"Judge Us By Our Actions"
Monday, May 17, 2004
The following is an email from a Marine Colonel in Iraq. The Colonel discusses the effect that Abu Ghraib has had in the Middle East. You will be surprised.
There is no way to spin it, the past ten days have been tough. I had hoped to email everyone this week with news about my amazing trip to Egypt as it was truly a vacation of a lifetime. However, as is often the case in Iraq, events of the past ten days have caused me to change course this week and offer the war zone perspective of the tragic series of events that have transpired. Egypt will have to wait until later.
A little more than one week ago the world awoke to the shocking and graphic images of the horrific treatment of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of their U.S. captors at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. Global condemnation was swift and the Arab street was whipped into a mad frenzy as anti-western television stations ran the photos nonstop 24 -7. No other message would penetrate for days. No manner of reconstruction successes or steps towards sovereignty would seal the rift that these terrible photos had opened in the hearts and minds of many in the Middle East. To many, it was hard proof of what they had already believed about the United States all along.
Within days, the President apologized to the world for the horrendous acts of a few misguided soldiers that cast a dark shadow on all of their 135,000 compatriots. The Department of Defense announced that it would put together a system of compensation to repay victims of the abuses and the United States Congress launched into full investigative mode. And while these steps may seem impressive after the fact, it is important to remember that they pale in comparison to the full-fledged investigations the military had launched months earlier as soon as the allegations began to surface. In January a young Army specialist became aware of the illegal actions in the prison and did his duty in reporting them to his senior commanders. 24 hours later an investigation was authorized. The day after that, it was announced from Baghdad that an investigation had been launched into allegations of mistreatment. No cover up. No foot dragging and no pressure from the media, they originally learned of the allegations from the military. General Sanchez then launched a criminal investigation immediately and asked for an administrative review of procedures at the Abu Ghraib facility. These investigations have so far resulted in criminal or administrative actions against at least 12 individuals, including the relief of the prison chain of command and criminal referrals of several soldiers directly involved in abuse. General Courts-Martial will be convened as early as next week as charges have already been brought against a handful of the soldiers involved in the outrageous acts. Unfortunately, with the election season now upon us, there are those in Washington who see political gold in professing their righteous indignation. As the volume of their shrill voices continues to drown out reason, many have lost sight of the real story here. Donald Rumsfeld said it best last week when he testified before the United States Senate. "Judge us by our actions", said the Secretary of Defense. Watch how Americans, watch how a democracy deals with wrongdoing and scandal and the pain of acknowledging and correcting our own mistakes and weaknesses. And then after they have seen America in action -- then ask those who preach resentment and hatred of America if our behavior doesn't prove the lies in the falsehood and slander they speak about our people and way of life. Above all, ask them if the willingness of Americans to acknowledge their own failures before humanity doesn't light the world as surely as the great ideas and beliefs that first made this nation a beacon of hope and liberty to all who strive to be free. And believe it or not, this is exactly what has happened. Iraqi media, almost unbelievably, have in recent days begun to editorialized astonishment at how the United States has responded. No covers ups. No denials. The President of the United States, the world's most powerful man, formally apologized to the people of Iraq. The U.S. Congress grilled a senior member of the Administration and all the while the U.S. media was allowed to report on the unfolding story with full freedom and access. "Why does Arab media fail at self criticism and why can't Arab human rights NGOs pressure Arab governments the way their counterparts do in America?", asked the host of satellite news channel al-Arabiy's (one of the harshest critics of the United States) "Spotlight" news program. The follow up commentary was even more astounding, given the source. "The Americans exposed their own scandal, queried the officials and got the American Government to accept responsibility for the actions of its soldiers," stated the host before asking her guests why this sort of open and responsive action isn't taken in the Arab world.
One of the largest newspapers in the Pan-Arab world raised the stakes even higher yesterday with this editorial comment: "Bush has apologized and claimed that democratic regimes make mistakes, but that the guilty will be punished. What happened at Abu Ghuraib is not surprising as there are many stories of horror inside Arab jails. The abuses that the Arab governments condemn at Abu Ghuraib are nothing compared to what happens in these governments' jails. Will the Arab regimes go on TV and apologize to their people in the same way President Bush did?"
My colleague who heads our Arab media unit here in Baghdad called these statements nothing short of revolutionary for the Middle East media. And while they may not seem that profound on the surface, they are threads of a far greater, and still unfolding, story. Yes, the horrific actions of a few have tainted the good work of the many. But they have unwittingly done something else. The events of the past several days have given democracy a global stage within which to prove its worth.
In all their lives, the citizens of Iraq never heard Saddam Hussein apologize. Not once. Not when he gassed more than 10,000 of his own people on an April morning a decade ago. Not when he dragged 300,000 men, women and children from their homes in the dead of night to be driven into the desert and summarily executed and buried in mass, unmarked graves. And not after decades of war and isolation that left a once prosperous land completely crippled and devoid of even the most basic of freedoms.
No, the first time the people of this land ever heard an apology it came from the leader of the world's oldest democracy. He was apologizing on behalf of a nation that had spent more than $100 billion to liberate their country from a brutal tyrant. He was apologizing on behalf of a people that sacrificed more than 700 sons and daughters to bring freedom and hope to a region devoid of such notions. He was apologizing because in this instance, we were wrong.
Judge us by our actions admonished Secretary Rumsfeld, and judge us they are. And while the verdict is still out, the signs are optimistic.
Having traveled outside of Iraq to Kuwait and Egypt during the height of the news coverage last week, I can understand why many in the United States believe this scandal to be a destructive blow to the Coalition's efforts. Government run satellite news channels have hyped this sad moment for all its worth. From Saudi Arabia and Iran to Indonesia and Syria, the outcries of injustice have been deafening.
Oddly enough, however, the response in Iraq has been much more even-keeled. Reporters ask what will be done to bring justice to those soldiers who participated in these outrages and what form of compensation will be paid to the victims, and so on. To be sure they are angry, but they also know that despite the gruesome nature of the photos, they pale in comparison to the brutality of the former regime.
Much to my surprise, I can honestly say that the people of Iraq were equally, if not in some cases more, disgusted by this week's brutal murder and decapitation of Nicholas Berg ostensibly carried out in the name of God. Much as we are now finally beginning to see with Sadr and his militia, Iraqis are fed up with those that would insight violence in their communities through horrific acts of violence. Condemnation of Mr. Berg's murder has been widespread and now, moderate clerics in Najaf have denounced Sadr and demanded his withdrawal from the Holy City. His militia are pillaging stores and markets and terrorizing local Iraqis much like an unchecked street gang. His fifteen minutes are up.
What happened at Abu Ghraib will haunt the United States for many years to come. For those who already despised the United States it provided fuel for their long simmering hatred. For those on the fence, it made our work that much harder. One thing is for certain, in less than 50 days the Iraqi people will have an opportunity to finally judge the intentions of the United States. Many here, betrayed by decades of lies and lost dreams, simply do not believe that we will transfer sovereignty back to the people of this land.
The fear and distrust of the West that Saddam Hussein sowed into the minds of every Iraqi during his three decades of tyrannical rule will not easily be overcome. The transfer of power on June 30th will signal far more than just the birth of a new democratic nation. By following through on our promise of sovereignty, we will do more to unravel generations of mistrust than any job programs or reconstruction projects could ever hope to accomplish.
Don't believe everything that you read in the papers or see on television. Things have not unraveled in Iraq. To be sure our work is now a little harder, but then, anything worth doing isn't easy.
God bless my friends, I miss everyone more than you can possibly imagine. I cannot wait until I get home in less than 7 weeks.