Along with the rest of America, I am incensed and saddened by the allegations that members of our military tortured and humiliated Iraqi prisoners who were in their custody. It’s unimaginable — or it would be if they hadn’t compounded their evil with sickening photographs.
The soldiers excused themselves in part because they didn’t have clear orders. Nonsense. There are things we can’t not know; the truth is written on all of our hearts. Those people had to know that they were doing wrong, orders or no orders. And someone should have had the conscience and the courage to step out of the pack and put a stop to it. I know how the herd mentality works, and people do get sucked in, but this was over the top.
Of course, human depravity should hardly come as a surprise to anyone with a Christian worldview. I’ve worked in prisons for thirty years now. I’ve seen horrendous abuses — for example, prisoners being raped to make them controllable while guards looked the other way. And often guards themselves actively abuse their positions. Like the soldiers serving as prison guards in Iraq, it’s an example of the corruption and depravity in every human heart.
In his wonderful book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, Neal Plantinga makes the point that once we start to give in to sin there’s a steady, creeping process by which we descend into greater corruption. It starts with little things, grows into bigger things, and eventually consumes our personality. It’s politically incorrect these days to talk about sin, but the photographs from Iraq ought to remind us all that sin is a very grim reality.
Nonetheless, the fact that we’re all sinners, while it keeps us from being self-righteous, does not excuse these men and women. They need to be tried and, if guilty, punished quickly. The world, particularly the Arab world, needs to see that American democracy defends human rights and decency and demands justice, even when we must punish our own.
In this case, punishment needs to be swift, not only because of the severity of the crimes, but also because we must vindicate the reputation of America’s military. Let’s not allow our men and women in uniform to be tarred by these bad apples. Our armed forces have always been distinguished by a sense of decency and caring. The late historian Stephen Ambrose pointed out that throughout history, when armies entered villages, the people fled in panic. But when the American military enters a village, children run to meet them, viewing them as liberators and friends. And that’s the American way, the way it’s supposed to be.
There is a streak of decency in Americans. The reason is historic, rooted in the worldview of the founders of this country. It’s our fidelity to the Declaration of Independence, which states our belief in the rights of all human beings — the only document in the world like it. It’s our commitment to freedom. And when I was in the Marines, this was drummed into our heads: We were to kill the enemy but always protect the innocent.
I’ve seen enough of America’s finest this year in Iraq to realize that, on the whole, they still share those beliefs and commitments. Seeing their bravery, their professionalism, and idealism has restored my faith in this generation. These men and women live their lives and do their jobs according to a higher standard — all the more reason why those who failed to meet that standard, those who gave in and let sin corrupt them, need to face justice.
For further reading and information:
Dan Froomkin, “Bush ‘Shaken’ by Iraqi Prisoner Abuse,” Washington Post, 4 May 2004.
Read about President Bush’s response to the reports of abuse in White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s remarks to the press.
Robert Burns, “Rumsfeld: Prisoner Abuse ‘Un-American’,” Associated Press, 4 May 2004.
“Prison Abuse ‘Totally Un-American,’” CBS, 4 May 2004.
“Bush will go on Arab TV today,” CBS, 5 May 2004.
Thom Shanker and Jacques Steinberg, “Bush voices ‘disgust’ at abuse of Iraqi prisoners,” New York Times, 1 May 2004. Reprinted by the International Herald Tribune.
Barbara Amiel, “We’re fighting for the right to be outraged at those photos,” Telegraph (London), 3 May 2004.
“Doubts over UK ‘abuse’ pictures,” CNN, 3 May 2004.
Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Eerdmans, 1995).
See BreakPoint’s Just War Fact Sheet.
BreakPoint Commentary No. 030704, “Onward Christian Soldiers: Are We Liberators or Oppressors?”
BreakPoint Commentary No. 030526, “Willie and Joe: Quintessential American Soldiers.”
Roberto Rivera, “Uncommon Valor and Common Virtue,” BreakPoint Online, 27 November 2000.
Ronald R. Griffin, “Our Honor, Our Grief,” Wall Street Journal, 1 May 2004.