A failure of leadership
It is their responsibility because they have accepted it. It is their responsibility because there is a clear history from which they must learn.
Are war crimes inevitable? When there is an absence of active leadership, these crimes are extremely likely.
In 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment at Stanford University, The Stanford Prison Experiment. A fake prison was set up and student volunteers were arbitrarily selected to be either prisoners or guards. In almost no time at all, the inexperienced guards became abusive to the prisoners, who became emotionally unstable and quickly began losing their own identities.
I ended the study prematurely for two reasons. First, we had learned through videotapes that the guards were escalating their abuse of prisoners in the middle of the night when they thought no researchers were watching and the experiment was "off." Their boredom had driven them to ever more pornographic and degrading abuse of the prisoners.
Second, Christina Maslach, a recent Stanford Ph.D. brought in to conduct interviews with the guards and prisoners, strongly objected when she saw our prisoners being marched on a toilet run, bags over their heads, legs chained together, hands on each other's shoulders. Filled with outrage, she said, "It's terrible what you are doing to these boys!" Out of 50 or more outsiders who had seen our prison, she was the only one who ever questioned its morality. Once she countered the power of the situation, however, it became clear that the study should be ended.
And so, after only six days, our planned two-week prison simulation was called off.
A bunch of highly intelligent students at an outstanding college... reduced to barbarians with less than one week's worth of absolute power. Visit the experiment's web site for a fascinating read (and video). [UPDATE: Watch The Human Behavior Experiments on Sundance this month.]
As difficult as it is to accept the truth, the facts speak for themselves. Perfect citizens will react in horrible ways in extreme situations if they are allowed to. The abuses at Abu Ghraib were bound to happen without strong leadership. The fact that they happened means, without any doubt, that our leaders were either criminally negligent or, even worse, they wanted it to happen. These abuses shock the public, but there is no way our leaders could claim to be surprised when they occur. It is a textbook certainty that they will occur without preventative measures in place [edited this sentence].
Abu Ghraib is a controlled environment. Haditha was not. It would seem to this blogger, on the surface, that preventing an Haditha is a much taller order. But let's look at the greater context. Take this exchange on "Hardball" yesterday (emphasis mine):
MAJOR GEN. JOHN BATISTE, U.S. ARMY (RET): I think the alleged atrocity at Haditha, the national disgrace at Abu Ghraib and the three years uncontrollable violence and chaos in Iraq can all be traced back to the bad decisions and leadership of our secretary of defense in 2003 and early 2004.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Is this the action of somebody who's been over there too many tours?
BATISTE: This is the action, if it's true, again, it's alleged, of some frustrated Marines, could have been soldiers. We deployed without sufficient capability, without sufficient numbers of troops on the ground, to not only take down the regime, but then to do the hard work of building the peace in Iraq. We missed the boat on this totally.
MATTHEWS: How would more troops have prevented this?
BATISTE: You know, when you go in to this kind of peace enforcement operation and when you build the peace, it takes a large number of troops. It takes a mix of high technology and boots on the ground. The strategy that we had worked out within the military since 1991, which was not the plan to go back if to the Gulf War a la 1991. But this wonderful plan called for over 380,000 Americans, in addition to the Iraqi security forces to help build the peace, to stabilize the country, to secure the borders, to intimidate the insurgency, to get control of the place.
Why? Because you need to change attitudes. You need a secure environment to give the people of Iraq alternatives to the insurgency.
MATTHEWS: But when Marines in action, especially as you say, those on subsequent tours, second and third tours like they were here, who have seen their buddies shot up, killed, by these IED's, by the roadside bombs and they look around and see a nearby house.
I am just putting this together, all the reporting on this, so they went on this rampage to get even, basically. Is that part of the military culture that if you're hit, you hit back, wherever there's a target? That's my big question. Is this something that happens a lot in war, where you just get so ticked off at an ambush on your people, that you decide to ambush somebody else, even if they're not fighting people?
BATISTE: Chris, I don't think we should second guess the investigation that's going on, but what I am saying is that --
MATTHEWS: I'm just asking about war. In war, when the other side -- I guess this war is tricky, because you don't know what the Hell you're fighting. I can't figure out to this day weather we're fighting insurgents, people that don't want us in their country, out of town fighters who come in with al-Qaida, with Zarqawi. Or we're fighting Shias because they are really working against us, or we're fighting Sunnis who don't like the Shias taking over.
Do these soldiers or Marines who do want to get even, do they pick a target with that kind of intelligence or just pick a target?
BATISTE: No, they're very precise with their intelligence, I know they are. But look we went to war with the wrong plan. We should go to war to win, outright, no questions asked and we didn't do that. We didn't go to war with the proper capability and numbers of soldiers to build the peace in Iraq after we took down the regime. And to say that we didn't anticipate that insurgency is absolutely unacceptable. That was a certainty that that was going to happen.
MATTHEWS: So your point based upon military and history, just history generally, especially countries that are fighting asymmetric wars, like we're fighting in Iraq and a big power like the United States or the French or British. When you're in this kind of asymmetric fighting these kinds of incidents occur. You can expect them. You can expect an insurgency against the occupying power. You can expect this kind of terrorism against the occupying power and you can also expect this kind of anger on the side of our troops against that kind of asymmetric attack, right? It's all predictable.
BATISTE: Particularly in a country like Iraq, where the tribal, religious and ethnic complexity is amazing. Remember the Brits tried this back in the last century, in the '10s and the '20s and were not very successful either.
There is a lot of history in this part of the world. The people in Iraq don't think of themselves as Iraqis first. They're first a member of a tribe and then they're either Arab or Kurd and then they're either Shia or Sunni -- very complex. We went into something without really understanding the complexity and what it would take to finish the job.
So there's the foundation of the problem. Too few troops and inadequate planning. But what about the troops and day in question?
GEN. WAYNE DOWNING (RET.), NBC NEWS MILITARY ANALYST: I don't think it is. I don't think it's necessarily bad people. I think this was a good unit and by the way, this is alleged.
MATTHEWS: I want the perspective, stepping back from the crime.
DOWNING: Certainly there's a high degree of frustration. This unit had been there for a long time, apparently the young Marine that got killed was very, very popular guy. Sometimes troops do snap.
MATTHEWS: Anybody can snap.
DOWNING: Anybody can snap. You could snap or I could snap under the right conditions. That's why you need a strong chain of command and strong leaders to stop that kind of stuff from happening. There's a lot of parallels here if it in fact happen with My Lai and other incidents like that that occurred in Vietnam: an extreme frustration, an unseen enemy, something happens and then finally things go out of control.
Strong chain of command, strong leaders... It sounds like all of that was missing. After all, how has the Pentagon dealt with the mental health of our troops? The answer is absolutely horrifying.
The U.S. military is sending troops with serious psychological problems into Iraq and is keeping soldiers in combat even after superiors have been alerted to suicide warnings and other signs of mental illness, a Courant investigation has found.
Despite a congressional order that the military assess the mental health of all deploying troops, fewer than 1 in 300 service members see a mental health professional before shipping out.
A complete lack of leadership by the DOD. And then they pour gas on the fire:
Interviews with troops, families and medical experts, as well as autopsy and investigative reports obtained by The Courant, reveal that the emphasis on retention has had dangerous, and sometimes tragic, consequences.
Among The Courant's findings:
• Antidepressant medications with potentially serious side effects are being dispensed with little or no monitoring and sometimes minimal counseling, despite FDA warnings that the drugs can increase suicidal thoughts.
• Military doctors treating combat stress symptoms are sending some soldiers back to the front lines after rest and a three-day regimen of drugs - even though experts say the drugs typically take two to six weeks to begin working.
• The emphasis on maintaining troop numbers has led some military doctors to misjudge the severity of mental health symptoms.
Effexor, Zoloft, Celexa... pump 'em up with drugs, hand 'em a rifle and send 'em back to the front line. Anybody can snap? Who knows how many other incidents there have been. The new Iraqi ambassador introduced himself to America by revealing that he believes his cousin was intentionally and unnecessarily killed. One can only pray that these incidents are few and far between. The fact that they are happening at all does not bode well for the entire system.
Troops with serious psychological problems, drugged without proper monitoring, forced to remain in combat with inadequate gear and weak international support... all because of poor planning and an inexcusably unexpected insurgency... combined with an apparent lack of a strong chain of command... This kind of tragedy was bound to happen.
DB has no idea if these particular soldiers were on medication. But as Batiste said to Matthews, history shows that in this type of war, this kind of anger and these kinds of reactions are much more likely. It is clear that the mental health of all soldiers is not being monitored even to minimum standards and the main objective of the Pentagon is simply to keep the troop levels at a specific number. It is an absolute failure of leadership by both Rumsfeld and President Bush, who apparently learned about Haditha from Time Magazine.
Back in 2004, right before the election, when weapons were discovered missing at Al QaaQaa, Newsweek's Eleanor Clift wrote a column predicting a big Kerry win. While she was clearly wrong about the outcome, she was dead-on when she described the standard tactic of the right wing: Deny, Slime, Spin.
The Bush team's response is also emblematic. First, they deny a charge that is undeniably true, that they went into Iraq with insufficient forces. Second, they slime the person telling the truth. Kerry wasn't faulting U.S. troops for not finding and securing the missing weapons, as Bush asserted. Kerry was attacking the chicken-hawk civilians who brushed aside pleas from the military for more manpower. Third, Bush falls back on the tried and true, pointing to evidence of a cache of deadly explosives to say this proves Saddam really was dangerous.
And the same formula is in effect today. First, the denials:
MURTHA: Well, what I worry about, Wolf, is that this happened six months ago.
And nothing -- you heard nothing about it. As a matter of fact, the original story was that an IED killed these 15 people. It became very confusing to the public. "TIME" magazine came out with an article, and they still tried to cover it up.
Now, there were payments made to victims, which aren't made unless we kill them, one way or the other. And, secondly, they knew about it the day afterwards. So, there's no excuse for not having this be more open and know exactly what -- and the longer it goes, the worse it is for us, because it looks like it's the policy of our troops to do something like this.
But the Marine Corps itself told me, there were 24 people killed. There was no other enemy action, except the one explosive device. Now, they are under tremendous pressure, Wolf. You -- you have heard me say this before. They are stressful. They go out every day. They see arms blown off, legs blown off. There's inadequate number of forces.
So, I understand what happened. But you can't excuse it. And the cover-up is inexcusable. So, the chain of command, the chain of command, somebody in the chain of command said, we don't want to talk about this. It's so devastating that we don't want it to be made public.
Well, it's going to be made public at someplace. The Iraqis already knew about it. The Marines knew about it. It was going to come out. And they should have been very open about this from the very start.
Next, comes the sliming:
What Murtha did is a disgrace to the men and women that are serving and putting their lives on the line. I'm sorry. --Fox News' Sean Hannity, joined by none other than Swift Boat Veteran for Truth, John O'Neill
Those people who oppose the war and want to make those who supported it pay with shame, embarrassment and a complete loss of credibility and reputation, want desperately for this massacre — if it turns out to be what happened — to be the name this war is known by forever. Haditha — My Lai — Iraq — Vietnam: it all fits together neatly in a slime fest designed to win elections and set the direction of the history books. -- Fox News' John Gibson
And finally, the spinning:
If Iraqis know their own history they know this is true. Massacres have been committed in Iraq by warring parties for millennia piled on millennia. This is the part of the world that was in on the massacre game early, played it often and the last character to be up to his eyeballs in massacres was the very guy we went in to regime change: Saddam Hussein himself.
The Iraq War may not be the best war we ever fought. When the dust settles we'll know for sure. But it accomplished a great goal that no one else had managed for the last 15 years at least: ridding the world of Saddam. No matter what the political spinners say, that was a great thing. -- John Gibson [edit: called him Josh by mistake]
But it's just -- it is factually incorrect and also, I think, somewhat irresponsible to make judgments about all the Marines or everyone in the United States forces serving in Iraq or Afghanistan based on what a few Marines may have done. -- Torie Clark
So to Gibson, hey, massacres happen all the time over there. The point is Saddam is gone. Hooray! Bill O'Reilly tried to tell Wesley Clark the same things happen all the time in our military history.
Torie Clark points out that only a few Marines were involved in this incident and she is absolutely correct. This should not be an indictment of our troops, 99 percent of whom are performing heroically. But the "few bad apples" meme is a calculated response by Clark because it also provides cover for the leadership, the same way it kept Rumsfeld employed after Abu Ghraib. Once again our failed leaders are hiding behind the troops.
We should be grateful to our troops for their sacrifices. We should punish the few who commit war crimes. Above all, we should hold our leaders accountable for their horrible failures.