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Torturers in Camouflage
The U.S. Military, Ethical Hellhole

News of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal had just broken. President Bush was in the Rose Garden, holding a joint news conference with the King of Jordan. “I told His Majesty as plainly as I could,” Bush said, “that the wrongdoers will be brought to justice, and that the actions of those folks in Iraq do not represent the values of the United States of America.” But of course they did. The Abu Ghraib torturers weren’t just a few bad apples. They were United States soldiers doing what they thought was right under the perverted rationales of their perverted training. They were a few of the tens of thousands of American soldiers who have abused, and continue to abuse and torture Iraqis—not because some liberal media outlet did a “study” or extrapolated some numbers from some third-class source. No. This is by the Pentagon’s own accounting.

In November 2006 the Pentagon concluded a survey of about 1,800 soldiers’ mental health and ethics in Iraq and Afghanistan. The results, and the survey itself, which you can read entire here, were released in early May. You didn’t read much about it because the results were pretty grim. The results drill 50-caliber bullet holes in the myth of the American soldier as an ethical fighting machine, as an individual out to protect Iraqis, as an individual who’d never commit such acts as the torturing of prisoners at Abu Ghraib—which, it should be said again and again, was barely the tip, not of an iceberg, but of an entire sea of icebergs stretching across Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo and wherever else the American gulag has spread its chains.

From the survey’s findings: “Approximately 10% of Soldiers and Marines report mistreating non-combatants (damaged/destroyed Iraqi property when not necessary or hit/kicked a non-combatant when not necessary).” As of January 2005—that’s one and a half years ago—more than 1 million soldiers had been deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, most of them in Iraq. Ten percent of that is 100,000 soldiers. Take a conservative estimate and crack it down to 5 percent (when, in fact, those admitting to abusing or torturing civilians are inevitably an under-representation of those really abusing and torturing). That’s still 50,000 soldiers who have abused, tortured, destroyed property, humiliated, and, of course, maimed, raped, killed and wounded Iraqis without provocation. A few bad apples?

It gets more specific. Asked if torture should be allowed if it will save the life of a soldier, 44 percent of Marines said yes, as did 41 percent of Army soldiers. Asked if torture should be allowed merely to “gather important information about insurgents,” 39 percent of Marines said yes, 36 percent of soldiers in the Army said yes. Asked if civilians should be treated with dignity, just 47 percent of Army soldiers said yes, and a scant 38 percent of Marines said yes. Never let it be said that “the few, the proud, the Marines,” aren’t also the most barbaric and least ethical of our armed forces. But they barely look worse than the other services in comparison. Think about that number for a moment: less than a majority of soldiers think civilians, meaning non-combatants, women and children, should be treated with dignity, and 17 percent of soldiers, including Marines, think all civilians should be treated as insurgents. The full, bleak picture:

Even when the numbers are narrowed down to actual acts of physically abusing civilians unnecessarily—keep in mind: unnecessarily, in other words, when the soldier is acting not as a soldier but as a felon—they are astoundingly high: 4 percent of Army soldiers and 7 percent of Marines report doing so: We’re still talking thousands of soldiers engaging in felonious abuse, up to and including torture (the survey conveniently doesn’t force soldiers to specify; nor does it ask about rape. Nor does it ask about children. Nor does it ask about raping children, all of which, one can easily assume from the numbers, is closer to routine than not.) “When it comes to rules of engagement,” the report states in oddly apologetic wording, “just less than 10 percent of soldiers and Marines reported that their unit modified the ROE to accomplish the mission.” Not surprisingly, the better the officer leadership, the report noted, the less likely were rules of engagement broken. So: as the military has been watering down its ranks with felons and drop-outs, sinking the leadership down with it, you can imagine what the results are at the other end.

More despicable ethics: asked if they’d report another soldier for injuring or killing an innocent civilian, just 40 percent of Marines said they would. Report a soldier for stealing from a civilian? 33 percent would. Abuse a civilian? 32 percent would. More Army soldiers would do so in every category, but never more than half. All this despite more than 80 percent, and usually close to 90 percent of soldiers reporting that they’d received training on how to treat civilians and combatants ethically and humanely, although just 71 percent of Army soldiers said their unit commander-trainer made it clear not to mistreat civilians, while just 67 percent of Marines did so.

Here’s the kicker. When CNN reported the study’s findings, it said nothing about the number of soldiers condoning torture. Its headline was almost cuddly and overly sympathetic: “Study: Anxiety, depression, acute stress in combat troops.” Then it had this paragraph: “While fewer than half of the troops agreed that ‘all noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect,’ a quarter of those surveyed said, "I would risk my own safety to save a noncombatant in danger”—as if that number, a quarter, a mere quarter, was something to hang your helmet on. And the New York Times? It never reported on the study, relying instead on a brief article by Reuters. That brief did note that “well over one-third of soldiers and marines believed that torture should be allowed to gain information that could save the lives of American troops, or knowledge about insurgents.”

A few bad apples? Think orchards the size of Washington State. That’s your military, America. And we wonder “why they hate us.” We wonder why they’re throwing Molotov covktails, joining the insurgency, planting roadside bombs, dancing at the wreckage of American Humvees, dreaming of the chance to take up arms the moment they're released from American custody.

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