Dark Secrets at the Front

Prisoners and interrogators are both brutalized in a war that changes who we are.

In February 2006, then–Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned that our wars against terrorism "could last for decades." Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, he said of the multiplying enemy: "Compelled by a militant ideology that celebrates murder and suicide with no territory to defend, with little to lose, they will either succeed in changing our way of life, or we will succeed in changing theirs."

With a seemingly endless supply of suicide bombers in Iraq, the enemy certainly hasn't changed its way of life. However—as the world has witnessed—there's plenty of evidence that we've changed ours—namely, in America's professed values about how we treat our prisoners, euphemistically marginalized as "detainees."

Colin Powell, after his many years of military service, said that American forces using torture on prisoners has been an "innovation." And on May 7 of this year, General David Petraeus—now commanding our "surge" in Iraq, emphasized: "It's time to adhere to American values. We must not sink to the level of our enemies." That reminded me of John McCain admonishing the president and Cheney about brutalizing our prisoners: "We are Americans; our values are not those of the terrorists." McCain finally got a law passed barring "cruel and inhuman treatment" of prisoners, but he later voted for the Military Commissions Act of 2006 that barred those we hold as terrorism suspects from going into our courts to speak of their "conditions of confinement"—including "coercive interrogations" permitted by the Military Commissions Act.

Abu Ghraib: Not just a case of bad apples over there.
photo: US Army Sgt. Sara Wood defenselink.mil
Abu Ghraib: Not just a case of bad apples over there.

What caused the new alarm by General Petraeus about sinking to the level of the enemy is a startling official report from the Office of the Surgeon General, United States Army Medical Command. Dated November 17, 2006, the report—encompassing several years of research in the field, including repeated surveys—has found that:

" Less than half of other soldiers and Marines (in Iraq) believed that non- combatants should be treated with dignity and respect and well over a third believed that torture should be allowed to save the life of a fellow team member .

"About ten percent of soldiers and Marines reported mistreating an Iraqi non-combatant when it wasn't necessary . . . Less than half of the soldiers and Marines would report a team member for unethical behavior . . . Having a team member become a casualty or handling dead bodies and human remains were associated with increases in mistreatment of prisoners. High levels of anger [among the interrogators] and screening positive for mental health problems [including depression] were also associated with the mistreatment of Iraqi non-combatants."

This official report—and I'll be citing more of it—was described in a May 5 Washington Post report, but I have seen little of it elsewhere (while learning plenty about Paris Hilton going to prison). The disturbing official report was by the Surgeon General of the Multi-National Force–Iraq. Responding to it, a lesser official, Major General Gale Pollock, the acting Army surgeon general, told the Post: "They're not torturing the people."

This cruelty and torture by our forces—and the silence of fellow soldiers and Marines—are crimes under our own War Crimes Act. The responsibility for this goes to the top of the chain of command, but only a few "bad apples," mostly at Abu Ghraib, have been held accountable.

Wholly left out of the report of the Multi-National Force surgeon general, for example, is the deep complicity of military doctors in our overseas prisons. They enable the "coercive" interrogators to find the psychological vulnerabilities—the deepest fears—of the prisoners. An extraordinary investigative account of these doctors' war crimes has been published with far too little attention by Dr. Steven H. Miles, a professor of medicine and bioethics at the University of Minnesota Medical School; Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror.

I have followed Miles's work for years, and I interviewed him again recently for next week's column on the doctors who are complicit in torture. With regard to the ultimate complicity, Miles in his book speaks of the commanding role of Donald Rumsfeld setting a systemic policy of "coercive" interrogation of prisoners. (The ultimate responsibility, of course, lies in the Oval Office.) Miles writes:

"In 2002, Secretary Rumsfeld approved 'counterresistance' interrogation techniques including isolation, interrogation for twenty hours, deprivation of light and sound, and the use of loud sounds. He noted that some nations might view these methods as inhumane, intimidating or coercive, or as violating the Geneva Convention, but he asserted [with the advice of then counsel to the president Alberto Gonzales and Justice Department expert on presidential powers John Yoo] that the 'provisions [of the Geneva Convention] are not applicable to Guantánamo detainees.' "

Subsequently, there were a few alleged modifications for the Rumsfeld directive; but essentially, torture and other abuses have been the brutal norm in our treatment of these prisoners.

Adding to the severity of this treatment are the increased psychological problems of the interrogators and guards themselves. According to the surgeon general's report, "A quarter to a third of deployed soldiers in combat zones are currently experiencing moderate to severe combat stress. Others are experiencing depression and anxiety. About 45 percent of soldiers report low or very low unit morale."

Analyzing this report, The Washington Post's Thomas Ricks and Ann Scott Tyson note: "The study found that the more often soldiers are deployed, the longer they are deployed each time, and the less time they spend at home, the more likely they are to suffer from mental health problems such as combat trauma, anxiety, and depression. That result is particularly notable given that the Pentagon has sent soldiers and Marines to Iraq multiple times and recently extended the tours of thousands of soldiers to 15 months from 12 months."

Now that Democrats control Congress, where are the unsparing subpoena-powered investigations all the way up the chain of command on how the enemy has indeed changed who we are and what we stand for while we're told "the surge is working"?

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