Zell Miller, the plain-spoken quasi-Democrat from Georgia, took to the Senate floor earlier this month to bemoan all the fuss about the prison abuse scandal.

"Here we go again, rushing to give aid and comfort to the enemy," he complained. "Why is it that there's more indignation over a photo of a prisoner with underwear on his head than over the video of a young American with no head at all? Why is it that some in this country still don't get that we are at war?"

Fair questions, and given how they pinged around the Internet, ones that seemed to resonate with many Americans. But they're questions that can be answered. In fact, it's precisely the people who do "get that we are at war," in the way Miller means that -- people who believe, as does Miller, that U.S. forces cannot abandon Iraq or the wider war on terrorism -- who should be indignant over the photos and, even more, over the administration's insouciant response to the wider scandal they have exposed.

The senator is right to worry about the scandal's effect on fighting the war. Generals who should be leading troops and debating tactics are instead huddling with lawyers and testifying to Congress. NATO countries that might have supported a larger role for the alliance in Iraq after June 30 now have to be persuaded not to pull out altogether. American soldiers in Iraq shoulder an ever greater burden of suspicion, and Iraqis who might have wanted to cooperate have to think twice, and then twice more. And all this is happening as policymakers in Washington, particularly Democrats (though not standard-bearer John Kerry), increasingly favor an early departure from Iraq.

So if we could limit the damage simply by ending the "hand-wringing," as Miller suggests, that would be a wonderful thing. And if all the fuss really were over a few photos of prisoners with underwear on their heads -- if it really were, as President Bush said a week ago, a matter of a "few American troops" -- then Miller would surely be right.

But by now you'd have to have your own head in a bag to believe that a few badly trained reservists are at the core of this scandal. The Pentagon has acknowledged that 37 prisoners have died in U.S. custody across Iraq and Afghanistan, and at least 10 of the deaths were homicides by Americans. Even more frightening, none of these deaths seemed to have sparked serious investigations before publicity forced the military to confront the issue.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, we now know, has been regularly bringing evidence of ill-treatment to U.S. officials in Iraq, and was regularly rebuffed until the photos were released. In cases of people deemed to have intelligence value, the ICRC found that harsh treatment was "systematic." Even for ordinary prisoners, ill-treatment was "frequent." It "went beyond exceptional cases and might be considered as a practice tolerated by the CF [coalition forces]."

It's the hawks in this town, the Zell Millers, who ought to be most distressed by this evidence and by the president's efforts to wish it away. Of all the missed opportunities since Baghdad fell, surely this is one of the most heartbreaking. Iraqi detainees might have been going home to their families and saying, as German POWs did so many decades ago, that these American soldiers are for real, that they treated us humanely -- that maybe they mean what they say about liberation, not occupation. Instead, the United States is reduced to pleading that it's not as bad as al Qaeda and obfuscating the reality that policies adopted in the White House helped lead to this breakdown of law and discipline.

Bush could have responded differently. He could have embraced the heroes such as Spec. Joseph Darby, who sounded the alarm; William J. Kimbro, the Navy dog handler who refused to sic his dogs on prisoners; Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, who wrote an honest report. He could have apologized to the people of Iraq, appointed an investigator from outside the chain of command, pledged to abide by the Geneva Conventions. Instead, he opted for a Nixonian strategy of damage containment, and a summer of piecemeal disclosure.

Who pays the price for the president's dishonesty? Soldiers such as Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli and his troops, who, as The Post's Scott Wilson reported last week, are out in Baghdad's slums, fighting insurgents one hour and fixing sewers the next. The prison scandal and the administration's failed response haven't doomed those efforts, but they've lengthened the odds. They've given aid and comfort to the enemy.

fredhiatt@washpost.com