abuse prisoners it is for us as a nation to apologize, to take responsibility for their failure as much as for their success.

    Besides, a decision to support the war, short of utter naivete, implies a support of just these sorts of atrocities. This is what happens in war. You can say the ends justify the means, but that’s about it.

  3. What gets me is: We’re not supposed to judge all Muslims on the actions of a few, yet we as Americans are judged on the actions of a few.

    Then again, hypocrisy has never been a stranger in Iraq… or America.

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