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May 13, 2004

More Musings on the Abuse of Prisoners in Iraq « GWOT »

When the pictures of the abuse of prisoners by the military in Iraq first surfaced, I advanced the idea that a large contributing factor was "Mob Mentality". By this, I mean that the idea of abuse was something that grew almost on its own, and may be impossible to assign to one person. It was the result of "egging on" and "spirit of the moment" that can happen to anyone under the right circumstances. It is the sort of thing that leads to riots, excessive hazing, excessive teasing, and the like. It is humanity at its worst. However, the abuses went on so long and went so far precisely because everyone involved lacked the courage to stand up and say, "This is wrong! Knock it off!", and so I absolutely blame the individuals involved.

I also blame the leaders who bore the responsibility to keep the prisoners safe and the authority to ensure it, but did not.

But there is another factor that I did not really discuss earlier.

It has everything to do with the way the military recruits. It is its strength, and its Achilles' Heel at the same time.

The military is the one institution that recruits almost solely on potential. The military will give anyone a chance. The greatest restriction on achievement is you and you alone. Sure, you might be barred from some jobs on your initial entry due to an insufficient ASVAB (aptitude test given by the military) score, but once you are in, a good performer can usually cross-train/transfer into almost any occupation.

Every other institution that I can think of accepts you only the basis of prior achievement. You must have done something good to get the top opportunities. You must have earned a college degree or had good work experience to get the best jobs. In the civilian world, choices you make before the age of 20 might already close off the paths to becoming the CEO of a large company, or a President.

But the lowliest recruit driving a truck can eventually become a 4-star General (and that sort of things has happened!). The military cares about what you can do, not what you did.

In high school, I was the perfect college candidate. I was a National Merit Scholarship Winner, and of the higher dollar total, meaning one of less than 1,000 people graduating that year in the entire nation. I had made the All-Northwest Choir, and All-State Band. I had won Academic Olympic Contests, Led a team to the All-Northwest Problem Solving Bowl, and won math contests.

I could have gotten into nearly any college on a full scholarship. The world was my oyster.

Five years later, I had already failed at life. Absolutely failed.
I had dropped out of college without a degree, worked for 9 months as a restaurant Assistant Manager to mediocre levels of accomplishment, and worked 6 months as a salesman who could sell anything.

I had no degree, little work experience, and no resume to speak of. Who would have hired me? Who would have cared about my mind, in light of my demonstrated lack of ability to accomplish anything?

The Army. They gave me one of the most difficult and challenging job assignments they had.

It was an uncomfortable fit. I got in all sorts of trouble my first year. To this day, I still think my sergeant singled me out for extra abuse. But then, it worked: I developed a stronger sense of responsibility, and honed the edge of mental sharpness and discipline. With the help of demanding superiors, I strengthened my character.

I hated the Army, and nearly got out. But in the last year of a 5-year contract, I started growing into it. Sure, maybe it was the fear of getting out with no degree, and seeing other colleagues not getting fat contracts when they got out. Maybe the chain of command started courting me for re-enlistment because they wanted to keep their re-enlistment rates up. Dunno. I do know I started to enjoy being in the military. I started to care about my co-workers. I started to become proud of how much military life sucked, about how much I gave up to stay in.

I re-enlisted. The Army gave me a semester off to go to school, and paid for it. I changed my major and did 54 college semester-hours in less than 10 months to finish up my degree. I took that degree and applied for the USAF Officer's school. I've had a decent career thus far, and Lt. Col. is well-within my grasp, and even a "full bird" Colonel isn't impossible. From there, the right place at the right time could mean putting on a star.


Because the military doesn't care about what you did before. The military only cares about accomplishing the mission and being a team. As long as you continue to improve/educate yourself and accomplish the mission, you will be promoted (but you are usually not allowed to stagnate: up or out, for the most part), and you will remain a part of the team.

What does all this have to do with the abuse of prisoners in Iraq?

Well, not everyone is a success story. Not everyone develops good character. Some people never rise to the challenges and are not allowed to re-enlist. Few are kicked out, because there is always some job you can accomplish, even if it is taking out the trash so others can concentrate that much more on their jobs. Some are allowed to re-enlist, but do not rise about the junior NCO-level, and that is often because of a lack of discipline or minor character flaw. There are people who work fine with good supervision, but if left alone, will go astray. They are fine for battle, they are fine for peacetime, they are fine for military service in general...but the first time they lack the proper supervision, the first time they have an extended period of being left to their own devices, the character flaws and lack of discipline show themselves.

I think that is a large part of what happened here.

Their true character became apparent in the environment created by the intersection of high stress and lack of supervision. They continued to demonstrate the lack of character in their denials of responsibility, in leaking the photos to try to poison the well that might lead to their conviction. Instead of showing military responsibility and intestinal fortitude to accept their responsibility and take their punishment, they choose to cover their butts. But then, if they had the moral courage to do that, they would have had the moral courage to stand up and stop the abuses in the first place.

And then, this comes around again to the leadership. The General and her Lt Col subordinate have been pointing fingers at anyone but themselves. They sicken me with their lack of military bearing and responsibility. I am disappointed that they could rise to such high levels without having had the mettle of their character tested before, but the military is still a bureaucracy, and this happens in the military in peacetime.

I'm reminded of Heinlein's Starship Troopers, during the training portion, in which a recruit hits a sergeant. The recruit is punished, because he must be in order to maintain "good order and discipline", because you cannot allow a recruit to hit a superior and get away with it...but the commander blamed the sergeant for allowing the recruit to actually hit him. That applies in this case: The General is absolutely a dirtbag in the way she's tried to shift blame to protect herself. But her worst crime was not providing the proper supervision to prevent this. The soldiers who did this should be convicted and jailed. If the extent of the abuse is as bad as I fear, those responsible should face the possibility of execution. But every single violation these soldiers did should be laid at her feet. If properly supervised, this would never have happened. She failed them. The entire chain of command failed the soldiers.

Posted by Nathan at 07:30 PM | Comments (5)

Agreed on all points.

Very nicely said.

Posted by: zombyboy at May 13, 2004 08:58 PM

You know, Nathan, I'd been wondering about that. I recognized Karpinski's name from having read about her in a different context a decade ago. When she was interviewed on CNN, she said something like, "Well, I do accept the responsibility, in that I was ultimately the officer in charge, but the blame? No." I thought, Wow. Where can I get a job that let's you flim-flam like that?

But I also sounds as if there were a bunch of different offices/agencies/power centers involved in prison administration. I'm not saying that she shouldn't go down for not doing her job, but the way things are described on the news, it's hard (given that I'm not in the army, let alone in Iraq) to assess how much real authority she had.

Posted by: Sean Kinsell at May 13, 2004 09:32 PM

Very nicely of the things that has troubled me my whole life is overhearing two male classmates scheme to drop out, and when another classmate said "what will you do with your life?" we learned that they had already been ok'd to enter the marines. And, into the Marines they went.

I had taken the ASVAB and knew they weren't in that group from my school that tested..."career military" is not something they had planned in their lives. They just saw it as an easy way out (boy, I bet they were in for a surprise).

I am sure they didn't make it very far at all...on the other hand, a person who I took the ASVAB with (and had dated off and on in that high school way and was a very good pal) did become career military. (along those lines, I think he's really pissed at me over my war opposition and not speaking to me, but hopefully one day he'll come around.)

Posted by: Jo at May 14, 2004 07:35 AM

I suppose it is possible she was cut off at the knees, authoritarily speaking (yeah, I made that what?), and prevented from knowing what was going on there...but I doubt it.
That star on your lapel gives you an extreme amount of authority. You can wear whatever uniform you want. You can take and give rank to lower-level officers, not to mention enlisted. You answer to pretty much only 4 people above you: the Theater Commander, the Secretary of your branch, the SecDef, and the President...well, not exactly, but pretty much.
People freak out and stumble all over themselves when a Lt Col visits. You wouldn't believe the lengths people go to make a Colonel happy when he stops by. A General very nearly has the power of life and death over their charges. She didn't do her job.
...but I admit I'm not a general, so maybe I'm not totally correct.
...or maybe one day you'll come around...?

The higher you go in the military, the higher the standards are. A "star" performer at one level is expected to increase their accomplishments as they go. What is impressive in an E-3 doesn't even meet the standard in an E-5. Those two guys looking for the easy way out probably lacked the discipline and responsibility to succeed in the long-term, but could still be good Marines for one enlistment. And it was still worth the gamble to the Marines to let 'em try.

Posted by: Nathan at May 14, 2004 01:47 PM

I should have clarified- what I meant was "maybe he'll come around to being my friend again". My door is still open.

Posted by: Jo at May 14, 2004 01:57 PM
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