Geoffrey Corn on the New Abu Ghraib Photos
On Wednesday, a new batch of Abu Ghraib photographs hit the press. The world is once again reminded of the “shocking and awful” abuse endured by the detainees entrusted to the control of the U.S. Army. While these photos will no doubt reinforce all the negative impressions created by the criminal abuse inflicted on these detainees, they also reinforce two important lessons (which no matter how often learned, seem to just as often be forgotten) about the role of law in war: that respect for the law of war is indelibly linked to maintaining good order and discipline; and that violations of this law can never justify compromising the commitment to subsequent compliance.
The first reality – that compliance with the law of war is linked to a professional and well-disciplined force – is reflected in what I would posit was the reaction of most professional warriors when they viewed these photos: revulsion to the overt manifestation of a total breakdown of discipline. Pity for the victims is no doubt appropriate. But for members of the profession of arms, it is the symbol of arbitrary, immoral, and abusive behavior of American soldiers that is fundamentally inconsistent with what our armed forces are supposed to represent.
The intuitive understanding that the activities of these soldiers reflected a quintessential breakdown of discipline confirms the relationship between the law regulating the conduct of war and a professional and disciplined force. Abu Ghraib must serve as a powerful reminder to all those who serve in uniform – and those who establish policy for them – that in the brutal and dangerous realm of warfare, the law of war provides a barrier between the necessary infliction of harm associated with conflict and the devolution into the unacceptable realm of the infliction of suffering for personal and often perverse reasons. Emphasis of this bright line distinction, particularly during the most brutal phases of an operation, is essential to the preservation of discipline – the “but for” of an effective fighting force.
The second reality is that the breach of the obligation to respect the law of war in no way justifies subsequent non-compliance. Indeed, if this law is to have any meaning, the exact opposite must be the reality. This lesson is much more subtle in relation to the release of these photos, but is also intertwined with the ongoing effort of the ACLU to obtain release of additional Abu Ghraib photos. The ACLU and the Australian television network that released these latest photos share a common purpose: to maintain public interest in the Abu Ghraib story. Many observers applaud these efforts, and are quick to condemn the government for opposing the requested release. However, a review of the photos released Wednesday warrants consideration of a fundamental question: what have we learned from those photos that we did not already know?
If the answer to that question is “a great deal”, then perhaps the continued humiliation of the victims of the abuse is justified. However, if the value lies not in new information, but in simply prolonging the public interest in the story, every observer troubled by the denigration of human dignity that occurred at Abu Ghraib should carefully contemplate whether the benefit truly justifies the cost.
Regardless of how this question is resolved, it does suggest that the ongoing government opposition to release of additional photos might in fact be justified by an effort to mitigate the suffering inflicted on these victims. Reasonable minds can certainly differ on the technical rules related to protecting detainees from public curiosity. (See Corn Declaration, Cummings Declaration, Sassoli Declaration, and Horton Declaration). However, the obligation of the U.S. government and the armed forces to respect the law of war, and more specifically the principle of humane treatment, is in no way modified because of the prior violations that occurred at Abu Ghraib. Instead, ever greater commitment to compliance is the proper response. Therefore, while it is fair to question the cost/benefit analysis associated with opposition to releasing additional photos, there is no justification for condemning government efforts to ensure future compliance with the principle of humane treatment. Characterizing such efforts as an exercise in hypocrisy ignores the complexity of this issue.
What transpired at Abu Ghraib was awful. Soldiers engaged in criminal misconduct, and were properly tried, convicted and punished. Serious questions linger related to the scope of the disciplinary effort, and the causal connection between government policies and the abuse. These questions must be resolved with some legitimate sense of finality and credibility. The prospect of Abu Ghraib being perpetually associated with the type of lingering taint related to the response to the My Lai investigations and prosecutions is unacceptable. It is understandable that proponents of such a resolution believe the continued public interest likely to result form the release of additional photos will contribute to their efforts. The question is at what point do the ends cease justifying the means?