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February 21, 2007

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Thursday evening on HBO, via Mark Danner.  He says:

The film, in which I took part, is difficult to watch but it seems to me one of the better attempts to explore Abu Ghraib - how it happened and what it continues to mean.

Here's Rotten Tomatoes' summary of reviews, all along "grim but necessary" lines;

and here's a terribly sad account of an exchange between former brigadier general Janis Karpinski and Senator Lindsey Graham at a screening.

(I confess to having an HBO-free home, so will look forward to comments from readers/viewers.)


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I don't have all the facts on Brigadier General Janis Karpinski and I don't have HBO (or even a teevee to see it on) but I do know that she was in command of Abu Ghraib. In command. Responsible, no, for atrocities? Atrocities committed by "the boy next door" as a normal and usual part of war. War, which many Americans think should be a normal and necessary part of US foreign policy, including usually responsible people like the Truman Project's Michael Signer and his "Exemplarism": "As the world’s superpower, we must fully engage in the world, actively leading and shaping it, if we are to improve it. And we must do so in a way that recognizes the interdependence of the current age . . . Would exemplarism have allowed the United States to lead an effort to topple Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq? The answer is an emphatic yes–though on a different set of prerequisites."

Back to Abu Ghraib. Aiden Delgado, an Army Reservist in the 320th Military Police Company, served in Iraq from April 1st , 2003 through April 1st, 2004. After spending six months in Nasiriyah in Southern Iraq, he spent six months helping to run the now-infamous Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad. Excerpt from an interview with Delgado (please read the whole interview to understand the context):

DELGADO: The worst incident that I was privy to was in late November. The prisoners were protesting nightly because of their living conditions. They protested the cold, the lack of clothing, the rotting food that was causing dysentery. And they wanted cigarettes. They tore up pieces of clothing, made banners and signs. One demonstration became intense and got unruly. The prisoners picked up stones, pieces of wood, and threw them at the guards. One of my buddies got hit in the face. He got a bloody nose. But he wasn’t hurt. The guards asked permission to use lethal force. They got it. They opened fire on the prisoners with the machine guns. They shot twelve and killed three. I know because I talked to the guy who did the killing. He showed me these grisly photographs, and he bragged about the results. “Oh,” he said, “I shot this guy in the face. See, his head is split open.” He talked like the Terminator. ‘I shot this guy in the groin, he took three days to bleed to death.” I was shocked. This was the nicest guy you would ever want to meet. He was a family man, a really courteous guy, a devout Christian. I was stunned and said to him: “You shot an unarmed man behind barbed wire for throwing a stone.” He said, “Well, I knelt down. I said a prayer, stood up and gunned them all down.” There was a complete disconnect between what he had done and his own morality.

Q: Commanders permitted use of lethal force against unarmed detainees. What was their response to the carnage?

DELGADO: Our Command took the grisly photos and posted them up in the headquarters. It was a big, macho thing for our company to shoot more prisoners than any other unit.

I don't have all the facts on Brigadier General Janis Karpinski and I don't have HBO (or even a teevee to see it on) but I do know that she was in command of Abu Ghraib. In command.

She wasn't in command of the areas where the spectacular atrocities happened. Those two cellblocks were controlled by CIA and staffed partly by private contractors. If they had used private contractors for the whole thing it probably wouldn't have been a story. But the used reserve MPs for part of it, and the chain of command was confused, and the MPs didn't know how to keep a secret. They too photos, they let people use the photos for screensavers, they sent them home over the internet to their friends and relatives, CDs packed with photos and movies went home with returning soldiers, and it got out.

Still they managed to mostly keep the lid on until the army investigation that was primarily about other things revealed the army side of it. Since then the focus has been almost entirely on the MPs, who got courtmartialed for their part. Hardly any mention of the movie of the private interrogation contractor raping an underage boy. Nothing about the video of the nonsoldier raping a woman prisoner. It's like the CIA was doing nothing wrong, it was only a few rogue MPs.

Karpenski was in command of a low-morale unit. They were supposed to feed the prisoners the same food they got. The prisoners got rotting food and to some extent so did they. Somehow they were low on the priority list and they got MREs that were way past their expiration date. They were keeping far too many prisoners in too small a space and they couldn't build more fast enough to keep up with the new ones. Sometimes prisoners got away. Sometimes they couldn't tell whether prisoners had gotten away. Sometimes it was obvious that the people they had were innocent of any particular crime -- like, some of them were hostages, we hadn't gotten the bad guys so we took other family members with the idea that the bad guys would turn themselves in so their families could go free. In the early days a lot of the prisoners were iraqi army officers etc who had simply been on the wrong side, who were going to be released as soon as somebody gave the permission but whoever had that authority had other priorities. Etc.

She had a low-morale unit, she didn't have the clout to get needed supplies, and she didn't find solutions to the various problems. It was reasonable to relieve her of her command and put in somebody who could get things done. But the things that got the media attention were things that blindsided her. She didn't have the authority to find out what was going on, much less do anything about it. She could have objected to that fact, but it's hard for somebody who doesn't have much support in the army to go up against the CIA. The natural thing is to blame her for not being a team player, and order her to give the CIA full assistance.

She could have resigned rather than deal with her inability to get the job done. It may have been her duty to resign and accept whatever consequences came. I dunno, I wasn't there.

Again, General Karpinski was the commanding general of Abu Ghraib--that fact seems to elude you. Apparently shooting prisoners with machine guns doesn't impress you either. These were prisoners who were guilty of nothing--they were innocents who were kidnapped and stuck in that hellhole, as General Karpinski was well aware. What's that low-morale unit business you wrote twice? In a military unit the commander is responsible for morale, as with everything else. If their morale was low then she was responsible for that too.

--which is why she's now Colonel Karpinski (ret).

Don Bacon:
Again, General Karpinski was the commanding general of Abu Ghraib--that fact seems to elude you."

Don, have you ever commanded an Army unit (or any other military command)? True enough that the commander is responsible for everything, except that any honest commander will tell you that they only escaped punishment for the *inevitable* screw-up during their command because they were lucky or well-connected. (I was just lucky.)

I don't know enough about Karpinski's situation to judge, but my impression is that as J Thomas says, she was unlucky (too much outside her ability and authority to control) and obviously not well-connected.

Whatever happened to the concept of holding officers responsible for the wrongful actions of their troops? There have been widespread war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Gitmo but (other than Kaminski being demoted) officers have been untouched or even promoted for the same kinds of crimes that got German and Japanese officers (and Saddam Hussein)hanged. Why do they hate us? Why are they killing us? Because of what we've done to them, obviously. Lack of accountability (at all levels) results in malfeasance and lawlessness which comes back at us in spades. I'd react the same way--how about you?

Images from Abu Ghraib

Don, what you're missing is that this was a CIA operation and the MPs who were nominally under her command were acting under CIA direction in a CIA area. Karpinski could have pushed that, she could have said that this CIA-only area was in the middle of her own domain and she had ultimate authority and she demanded to know everything that was happening there and she'd stop anything that didn't meet her approval. Apparently she didn't try that, but I doubt she would have gotten it if she did try.

So the atrocities *that everybody paid attention to* were swomething she got scapegoated for. Nobody talks about CIA authority. Nobody talks about CIA orders. The public generally seems to think it was a few perverted reserve soldiers doing disgusting things to get their jollies. Officially they weren't supposed to follow CIA orders because the CIA wasn't in their chain of command. Unofficially, though, their chain of command wasn't supposed to know what was going on, and they were working in an area where their officers weren't supposed to go. So they could get courtmartialed for following orders they officially weren't supposed to follow, even though those were the only orders they were getting.

Again, Karpinski and on down were getting scapegoated for the scandal. The other things you've pointed out were indeed their responsibility. Things they were incapable of handling. Note again -- they got more prisoners than they were supposed to be responsible for, so the prisoner:guard ratio was too high. And it kept going higher. They had more prisoners than they had room for, so they had to give them inadequate treatment -- a lot of them were basicly outside summer and winter, exposed to sun and scorpions, cold winds and insurgent mortar fire. The prisoners did not get various things the Geneva Conventions say they have a right to. A trial. A fixed sentence. A prison camp where they'll be safe from enemy attack. Etc. And as a result of the overcrowding etc they had prisoners escape and prisoners die, more of both than was considered acceptable.

There was a chance that a prison riot might get out of control. a lot of the facilities were quickly put up with cheap materials. Get prisoners rioting for a little while so you can't keep track of what individuals do, and pretty soon you have a bunch of guys with 2x4s using them to tear down other structures made of wood and wire, and you get fires, and a whole lot of bad construction turns into ruins you can't keep prisoners in at all. Given the limited resources, they had to shoot rioting prisoners or let them tear things up and escape. The issue wasn't really that they were shooting rioters, the issue was that they didn't get the resources they needed to prevent riots. No trials, no fixed sentences, nothing like adequate conditions for prisoners, inadequate communication for prisoners to contact their families and vice versa. Plus poor food and poor conditions generally for the guards....

What could Karpinski (or her immediate superior, whose name I don't know but who escaped court-martial by sheer luck) have done? The first thing would be to refuse more prisoners. "We have all we can handle, thank you, sir." They would have been ordered to take more, but it would have helped a little for CYA. The second thing would be to plan to keep increasing prison space etc exponentially. Like, plan to keep increasing at 5% a month or so, and only level off after a month when the prison population didn't actually increase by 5%. Of course they couldn't do that, because they didn't have the construction crews. At some point to build an extra 5% you need 5% more builders, and those are in short supply. But if they make the plans and requisition the people and materials needed, then when those don't come through they can use the attempt for more CYA.

They could have insisted on trials and sentences, except for prisoners in CIA prisons. They would have gotten overruled, but they could have made the case.

If they'd tried enough approaches one of them might have worked. Chances are they'd have gotten sent home in disgrace, but as it turned out that happened anyway to Karpinski, but not to the next guy up.

The guards asked permission to use lethal force. They got it. That's it in a nutshell. It reflects the poor leadership of Karminski, until we know more--which is necessary for a really informed discussion.

P.S. I just published a new site to the web-- Check it out. Ecotourism information on 188 countries. As an internationalist you might like it. Don

Hi Don, Just logged on to your website, interesting stuff. I'll check it out from time to time and I'm sure I will be contributing coments.

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