Not Just Following Orders
I'm ashamed of the unit I once commanded.
By James D. Villa
Wednesday, May 12, 2004; Page A23
From 1989 to 1992 I commanded the 372nd MP Company, the Army Reserve unit from Cumberland, Md., that is at the center of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. In the years since then, I've had an enduring affection for the unit and those who serve in it. Today what I feel is a sort of sickness, and shame at having been affiliated with the 372nd.
With congressional, military and independent investigations in the offing, there are many things about the incidents at Abu Ghraib that we do not know. Given the involvement of military intelligence issues, there are many critical things that we may never know. But there are a few conclusions we can certainly draw.
These actions were the result of huge command failures. The senior person charged thus far is Ivan L. Frederick, a staff sergeant. In an MP company, a person of his rank is normally placed in charge of a squad of 11 soldiers. I refuse to believe that no leader above Frederick was aware of or complicit in the abuses that were apparently widespread throughout the prison. While certain officers were relieved of their commands and other leaders were given letters of reprimand, the failure of unit leaders, from company to brigade, is stunning.
The 372nd has approximately 150 soldiers and is divided into five platoons, four of which consist of MPs. The company commander is directly responsible for all actions taken by his soldiers, or those that they fail to take. The 372nd's commander and the relevant platoon leader either knew or should have known of the actions of their subordinates, as should have their noncommissioned officers. All these leaders failed in their most basic responsibilities of supervising their soldiers in the performance of their duties.
Brig. Gen. Janis L. Karpinski, commander of the 800th MP Brigade, which ran the prison, has spent most of the past week on television telling the same story: that she never knew about this, that her MPs were working for military intelligence people, that she was not to blame. Had she spent as much time leading her troops as she apparently has preparing for appearances on MSNBC (with her lawyer in tow), the Army might have stemmed these incidents early on. I was taught in ROTC that a leader is responsible for what his or her unit does or fails to do. I was also taught that a leader takes responsibility for his or her soldiers. Either by commission or omission, Karpinski and her chain of command have failed those soldiers in her brigade and, ultimately, this country.
The soldiers in question are nonetheless culpable for their own actions. The 372nd is a combat support company. That is to say, it is a unit designed to provide area security, law enforcement and battlefield circulation control operations. It is highly mobile and has a significant amount of indigenous firepower. Like all MPs, the soldiers in the 372nd have received basic instruction on handling enemy prisoners of war. The most essential instruction regarding prisoners is the "Five S's": search, segregate, silence, safeguard and speed to the rear. These simple directions clearly state that an MP must ensure that a prisoner is disarmed and, once rendered harmless, protected as a noncombatant and moved back for processing. While serving in Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War, my soldiers took Iraqi prisoners, and our responsibility was to safely transport them to camps in Saudi Arabia and protect them from vengeful Kuwaitis. This is a basic function of an MP unit on the battlefield.
Various people, including the families of some of the soldiers in question, have said that the soldiers were not given appropriate training to run a detention facility and had inadequate support to do their jobs. While these statements may be true, in what Army field manual can one locate the section about stacking naked prisoners like cordwood, or affixing collars to their necks? Is special training needed to show a soldier that this sort of thing is contemptible and contrary to any standards of decency?
Further, it is no defense for MPs to claim that they were only following orders, that they were instructed to "soften up" prisoners to enhance subsequent interrogations. While battlefield intelligence gleaned from interrogations may prove invaluable and can save American lives, no officer, no sergeant, has the authority to direct a soldier to commit an atrocity or to violate the Geneva Conventions. While soldiers in a combat environment may face split-second decisions involving difficult moral choices, such was not the case here. We are confronted with picture after picture, story upon story, detailing systematic abuse and degradation by American MPs. We have a right to expect more from our military.
Those serving in Iraq, including the many reservists and National Guardsmen, deserve our respect and admiration. The men and women of our military who are serving in Iraq do so under terrible circumstances. They live each day with fear and danger, far from their families, deprived of the basic comforts of life. Their families suffer for their absence every day and each milestone missed -- a child's graduation, an anniversary, a loved one's birthday -- can never be reclaimed.
To minimize the egregious conduct of some members of the 372nd (and their superiors) dishonors those men and women who honorably serve their country. We must not, as some commentators have said, deem this to be soldiers "blowing off steam" and equate it to a fraternity initiation. To me, that sort of response dishonors those who strive each day to serve their fellow soldiers and complete their missions -- and who risk their lives to do so. A failure to condemn what is wrong is also a failure to recognize what is right -- and what our committed military men and women do around the world each day. Further, minimizing the conduct of these MPs by comparing it to the reckless and violent acts of the Iraqi insurgents is wholly beside the point. We must compare our actions to those of the men and women who have honorably served this country as soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen. We must look to them, and to our own standards of conduct, and not to people who would wantonly kill and terrorize innocents. If our claim is merely that we are better than the terrorists, we leave a tenuous legacy for a budding democracy in Iraq.
The 372nd has a distinguished record, having been in both the Gulf War and in Bosnia. The soldiers with whom I served were some of the most dedicated and talented military people I know. Though they came from various backgrounds, they shared the common values of service to their country, community and fellow soldiers. I have always been proud to have served with them. The acts committed at Abu Ghraib have disgraced all of us. I hope that corrective action by the Army and appropriate punishment for those guilty will help restore the pride that the 372nd and the MP Corps have earned.
The writer is an attorney with the federal government in Washington.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company