A Humiliation for America

Are reports of abuse by Americans at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison hyped and sensationalized? Probably. The world media are in the sensation-making business and it’s a world-wide story. Did the abuses occur? Obviously. There are pictures, testimony, an apology Wednesday from the U.S. general who now runs the prisons and denunciations of the abuse as “un-American,” (Donald Rumsfeld) and “not the America I know” (George W. Bush). Is the scandal an inspiration to our enemies? Most assuredly. Were the acts acceptable? Of course not. Must they be investigated and justice meted out? Yes, and surely will be.

It was necessary that President Bush go on Arab TV, announce the investigations, and swear that justice would be pursued. But there is no getting around that this is all good news for our foes in a time of war. Violent Islamic extremists will be happy at the propaganda boon and delighted to see their convictions of American depravity illustrated and seemingly legitimized before the world.

*   *   *

How disheartening is it for those who are not our foes? Let us count the ways. 1. It is what it is on the face of it—cruel and unusual treatment of enemy combatants or detainees by those who represent and fight for our country. 2. It forces us to think that some Americans are capable of this. This is demoralizing. 3. The scandal can and will be used by the mischievous and malicious at home and abroad to attempt to tarnish the character of the troops we’ve so come to respect and feel grateful for. This is most unjust. These men and women have enough troubles. We already ask them to be warrior/peacekeeper/cop/doctor/diplomat, and they shouldn’t have to worry about this. 4. The scandal suggests to the world that there are a (small) number of U.S. troops who are capable of these actions, which is mortifying, and which gives rise to a defensive, “That is not who we are.” As indeed it is not. The humiliators could hardly have more heavily humiliated their country.

Because we are a free-press, free-expression nation in the media age, we tell the world our sins. Many will not receive the latest in a way that involves jumping up and down and exclaiming, “See the fruits of free inquiry, what a country!” Publication of the photos and reports we’ve seen so far inflames our enemies in a time of active war. This is a danger to us. At some point down the road some terrorist will testify that it was the picture of his masked and naked countrymen posing behind them that sealed his commitment to jihad. And yet there is no way around this. In fact this scandal is like a little metaphor for the Iraq experience itself: Whatever your opinion was, there’s now no way round it but through it.

The best we can do is what we’ve done and had no choice but to do: Reveal these things for all the world to see. Redress, reform, repair, reprimand and remove.

*   *   *

I find that I cannot shake a memory of something I read years ago in one of Shirley MacLaine’s memoirs. The work of Ms. MacLaine might seem an odd thing to reference here, but bear with me. I write from memory. She was a young movie star. It was the 1950s. She had appeared in a film that was at least implicitly critical of the United States. She came under fire from some critics: Why can’t you people in Hollywood be more positive? Your work encourages anti-American propaganda. She didn’t think this was true, but she wasn’t exactly a world-class thinker so it didn’t matter. What did matter is what she threw away at the end of her story. She went to an international film festival and talked with an anti-American intellectual. He told her something like, “The first time I ever thought maybe your country was something special was when I saw your movie and saw how critical Hollywood is allowed to be. You must really have some kind of freedom.”

When I read this I believed it, and still do. You do reveal something about yourself by telling uncomfortable truths. You reveal good faith. You reveal that you’re trying to get it right. This is not so terrible. It is something the dim might miss, but the intelligent are likely to get. And God bless this earth, there are a lot of intelligent people.

The president said of the U.S. on Arab TV that “we have nothing to hide.” He no doubt meant there are things that we would wish to hide, but that we refuse to.

*   *   *

But let’s not get too optimistic. The most distressing of the scandal photos is, to me, the one of an American woman, a GI, who is laughing, holding a cigarette and aiming her fingers as if comically shooting or aiming at a group of prisoners, presumably Iraqi. They are naked and hooded. She looks coarse, cruel, perhaps drunk. And as I looked at her I thought Oh, no. This is not equality but mutual degradation. Can anyone imagine a WAC of 1945, or a WAVE of 1965, acting in this manner? I can’t. Because WACs and WAVEs were not only members of the American armed forces, which responsibility brought its own demands in terms of dignity and bearing; they were women. They apparently did not think they had to prove they were men, or men at their worst. I’ve never seen evidence to suggest the old-time WACs and WAVEs had to delve down into some coarse and vulgar part of their nature to fit in, to show they were one of the guys, as tough as the guys, as ugly at their ugliest.

But the young woman soldier in the scandal photo—she looked, shall we say, confused about these issues. It was chilling. Perhaps we should be worrying about that, too.