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Setting a higher standard

As Perry de Havilland mentioned earlier, British and American armed forces may have committed a grotesque crime if reports about maltreatment of Iraqis are to be believed. Having not seen all of the reports myself, I tend to defer to writers such as former British soldier Andy McNab, who made his feelings abundantly clear in the Sunday Telegraph over the weekend. And he speaks with the moral force of one who has undergone torture during the 1990-91 war.

This issue cannot be finessed, or ‘put into a context’, to use one of the more common euphemisms of the age. What happened, if fully proven, is a total disgrace. To say that it puts back the necessary cause of winning hearts and minds is a massive understatement. It is also no good some folk arguing that this behaviour still does not put us on a moral par with Saddam. Of course it does not, although some anti-war folk, including frequent commenters on this blog, would claim that it does. Saddam’s disgusting rule (shamefully supported by the West in the 1980s, I might add) was not comparable to what has happened. But surely as armed forces of liberal, supposedly advanced civilisations, we should hold those in uniform to higher standards than those of the recent deposed Ba’athist regime? Much higher standards, in fact.

I have disagreed in a cordial fashion with noted libertarian blogger Jim Henley on the case for toppling Saddam by force, but never have I been in more agreement with him than on this issue.

19 comments to Setting a higher standard

  • Hank Scorpio

    Agreed. They need to throw the book at these idiots. We’ve got troops getting their asses shot at and these yahoos are completely undermining that effort. They (the American troops, I’m not going to speak to allegations of British abuse) need a vacation in Leavenworth following a court martial, and the officers running this prison should be retired asap.

    Please keep in mind that I’m not even adverse to the idea of torture… If it can save lives then I really have no moral qualms about it, but this doesn’t look like that, it looks more like sadistic glee done for no other reason than to get their jollies off.

    On the upside, though, this does illustrate the superiority of the west, because we’re actually correcting this problem and will punish those responsible. Conversely, these actions and far, far worse are encouraged by the Islamic world.

  • Aral Simbon

    Johnathan –

    I am in full agreement with you on this. It is sickening. And it does no end of harm to the coalition’s cause. Depressingly, the Taguba report, as described in this New Yorker article, indicates that the abuse was routine at Abu Ghraib prison. In addition, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence of other abuse elsewhere. One can only wonder about what is happening in Guatanamo bay. Perry is right that it is time for a shake-up of military leadership in Iraq. Heads need to roll at the highest level. We need to make it clear why we are different to Saddam.

  • Doug Collins

    Agreed. I hope the officer corps of the US Army have more influence this time than they did a quarter century ago. Lt. Calley would have had a less pleasant fate had that been so.

    I would also make a symbolic suggestion for something that should be done before we leave Iraq: Peggy Noonan made the very appropriate suggestion that the bridge at Fallujah should be blown up. I would suggest that this be done simultaneously with the demolition of the Abu Ghraib prison. It is an evil place, to which we have apparently and unfortunately contributed. The world would be better without both structures.

  • Scott Cattanach

    The people responsible will be held accountable if and when the govt gives up its habit of protecting its own and covering up bad news about itself. Don’t hold your breath (and don’t claim that expecting govt CYA is arguing moral equivalence w/ Saddam and therefore beyond the pale).

    BTW, have you guys seen these links yet?

    Miller Time
    Average Joe

  • Though I don’t have an issue with McNab’s Telegraph article, keep in mind that there is some doubt as to his integrity. The telling of his Gulf War experience as written in Bravo Two Zero has come under criticism by other survivors of that patrol. I wouldn’t know of course, I wasn’t there. That’s an aside, really, not a mitigation of the story. I’ve been involved in the struggle at Wikipedia over why the Wiki article concerning the prison makes no mention of the first-hand accounts of McNab and others during the Saddam regime but is 90% about the current incident. Also occasionally removing links to Auschwitz. 😛

  • B

    I agree that any soldiers that committed human rights crimes needs to be punished severely, but I want to add something.

    There are allegations that some of the pictures are fakes. If anyone has knowlingly distributed fake pictures of abuse as real pictures of abuse, then those people should be tried for treason and spend a long time in jail.

    One of the important principles behind free societies is that the press does not lie (stop laughing). there is a significant difference between seeing an issue through partisan eyes, and knowlingly lieing in a way that gives aid to our enemies.

    Again, IF some pictures are fake, and IF it can be proven that someone knowlingly distributed fake pictures as real ones, then they should be charged with reason. (1st Amendment justification: In this case, treason is equivalent to slander against the government, thus illegal.)

    Byna, reiterates that the human rights violations need to be investigated and charges filed.

  • Saddam’s disgusting rule (shamefully supported by the West in the 1980s, I might add) was not comparable to what has happened.

    Who is this “The West” you’re talking about, exactly?

  • Aral Simbon

    The Taguba report is now online.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I find myself — again — in rare agreement with Scott. Thanks for the links.

    M410 — the British and US govts briefly backed Saddam in the mid-1980s, regarding his regime as the lesser evil during the war vs Iran. Go and read K. Pollack’s book, the Gathering Storm, on this issue.

    No, I am not saying that we are hypocrits now because former govts backed Saddam 15 or so years ago. Bush junior and Blair can hardly be blamed for the geo-political calls of Reagan, Mrs T. or F. Mitterand.

  • Johnathan – Thanks for the response. I am familiar with the support you are talking about. I was just trying to get you to narrow down “The West”, which you did. You’ve gone from about 1 billion persons (rather: a “people”) down to 3. As this is a blog for critically rationalist individualists I think the distinction is important.

  • Zevilyn

    The US Army covers up abuses against it’s own troops as well as against others.
    They pinched compensation off Gulf War I PoWs last year, remember.

    I’d bet good money that somewhere in the Pentagon, there’s an intelligence Report on the Ambush of the 507th, and that the spooks and “high-ups” know what happened to Jessica Lynch (her account of the ambush describes wounded US soldiers being dragged through the streets. something strangely not mentioned in the Army’s nonsense “report” of last July. Apparently, the investigation into the 507th will never be made public.
    We’ll just have to hope Jessica’s memory comes back.

    If we can read the Taguba report, then why on Earth can we not read the investigation into what happened to Lynch and her colleagues?

  • Scott Cattanach

    Bush junior and Blair can hardly be blamed for the geo-political calls of Reagan, Mrs T. or F. Mitterand.

    Current SecDef Rummy can be blamed for the calls of Reagan’s envoy to Saddam (Rummy again), and Bush Jr isn’t likely to repudiate anything Reagan did anytime soon. Blair and Thatcher may be another case altogether, tho.

  • Paul Marks

    I have already made my own comments about the torture and other such, on Perry’s post.

    However, I can not let “supported by the West” stand as it is.

    I am not a supporter of the war, but this is misleading. No doubt this was NOT your intention – but anyone reading the post would thing “arms to Iraq” (etc).

    The weaponary of the armed forces of Iraq was overwhelmingly East Bloc (Migs, AKs, T…. tanks and so on) and what weapons there were from the West tended to come from France (and in the chemical area Germany) not Britian and the United States.

    The support for the socialist government of Iraq that did come from the United States was mostly intelligence on the position of Iranian forces in the Iraq-Iran war.

    Harry Truman said (regarding the war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union) that the United States should suppport whatever nation happened to be losing.

    The governments of both Irag and Iran hated the United States and it was judged (rightly or wrongly) that an Iranian victory was not in the interests of the United States (it was soon clear that Iraq was not going to win). However “photos to Iraq” does not quite have the same sound as “arms to Iraq”.

    Hoping that both sides would fight each other into the ground (and thus, hopefully, be less of a threat to other nations) is not the same as supporting the government of Iraq.

    A policy of George Washington style nonintervention might avoid such morally questionable tactics (or it might not), but certainly the Reagan administration had no love for the socialist dictator of Iraq.

  • Scott Cattanach


    Rumsfeld ‘offered help to Saddam’
    …The details will embarrass Mr Rumsfeld, who as defence secretary in the Bush administration is one of the leading hawks on Iraq, frequently denouncing it for its past use of such weapons.

    The US provided less conventional military equipment than British or German companies but it did allow the export of biological agents, including anthrax; vital ingredients for chemical weapons; and cluster bombs sold by a CIA front organisation in Chile, the report says. …

    Published on Sunday, September 8, 2002 by the Sunday Herald (Scotland)
    How Did Iraq Get Its Weapons? We Sold Them
    by Neil Mackay and Felicity Arbuthnot

    THE US and Britain sold Saddam Hussein the technology and materials Iraq needed to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction.

    Reports by the US Senate’s committee on banking, housing and urban affairs — which oversees American exports policy — reveal that the US, under the successive administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr, sold materials including anthrax, VX nerve gas, West Nile fever germs and botulism to Iraq right up until March 1992, as well as germs similar to tuberculosis and pneumonia. Other bacteria sold included brucella melitensis, which damages major organs, and clostridium perfringens, which causes gas gangrene.

    Classified US Defense Department documents also seen by the Sunday Herald show that Britain sold Iraq the drug pralidoxine, an antidote to nerve gas, in March 1992, after the end of the Gulf war. Pralidoxine can be reverse engineered to create nerve gas. …

  • Johnathan

    Scott, my question for you is this: if western nations, as you identify, did indeed sell materials such as chemicals to the Iraqis in the 1990s, then what happened to them? Let’s be clear — your points are probably all correct. But a point that bugs me is that if all this stuff was sold to SH, where has it gone? Over the border to Syria? Somewhere else?

    BTW, you may recall that in the mid-90s, the then Tory govt. of John Major was rocked by the Iraq “supergun” scandal, in which various Tory ministers connived at flouting their own govt’s rules on exports of certain materials to Iraq.

    I think that both the likes of yourself and I are on the same page of decrying the greed, shortsightedness and cynical attitudes of previous western governments to the ME over the past few decades. Not a glorious part of our history.

  • Scott Cattanach

    Scott, my question for you is this: if western nations, as you identify, did indeed sell materials such as chemicals to the Iraqis in the 1990s, then what happened to them? Let’s be clear — your points are probably all correct. But a point that bugs me is that if all this stuff was sold to SH, where has it gone? Over the border to Syria? Somewhere else?

    Or maybe into chemical weapons made several years ago, that had a shelf life measurable in months, meaning no WMD when Bush invaded.

  • Mandrake Ethos

    I think the Herald article quoted is severely misleading. While the implication by the author seems to be that the Reagan, Elder Bush administrations supplied certain nasty materials, an explicit reading of the article doesn’t say that. Rather, it says that during those administrations (while they were in office), certain stuff went to Iraq.

    The article seems a great deal more direct in regards to what nasty materials were sold. This conflicts with my, albeit dim, memory of this story as reported a couple of years ago. I recall that most of the nasty materials in fact could be argued to have a fairly reasonable academic or prophylactic use, and that such transfers (through businesses and universities) were not uncommon.

    I confess, my memory of all this is spotty. At the time, however, I recall thinking that the allegations were weak from an objective perspective. Being accused of selling Iraq tanks because we sold them diesel engine parts is an analogy that comes to mind.


    (Now that I reread this post, I should perhaps clarify one point. While I’m not saying the article quoted is founded on nothing, I am saying the allegations are based on oversimplifications or exaggerations.)

  • Findlay Dunachie

    Hank Scorpio’s comment (No. 1) on the “idiots” who mistreat prisoners, suggests a new category of “Useful Idiots”, who, not content with indulging the weaker, more vicious aspects of their natures (and which of us can plead not guilty to ever doing this?) deliberately record evidence of their misdeeds, which inevitably becomes public.

    I feel at a loss as to how to categorize the moral condition of those who are pleased that this has happened. Or are unable to admit that they are pleased that this has happened. Any suggestions?

  • Aral Simbon

    Does anybody remember the strange story of Maher Arar, who was allegedly rendered by the US to Syria for torture? See this and this. Torture may save lives, Hank, but this story illustrates that there is the very real risk that the lives of innocent people may be ruined too.