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I saw our failure through the bars of Abu Ghraib

Simon Jenkins

I NEVER saw a less plausible set of photos than those in the Daily Mirror purporting to show prisoner abuse in Iraq. They might have been ads for Timberland boots or “what the well-dressed torturee is wearing”, the sort of campaign Benetton ran in the Nineties. The Mirror picture desk should have sent them to Steven Spielberg as stills for Iraq the Movie or Were-wolfowitz II. Their message is that gullibility is the occupational hazard of partisan journalism.

But the pictures serve an admirable purpose. They offer another case of “bad-apple theory” in Iraq. We are assured by coalition authorities that any such abuse must be exceptional, the result of a few bad apples. These should not be allowed to rot the excellent reputation of the rest.

Bad-apple theory is now rampant in Iraq. It holds that, yes, a few mistakes may have occurred after the invasion, but just minor ones. Yes, the Fallujah massacre was unfortunate, but it was just a massacre. Yes, it was a pity the army and police were sacked on arrival, but that was a small executive peccadillo. Yes, yes, there was a mosque bombed here, innocent families wiped out there, a power station unrestored, a hospital unprotected, 8,000 prisoners untried, but these should be seen as mere footnotes to the saga of Iraq liberation.

Bad-apple theory is ingenious. It can be used to belittle one fiasco as a means of glorifying a wider whole. Then it can be used to excuse that whole since the barrel did, indeed, go rotten. Thus perhaps with the coalition’s treatment of prisoners.

When I visited Abu Ghraib prison last November I could not understand why the Americans had not flattened it the day after liberation. They flattened so much else. This was Saddam’s Bastille. Surely it would have been better to record this epitome of inhumanity in the desert and then destroy it? Why empty its torture chambers of Saddam’s victims only to fill them with the Pentagon’s own?

My visit was part a half-hearted search for a teenager named Omar Hamodi, the son of a Baghdad art college lecturer of my acquaintance. The scene was pure neo-Saddam. The boy had vanished from a wedding party in June when a passing American patrol heard guests letting off guns in traditional salute. His desperate parents assured me he was utterly pacific and had never fired a gun in his life. I have no reason to disbelieve them. For six months the only trace they had had of him was a prison number, 116417, and the grim news that he might be in Abu Ghraib. There had been no visit allowed, no lawyer, no trial, nothing. The family’s biggest fear was that their son might now join the Mujahidin.

The scene outside the jail was chaotic. A crowd stood waving bits of paper with names or numbers. They pleaded with a single Iraqi official for news of the inmates. All asserted this was far worse than under Saddam. The only American soldier I encountered, hiding in a bunker, said he was a Nestlé soft-drink salesman from San Francisco. A reservist, he said he had nothing to do with what was happening inside. He described his job in a series of expletives.

I trust he is safely home. His notional boss, the governor of Abu Ghraib, has been suspended and replaced, appropriately, by the boss of Guantanamo Bay. I have no news of Prisoner 116417. He is probably facing another scorching summer in this desert Guantanamo while his parents sign up to every anti-American, anti-British cause in town. Thus do George Bush and Tony Blair now mean to rule Arabia.

As for those running the prisons, I do not see them as “a few bad apples”. They are victims of the shambles to which America and Britain have reduced a country they claim to have liberated. After 14 months there is no room for excuses. Liberation has been followed by a new bondage, that of individual insecurity, public anarchy and, in much of the country, a looming clerical totalitarianism.

The prison guards have been indoctrinated to believe that they are in the front line of the Third World War. They must give no quarter against suspected terrorists, preferably revealing them as “outsiders”, al-Qaeda members or at very least Saddamists. When military or private-contract interrogators arrive and demand that prisoners be “softened up”, what are they supposed to do?

The behaviour of soldiers under military duress is widely recorded. In 1968 at My Lai, Charlie Company was ordered to “show aggression” against a village said to be sheltering Vietcong. Five hundred civilians were massacred. One soldier described to the subsequent inquiry the collapse of discipline round him. Young American soldiers “were alone in the country with no point of reference. The things they had brought from their families and schools were far away and beginning to disappear.” Asked how he felt in killing two children in cold blood, a radio operator said: “You snap. Somebody flicks a switch and you are a completely different person; there is a culture of violence, of brutality.” He wanted to take revenge for something, anything. Many American soldiers in Iraq still think they are avenging 9/11.

The same syndrome infected the British in Kenya ten years earlier. At the Hola camp, officers were told to soften up prisoners by beating them until they confessed to having taken the Mau Mau oath. The beatings were considered aids to interrogation. Subsequently confronted with 11 corpses and 60 seriously injured, the prison superintendent remarked that he “felt extremely sorry it had gone wrong but not actually guilty”. British troops had been brutalised. In Kenya there were 11,500 Mau Mau killed, tallied by chopped-off hands, including 1,000 public hangings. Nobody resigned, but within a year of Hola Britain gave up the ghost and offered Kenya its independence.

In his admirable Moral History of the 20th Century, the philosopher Jonathan Glover points out that soldiers fighting far from home experience “an erosion of moral resource”. They take on the colouring of those they fight. Liberal use of aerial bombardment has made what once seemed medieval and abhorrent, the mass killing of civilians, a commonplace. The American and British decision to visit “shock and awe” on Baghdad last year was a calculated massacre. Then and since, some 10,000 Iraqi civilians are believed to have died at the hands of the coalition, mostly from bombs and long-distance shells, crushed or blown apart with a brutality that makes My Lai seem a precision operation. Yet by killing from afar, commanders and their soldiers seem able to avoid moral dirt. They need not see the bodies.

No such licence is given to infantry, let alone to prison guards. In Iraq the latter are untrained, often reservists working in terrible conditions. They cannot kill or maim from air-conditioned cabins or lofty cockpits. They must look “the enemy” daily in the face and must never show sympathy. There is as yet no rule of law. Yet if the guards overstep the rules one inch they will be roasted by the media or some congressional inquiry. A snapped neck cannot be dismissed as collateral damage from a cluster bomb.

Of course there is no excuse for what happens in Iraq’s jails. But who needs excuses amid this rush to violence? Iraq was invaded illegally on the excuse that someone in London and Washington thought the country posed an immediate threat. Anarchy was created in Iraq on the excuse that Ahmed Chalabi boasted he would be welcomed as a liberator. Torture is committed in jails on the excuse that a link must be found with al-Qaeda. Is blinkered idiocy by châ teau generals more “excusable” than obscene antics by prison guards?

When I see gruesome photos, real or faked, I can be duly revolted. But these are moral flesh wounds on the decaying corpse of American and British operations in Iraq. And let us leave America out of this for a change. I am writing this in Britain, a full member of the coalition, jointly in command and jointly accountable. We should ask Tony Blair, Jack Straw and Geoff Hoon what they knew of these abuses and what they did to stop them.