The Missing Apology

By Richard Cohen
Saturday, October 1, 2005

Before being sentenced to three years in prison and a dishonorable discharge, Lynndie England apologized to just about everyone in sight. She apologized to "coalition forces and all the families" and to the "detainees" she and others had abused at Abu Ghraib prison -- England was the smirking woman holding the leash, you might remember -- and to "the families, America and all the soldiers." What she did not do is demand an apology in return. She's entitled to one.

A stronger person, maybe one with some political fiber, would have demanded an apology from her superiors -- starting with the commander in chief, George W. Bush: How dare you send me into war for reasons that seem downright specious? She might have demanded an explanation as well -- not that she would have gotten one. After all, none of us really has. It was, it seems, a sort of mistake.

She might have demanded from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld an apology for a military plan that no one, with the possible exception of Mrs. Rumsfeld, thinks called for enough troops and which, anyway, was implemented before all of the troops were on the ground. How dare you, sir, send me to war so exposed and with an inadequate number of colleagues? Where's the apology for that?

She might have demanded an apology from the Army for sending her over to work in a bad and chaotic place without proper training and knowing the dirty little secret of the Army Reserve: No one's ever momentarily ready to do anything. Who says they're sorry about that? Not the president. Not Rumsfeld. Just salute and shut up.

She might have demanded an apology for not really knowing if the Geneva Conventions applied to detainees. Her confusion on this score would be understandable. From the president on down, the unspoken message had gone forth that terrorism and the war on terrorism were something new under the sun. The old rules did not apply -- not really. The prisoners in Abu Ghraib were not real soldiers, because the actual war was over and the enemy defeated -- or so said the president. The detainees were something else, terrorists maybe, linked if only by rhetoric to Osama bin Laden and the darkest of evil. A little fun at their expense -- a pyramid of nude men and some sexual abuse -- is what they had coming. If she got that message, who can blame her? Better yet, who will apologize for it?

On Wednesday The Post published a letter written to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by an Army officer, a West Pointer at that. In it, Capt. Ian Fishback says that for 17 months he's been searching for the Army's standards regarding the humane treatment of detainees. He cannot find them. Worse, if he looked elsewhere, he could find a welter of contradictory and fudgy statements by administration officials condemning torture but not defining what it is. Surely torture is applying a hot poker to some poor guy's rear end. But is it putting a leash on a nude man? Is it mocking his genitals? Is it, in fact, any of the things Lynndie England did and which, thanks to digital photography, so offended the Muslim world?

It's impossible not to be revolted by what England did and to insist that no American should need special training in the humane treatment of fellow human beings. But she is, as she says, weak and passive and the sort of woman who is an easy mark for a man with the gift of fibbery. This was Charles A. Graner Jr., her superior and boyfriend, father of her child, and stock character in every country-western song: He left her and the baby for another woman. As is very often the case in life and literature (see Bernhard Schlink's "The Reader"), the perpetrator is often also a victim. No reading of England's life story can stand any other interpretation. She is one of life's losers.

Nonetheless, she deserves her punishment. So do the others. But at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and elsewhere, the buck stops suspiciously low in the chain of command. Somehow, no one higher up is responsible for the situation England found herself in or for what she did. She's apparently accustomed to this sort of thing -- just another example of getting stuck with the baby. Maybe someday she'll realize that a whole lot of very important people did her wrong. Who will apologize for that?

cohenr@washpost.com


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