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Torture of Iraqi prisoners raises many questions

By Carol Devine-Molin
web posted May 3, 2004

We were all horrified by the trophy photos of Iraqi prisoners being tortured by American troops. The images of Iraqi detainees, some hooded, some naked -- having been beaten, stomped on, urinated on, sexually abused, etc. -- have been splashed across the media and are now indelibly engraved in our psyches.

Realistically, shouldn't we have expected it? Granted, these are atrocious behaviors perpetrated by a miniscule number of soldiers, with about a half-dozen reservists facing charges to date. And there's no dispute that it represents a public relations nightmare for the US and its partners in Iraq, with Islamic, and global opinion for that matter, enraged by the heinous images. However, atrocities and barbarism have happened in every war since time immemorial. In today's vernacular, we often attribute it to "combat stress" and the attending proclivity to thoroughly dehumanize the enemy. No, it doesn't excuse the abhorrent behaviors, but it's certainly part and parcel of warfare even if it affects few of our troops. Moreover, the criminality under discussion must be promptly addressed by the military justice system, with the perpetrators properly punished.

American soldiers stand behind a pyramid of naked Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad in this undated photo
American soldiers stand behind a pyramid of naked Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad in this undated photo

The barbarity of American and other coalition soldiers, limited as it might be, is in direct reaction to the particular nature of the warfare they're up against, and which embraces every dirty trick in the book. The traditional rules of engagement on the battlefield have been tossed aside. Rather, in Iraq, we see our enemies readily blur the lines between soldiers and civilians, use woman and children as human shields, and kidnap, torture and mutilate our fine troops and adjunct private-sector personnel. Iraqi attacks are alternately dubbed as terrorism, guerrilla warfare, low intensity warfare, asymmetric warfare and even the relatively newly coined term of the past decade, "fourth generation warfare". The latter phrase especially connotes escalating sectarian violence by dogmatic thugs, which certainly epitomizes the current situation in Iraq.

However, there are now fascinating media stories circulating that directly implicate the Army's intelligence officers in the terrible abuses that occurred at Abu Ghraib prison, located near Baghdad -- sadistic abuses that include sodomizing a prisoner with a broomstick and threatening another with live electrical wires. Reportedly, it was military intelligence that encouraged the Army reservists to participate in acts of torture and mistreatment, as a means of facilitating the interrogation of prisoners. This is where it gets very interesting and opens the subject to real debate.

Just how far is western civilization willing to go in its interrogation practices during times of war? Our society must seriously consider this question. Israeli intelligence officials, most notably the internal-security force known as Shin Bet, have reportedly eschewed broken bones/teeth and beaten bodies in favor of sophisticated information extraction methods including: a) sleep and sensory-stimuli deprivation, and b) infliction of pain and discomfort without permanent bodily damage such as the hooding of prisoners with foul-smelling materials and the use of severe shaking and non-stop, loud music that are disorienting. (Now the Israelis might indeed go beyond that -- which is what I suspect -- but I'm just citing their official stance). Frankly, I think most Americans would feel comfortable with the Israeli interrogation methods noted here, and which American forces already largely employ. In any event, although most Americans understand that sodomizing prisoners is over-the-line and morally loathsome, it leaves opened the question as to what are acceptable, and fruitful, interrogation techniques especially when collection of intelligence is paramount with lives at stake.

Lastly, Americans are thrilled at the seemingly miraculous recovery of American hostage Thomas Hamill, a contractor with a Halliburton subsidiary, who was kidnapped on April 9th in an insurgent assault on his convoy. Initial reports indicate that he escaped from a building where he was being held by Iraqi insurgents and managed to make his way to US forces in an area south of Tikrit on Sunday, May 2nd.

Hamill's kidnappers, who were undoubtedly a bunch of ruthless thugs that murdered others in the convoy, were threatening to burn him alive if their demands were not met. Thankfully, Hamill was able to escape. However -- and this is a hypothetical for the sake of provoking thought -- if we were fully cognizant that we had a prisoner in custody that knew the location of Hamill's whereabouts during his captivity, just how far would be willing to go in extracting this information? It's just a reasonable point of inquiry, under the circumstances.

Carol Devine-Molin is a regular contributor to several online magazines.

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