Published May 11, 2004
The treatment by U.S. soldiers of prisoners and detainees kept me up the other night — literally.
I was trying to doze on the side of a road in eastern Afghanistan following a late-night raid by troops of the 1st Battalion 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment (search). The intended target, an alleged bomb-maker aiming for coalition forces, wasn't nabbed, but the troops had to round up everybody in the raided compound and go through the painstaking interrogation process to try and figure out where the bad guy was.
The questioning happened about 10 feet from where I was so I could hear it all. One by one the detainees were brought over. And while some of the questions were not pleasant, ("Do you know anyone in Al Qaeda?"; "Do you know about anyone with bombs?") the manner was polite and proper ("You know we're only doing this to protect your security and ours.").
When each interrogation was finished, the person was taken back to where he was being held. While that, too, wasn't all that pleasant — each detainee forced to kneel along the side of the road in front of the compound for several chilly hours — there was no mistreatment, even when one slightly loopy guy tried to wander off every five minutes, necessitating a burly soldier to scramble after him and haul him back each time.
Some might say this treatment could have been "laid on" in the rarified atmosphere following the scandal over alleged mistreatment of prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib (search) prison. But I've spent a lot of time with soldiers in Afghanistan in the last six weeks. And while the questioning on many occasions might have seemed rote or even unproductive, it was never abusive or even condescending.
And I've also spent time with soldiers in Iraq over the last year. I've been with them in countless raids on houses and apartments — operations in which guys from Arkansas and Iowa trudged through people's kitchens and living rooms, disrupting the lives of women, children and the elderly as they searched for terrorists and their weaponry.
Again, I can't say all of that was too pleasant for the people. And I also can't say after months of being targeted by terrorists and enduring abuse and often less than fulsome gratitude from the people of Iraq, all the soldiers have been enamored with the Iraqi people. But I can also say, that for the overwhelming part, the troops have kept their emotions in check and have done what they have to do.
I was also around Abu Ghraib prison during Saddam's regime. I was there in October 2002 when Saddam released inmates from the jail in a transparent attempt to curry favor. Little appreciation was expected from those freed prisoners since the prison was a mass torture chamber under Saddam.
And I've been inside other jails run by the old regime. I visited one "VIP" detention center in Baghdad just after the fall of the government. There were still bloodstains in the tiny filthy chambers. Cockroaches lay on the floor. Scrawled messages of begged-for deliverance crowded the walls.
So what's my point in all this? Should the horrors shown in the photos from Abu Ghraib be forgiven because the vast majority of the GI Joes and Janes in Iraq and Afghanistan are doing their job in a "stand-up" way? Should the alleged abuse be forgiven because Saddam inflicted horror on his people a hundred times worse than what has been displayed in the last few weeks?
No. Because of these two facts, these acts now should be even more roundly condemned. Those pictures give the propagandists in Iraq and elsewhere exactly the ammunition they need to pound away further at the U.S. And if some (maybe many) Iraqis have been "on the fence" when it comes to the U.S. presence in the country, just a few incidents could be enough to push them off that fence — and into the laps of those who want to cause more horror.
And — this is beginning to sound really trite because it's been used so much in the last few days, but boy, is it still true — the U.S. is better than those ugly pictures and should stand for something better — and does.
That point brings me back to last week and eastern Afghanistan. Before I left, I did an interview with Lt. Col Harry Glenn, commander of the 1st Battalion 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. While my cameraman got ready, I was making small talk with Col. Glenn and I mentioned the difficulties the military was encountering in Iraq right now. I was actually thinking of the fighting in Fallujah (search) and Najaf (search) and elsewhere but he immediately thought I meant the prison abuse scandal.
I can't quote exactly what he said because he asked me not to. But I don't think I would be breaking the embedment rules to tell you that he expressed his deep concern about the revelations of recent days. Col. Glenn is just one of many commanders I've spent time with who are serious, disciplined and downright idealistic about what they are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. And I am sure that those officers — and other enlisted men who I've also spent time with — would have expressed the same thing.
No matter how much you might debate the approaches and strategies of the War on Terror, it is hard to debate the sincerity of the vast majority of men and women in uniform who are trying to get the job done. That's why it's so important that something like this recently-revealed ugliness doesn't allow it to be "un-done."