The Ultimate Casualty

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, March 25, 2008

You know him well. His nickname was Gilligan, and he was a prisoner at Abu Ghraib, Saddam Hussein's vast prison transformed into a vast American one and then transformed again by the Bush administration into a vast national disgrace. Gilligan was deprived of sleep, forced to stand on a small box, hooded like some medieval apparition, wired like a makeshift lamp and told (falsely) that if he fell he would be electrocuted. He was later released. Wrong man. Sorry.

The story of Gilligan is recounted in a forthcoming book and movie, both titled "Standard Operating Procedure" because that is precisely what the abuse of prisoners was at Abu Ghraib. Much of the book, written by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris (he made the documentary) and excerpted in last week's New Yorker, relies on the verbatim testimony of the Americans who staffed Abu Ghraib. Some of them were the very ones who took the revolting pictures -- including the iconic photo of Gilligan -- that stunned the world.

What the interviews make clear is how pervasive and public the abuse of prisoners had been. Physical and mental abuse was conducted in the open. Photos were taken and passed up the chain of command. "Sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, sensory disorientation and the imposition of physical and psychological pain," Gourevitch and Morris write, were all permitted under the makeshift rules of the camp.

"They couldn't say that we broke the rules because there were no rules," said an Army reservist named Megan Ambuhl. Others talked of something even more insidious: the growing tolerance for inflicting pain. This is the stuff of famous psychology experiments (Milgram, etc.), but it also reminds me -- and I know this is the extreme case -- of the willingness of ordinary German soldiers in World War II to spend whole days in the routine murder of civilians.

One of the most terrifying books I've ever read is called "Ordinary Men." It is Christopher Browning's chronicle of Germany's Reserve Police Battalion 101, which consisted of civilian cops, firemen and dockworkers who were not Nazi Party members and not particularly anti-Semitic but who nevertheless murdered Jews in occupied Poland because they were ordered to do so. At first a few of them balked, but ultimately they all participated. They were ordinary men.

Abu Ghraib, too, was staffed by ordinary men -- and women. Because they were allowed to be cruel, because they were encouraged to be cruel, they became cruel. "So, over time, you become numb to it, and it's nothing," said Sgt. Javal Davis. They knew, in Gourevitch and Morris's words, that "the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was de facto United States policy," a consequence of the sneering contempt for international law evinced by the president, by his vice president and by his secretary of defense.

Of all the casualties of this sad war, the good name of the United States is certainly one. It evaporated in the desert like a shallow pool of water. I do not mean to belittle the lives lost or soldiers maimed, and I know full well that we are not a country of innocents. We've massacred prisoners of war and murdered civilians -- at My Lai in Vietnam, for instance -- but these were mostly moments of madness or terror, not a policy virtually posted outside the orderly room.

In the end, the photos taken at Abu Ghraib produced an explosion of outrage. When I visited Jordan in 2005, my driver -- Bassam was his name -- brought it up himself. Just as the military's interrogators knew the intense shame Muslim men feel when stripped naked and viewed by women, or when forced to wear women's underwear on their heads, so did Bassam deeply feel that shame himself. "We are Muslims," he said.

The firestorm over Abu Ghraib subsided. Courts-martial were held, and no one higher than a sergeant was convicted. All the rest, the officers who knew what was happening at the prison and said nothing, or the higher-ups in the field and in Washington who suggested indifference, were not touched. In fact, the Bush administration's position on torture was much like the military's on gays -- don't ask, don't tell.

This week we reached the mark of 4,000 American dead in Iraq. It is a sad milestone in a grinding war that can never be won and is already lost in so many ways. But even when this war, like Norman Bates's mother, is gussied up by its embalmers and declared a glorious effort, the shame of Abu Ghraib will forever stain George Bush and his top aides. For them, the photos from Abu Ghraib are not pictures. They're mirrors.

cohenr@washpost.com

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