[No Comment ]The Unfinished Story of Abu Ghraib | Harper's Magazine

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
[No Comment]

The Unfinished Story of Abu Ghraib

Adjust

With the court-martial of Lt. Col. Jordan now complete, the official apologists will be out busily explaining that Abu Ghraib is all over now—see, we even court-martialed an officer, and it went nowhere, the jury let him off. But as the New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor and a number of other publications have properly pointed out, the lesson to be drawn from the Jordan court-martial is different from what the Pentagon would have us understand—it’s one of the most audacious cover-ups in military justice history.

In American literature, one writer, Herman Melville, was captivated with the subject of military justice. He wrote about it frequently. Billy Budd of course turns on a court-martial. But an earlier novel, White-Jacket is an extended tirade against the military justice system. In both novels, Melville makes a point which I consider—for all the advancements in military justice today compared to the Articles of War regime that Melville knew from his days at sea—still absolutely true. Military justice operates to reinforce command authority. It is, as it were, a command authority adjunct. Therefore we should never consider military justice to be about the ultimate, namely, justice. It may be about justice on the periphery, but concerns for justice fade when they clash with the authority of the administering command.

billy-budd

So we come to the ultimate tension of the military justice system: the closer the wrong-doing is to the command authority from which the military justice emanates, the more fundamentally unstable the system becomes, the more it flounders, and ultimately fails. That’s the principle that Melville demonstrates very powerfully in the two novels I mentioned. And the court-martial of Lt. Col. Jordan demonstrates it once more.

The prosecutors held back in presenting and developing a full case because of blinders imposed on them—they were required to avoid the trail that led up the chain of command. But that trail was completely obvious.

If you have only five minutes in which to educate yourself about the Abu Ghraib scandal, here’s how: watch this web interview with Gen. Janis Karpinski. She was one of two female general officers in Iraq shortly after the invasion, and she had responsibility for MP operations. And prisons? Well the U.S. plans called for limited POW operations. What in fact occurred was something radically different. In this interview you’ll learn:

  • The prison system was supposed to have been operated by J. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority with assistance from the U.S. Justice Department. The Justice Department’s involvement in this whole project is a study in astonishing and far-ranging corruption—starting with DOJ contracts given to a team of prison officials from the U.S. who had all been fired for prisoner abuse, frequently including assaults and homicides. All of these figures had tight Republican Party connections which they parlayed into lucrative contracts to “build a prison system” in Iraq. What they created was not a prison system, but something different. How does Marlowe put it? “Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib’d/In one self place; but where we are is hell,/And where hell is, there must we ever be.” Indeed.

  • Without informing Karpinski or her people, and on instructions that came from Dr. Stephen Cambone (the mastermind of the torture policies that emerged at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere), “security detainees” were sent to Abu Ghraib.

  • Karpinski was told by Colonel Marc Warren that these “security detainees” had “no rights.” (In an act of truly inspirational command bravery, Warren later told investigators that he was “ill” or “away” when the key decisions were taken and was thus uninvolved. Rumsfeld subsequently tried to promote Warren to general in recognition of his services, a move which was blocked by two Republican senators on the Senate Armed Services Committee).

  • Major General Geoffrey Miller visited Abu Ghraib on orders directly from Rumsfeld and Cambone (facts about which Miller subsequently lied in testimony before Congress). The “security detainee” program was operated directly by Cambone.

  • Karpinski makes clear many times that the direction for all the nasty stuff done to the detainees was not coming from Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, his deputy, or anyone else on the ground in Iraq. It was coming straight from the Pentagon, and Donald Rumsfeld personally, and his sidekick Steve Cambone were the hardasses running the program and pushing it.

You might think, of course, that Karpinski is trying to clear herself. I’ll just say that I’ve been studying this set of facts for more than three years now, have interviewed dozens of participants. Not only is Karpinski telling the truth, no varnish has been applied. Everything that Karpinski says in these interviews stacks up perfectly with what I have discovered.

Go watch the Karpinski interviews here.

More from

More