In the picture, a fresh-faced girl stands behind a pile of naked men stacked into a collapsed pyramid. The girl has a broad smile. In another picture, a different girl, also smiling, gives a thumbs up while pointing at a man's penis. The man is standing in a line of other men, all naked and with hoods on their heads. The pictures from Abu Ghurayb, a prison in Iraq, are familiar to anyone who has watched the news on television or picked up a newspaper in the past two weeks.
In the days following the media's release of the photographs and the Taguba report detailing the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in U.S. custody, the focus quickly shifted from the soldiers in the photos to the chain of command that led to the photos. Everyone seems to agree on two things: that the abuse is inexcusable and that the soldiers in the pictures shouldn't be made the scapegoats for a larger problem.
I would agree with both of those points. Abuse---physical or emotional---is never justified in any situation. Abuse can't be measured in relative terms; it doesn't lend itself to such comparatives as better or worse. Regardless of how Saddam behaved or how American POWs have been treated by other countries, we have a duty to reach for the higher moral ground, to set a higher standard, even in times of war. And the problem is larger than a few soldiers who got out of hand. This problem stretches the length of the chain of command, all the way to the White House. If anyone is being made a scapegoat, it is Rumsfeld, who is taking the heat for Bush. Major human rights agencies, including the nonpartisan Red Cross, were issuing warnings about prisoner abuse more than a year ago. Once again, the president was too disengaged from his own policies to be an effective commander in chief.
What I don't agree with is the free pass being given to the soldiers who committed the abuse. In the media, the soldiers have been portrayed as innocent victims of a military scandal. Newspaper articles quote their families describing them as gentle, caring, committed to defending freedom, and incapable of such acts of cruelty. But there they are, in the photos, committing those acts of cruelty with wide smiles.
I'll agree that the soldiers probably didn't come up with the ideas for torturing the prisoners and that the responsibility for this goes all the way up the chain of command. It also goes all the way down. The soldiers may not have come up with the ways, but they provided the means. There's no record of any of them objecting, filing a report or a complaint, requesting a reassignment, or even showing distress about what they were doing.
The common excuse is lack of training or preparation. One of the soldiers was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that she had never been given the Geneva Conventions to read, implying that she couldn't possibly be responsible for following them. I've never read them, either, but I still know that it is wrong to humiliate, beat, and sexually abuse a person. This isn't a violation of some obscure technical point; this is blatant abuse.
While we are worrying about pinning responsibility on as many people as possible, we are forgetting the personal responsibility of those individual soldiers. But, then again, personal responsibility isn't very popular in the United States. Overweight? Blame it on McDonald's. Violent kids? Sue the videogame manufacturers. So the knee-jerk reaction to a bunch of fresh-faced recruits abusing Iraqi prisoners is to look upwards and find someone else to blame.
I'm sure that the soldiers will face some consequences for their actions; at the very least, they will face a court martial and be discharged from service. But what message are we sending if we label them as victims and exonerate them of blame in the court of public opinion?
Responsibility isn't limited by rank or title. If we want responsible leaders, we have to value responsibility in our culture. That includes each and every one of us. Even in extreme circumstances, such as war, we have choices. Those soldiers made the wrong choice, over and over again. Just because they aren't the only ones to blame, doesn't mean they aren't to blame at all.