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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Cross to bear

The storm over the revelations of prisoners’ abuse in Iraq may have subsided a bit, however, the events have prompted Our Man in Basra to come out and offer his personal comments. His perspective comes from working and talking to people who deal with Amnesty International (AI) and International Red Cross Commitee (ICRC) in Iraq and elsewhere and from knowing their reputation in the Army.

I actually support the concept of an independent civilian organisation that moderates us [ed. armed forces]. There are often unconscious pressures to slip into “abuse”, and they are most effective because of “socialisation”, the process by which you take your cue for acceptable behaviour from those around you – that is why it is easy when standards slip for all to gradually slide down. Armed forces are designed to reinforce this process, and if the standard is not set from the top (as military hierarchy is designed to ensure it is) then they can slip down quickly.

That is exactly what happened in Abu Ghraib. There is therefore a need for an independent organisations such as Amnesty International or ICRC monitoring Army (and civilian) activity. They are a separate group, not subject to same socialisation, and so can act as a brake and ensure standards are maintained even if military’s own system fails.

This relates to a more general point about Anglosphere intuitions being less corrupt in general and more effective. This is not because of better people, but better systems. This is why the United States as a country works so well with so many non-Anglo-Saxon people. In this context, one could think of Amnesty International checks as a sort of moral separation of powers.

However, Amnesty International and International Committee of the Red Cross have completely lost perspective, which in the long run is a pity for all of us. These organisations rely upon their moral authority, and in the past their most important and influential supporters have been people in the west with a strong moral sense and anti-despotic beliefs – whose faith in the ICRC and AI will be undermined once details of some current claims come out. As an anecdotal example that know of from a man working on the reports AI compile on us: They complained that Iraqis in Umm Qasr (British/US administered detention facility in the South) where being degraded because their food was handed out in plastic bags rather than delivered on some kind of trolley or plate. The Iraqis were not bothered, the food was perfectly good, but this was thought to be “degrading”. This is an important point – when one of these reports comes out and accuses anyone of “degrading” or “humiliating” behaviour, etc, it is essential to dig deeper and see exactly what they mean.

The interesting question is why has this happened? I think there are a whole host of reasons feeding off each other:

  1. Ignorance. The AI and ICRC are not monolithic, they have different people reporting in different places. It is a fair bet that the overwhelming majority people reporting on Iraq were not there before the war, because Saddam sure as hell would not let them. The same applies to every other Arab country. The investigators are therefore every bit as ignorant as the average journalist reporting on the country, with whom they share a lot in common, such as probably the same general meta-context and the same belief (with rather more justification) that they are there to uphold their view of civilisation. Not the local one.
  2. The investigators are civilians (as they must be) but therefore often poorly equipped to put things in to relevant tactical perspective. These are not weasel words – to give a concrete example, suppose an Iraqi man has been “beaten up” by British troops; a clear case of abuse? This depends upon the circumstances. There is a world of difference between beating up a helpless prisoner once back in camp (this is clearly abuse), and, for example, using physical force to subdue a struggling looter, or an armed rioter. The whole purpose of Armies is to use violence, which cannot be defined as abuse every time they do without rendering the term pointless. It is moral infantilism to say that the context does not affect the morality of the act, and it is not clear that all of the reports or accusations take this in to account.
  3. The above is essential to the most important point – Iraqis lie. This is not at all a criticism of Iraqis in a racial sense – being born Iraqi does not make you a liar. But lying reflexively to strangers is an entirely rational, indeed inevitable, response to living your entire life under a brutal and intrusive police state, in which the only efficient institution were the secret police forces. Therefore Iraqis have a neutral attitude to truth at best – they feel no automatic inclination to tell it the way westerners do.

    In addition most Iraqis have a strong sense of pride that prevents them from admitting ignorance. They will consistently claim knowledge they do not have, rather than admit that they do not know something. It is a matter of face, especially for the more important Iraqis. This was and is a constant source of frustration for anyone trying to gather information from them. They have lived their whole lives by exploiting any small opportunities the state bureaucracy may have given them.

    Most importantly, there is no punishment for lying to an investigator – what are we going to do, sue them for libel? Bear in mind as well that the vast majority of detainees were either looters, rioters, criminals of some kind (as the military, against its wishes, was stuck with running basic law and order) or actual ex-Ba’athists or terrorists. This does not give the slightest justification for abusing them, but it does suggest that they are not the most objective or reliable of witnesses.

    Now consider the following scenario:

    AI (or ICRC) investigator: We are investigating claims of brutality by British soldiers. We are deeply ashamed of such things, and want to assure you that we are not like the last regime; we will investigate any complaints, and we will compensate anyone who was unjustly harmed; do you know of any such incidents?

    Iraqi ex-prisoner (or even not): Why, yes I do I was beaten up, and so was my brother, and my cousin, and my father was shot, and all my family, and how much did you say the compensation was?

    It is an entirely rational economic act if you feel no obligation to the truth, a no-brainer gamble – money if you are believed, no cost if you are not.

  4. All this is not helped by the seeming automatic tendency of the AI and ICRC to disbelieve anything the soldiers or military tell them but to believe anything an Iraqi tells them. I do not really object to their scepticism towards the military, wearying as it is – after all, in a sense that is their job. But to do a good job they should apply the same standards of proof and scepticism to both sides, not just one. If anything, the benefit of the doubt should belong to the military, who have a better record of honesty. Abu Ghraib, in the US military response actually demonstrates this. It was an entirely US military internal investigation that uncovered and closed down the Abu Ghraib abuses, not an AI or ICRC one.
  5. Abu Ghraib has not helped, as it enables the AI, ICRC and everyone else to say “Look, these abuses have happened here, they could happen elsewhere, and the possibility must be investigated”. Although it is fair to say that most of the reports currently in the press were prepared before Abu Ghraib became public knowledge. I have no problem with that conclusion – we are all appalled by Abu Ghraib, the military probably more than most.

    However, that is not the same as assuming that these things did happen elsewhere. Let’s see proof, or at least strong evidence, before accusations are taken as smearing the whole military. Note to the media: Could we please distinguish between reservists, often great people but basically civilians with minimal training in uniform and who seem to have been almost solely responsible for Abu Ghraib, and the professional regular military? And if, as I suspect, poorly trained reservists are found to be involved in any other cases of abuse, can we consider how that reflects on the moral responsibility of politicians who try to cut corners on the armed forces by sending out civilians to do their job?

  6. In conclusion, accusations must be investigated, but they are not proper evidence, let alone proof in themselves. They should be investigated by people with some understanding of the relevant factors, i.e. culture, situation at time of event, tactical realities, medical knowledge, etc; and with at least some parity of scepticism between the locals and the military.

Finally, I do not presume ill-will on the part of AI and ICRC per se. I am sure that the vast majority of AI and ICRC workers are genuinely trying to do the right thing. But I suspect them of making a moral equivalent of the old “equality of outcomes” fallacy, that equal treatment must mean everyone has equal wealth.

In this case, they are so keen to be, and to be seen to be, impartial between different governments and people, and between Arabs and the ‘West’ that they seem to feel they must give equal reports of abuses by both sides, when in fact there is no remote comparison of treatment. Such reports are a disservice to objective truth by giving the false impression of a broad comparability of moral standing. Shades of the Cold War anyone?

I said at the start of this post, the current state of affairs is regrettable, because in the long run it will undermine the most important resource of both AI and ICRC, their credibility. And there may be times when we will still need them.

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7 comments to Cross to bear

  • APL

    “They complained that Iraqis in Umm Qasr where being degraded because their food was handed out in plastic bags rather than delivered on some kind of trolley or plate.”

    Anyone who has spent any time in the Middle east (my experience is of SA) will be familiar with the spectacle of the asian migrant workers being given their daily meal in a plastic bag containing gravy and three or four peas.

    This is not degrading, this is normal practice for the region.

  • Jacob

    AI and ICRC have about as much credibility as the Guardian, the BBC or thr NYT – i.e. – they are not impartial observers but interested combatants for their cause (usually anti capitalist, anti Western, pro “progress” ). Or about as much credibility as Al Jezeera.
    It might be that this state of affairs is lamentable, but no one should have delusions about the objectivity and credibility of these institutions.

    And that is nothing new; during the cold war they had little to say about the murder and imprisonment of millions in the communist countries.

  • Pete Sandel

    What you’re describing are the fruits of a general acceptance of the validity of cultural relativism as a moral barometer. Under this doctrine all opinions have the same value regardless of their authority.

    Sadly, I think we can expect this sort of attitude to continue as long as the purveyors find it profitable. They will find it profitable as long as the ‘general public’ finds it acceptable.

  • Mike

    I’ll confirm APL’s comment.

    I worked in Kuwait in the 80’s. When we were doing 24 hour shifts on pipeline shutdowns the contractor delivered dinner to the site in clear plastic bags.

    Usually biryani and chapatis.

    Best biryani I ever had.

  • “Therefore Iraqis have a neutral attitude to truth at best – they feel no automatic inclination to tell it the way westerners do.”

    I think it’s learned behavior — they got it from the French.

  • Guy Herbert

    Were the whole occcupation as clearsighted as this, we’d have little to worry about. Hard to hope that from the public announcements, though.

    Maybe I’m wrong and the Pentagon and MoD really think like this, but are tailoring the PR to please dim and brutal publics.

  • Ray

    You didn’t distinguish between the National Guard and Army Reserve. I spent 24 years in the Naval Reserve. The first requirement for joining the reserve was 3 years on active duty to learn the business. I don’t believe the guard has such a requirement. I seem to recall that most of the personnel implicated in the abuse were guard, not reserve.