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May 17, 2005
Another conviction today of a young reservist -- she worked at a pizza parlor before being called up and sent to Iraq, where she was a prison guard at Abu Ghraib. You know her: she was the one giving a smiling thumbs-up to the camera from behind a pyramid of naked prisoners, so grotesquely heaped on top of one another that it took a few moments to understand that you were looking at a pile of human beings.

Not guilty because she's young and naive? Most soldiers are young and naive when they are deployed, dropped into situations nobody should ever be in to do things nobody should ever have to do, wounding the enemy, of course, but wounding themselves also, in ways that continue to unfold through the rest of life. Most of them find a way, somehow, to contain the damage of all the different kinds of wounds and make it out alive, still recognizable as themselves. Most of them mature from the experience, a maturity we might prefer they got in another way, but one that cannot be denied. They are more disciplined, more able to delay their own gratification in the service of something greater than themselves, more able to function well in a team than they were before.

And some of them make the papers, like the young woman convicted yesterday.

Disorient the prisoners: that's the goal. Disorient and shock and confuse them, and they'll tell us things we need to know. Keep them fearful and off balance. Make them doubt their own goodness, their religion, their values, make them doubt everything. Then they'll tell the truth.

But do they? Do torture victims tell the truth? Might the whole project of disorienting interrogations subject, in which our current military policy rests such utter confidence, be completely off target? Yes, I imagine you do get answers from torturing and humiliating people. But doesn't common sense suggest that this happens when they reach a point of misery, sooner or later depending on their endurance, at which they'll tell you anything just to make you stop?

And what happens after they are released? After they have gone home to heal? What do they tell their families and friends? Each Iraqi solider represents a large extended family -- he may have fifty close relatives who all live near him back home. I have known people from that part of the world who confused me by referring to men I knew to be their cousins as their "brothers." What do they tell their brothers about their stay in one of our prisons?

That American men are cruel. That American women have loose morals. That Americans are irreligious. Each action we think will disorient them further damns us in their eyes. They will tell other people about the things that happened to them, and they will be telling the truth. We will emerge from the degradation project degraded ourselves, armed with the information it yielded, information that may or may not be true.

The disastrous policy of disorienting prisoners in order to obtain information must change. Certain studies suggest it does not accomplish its goal, and it clearly does immense harm -- it is difficult to imagine a lasting victory in the battle for hearts of minds erected upon such a foundation.

What if a prisoner were treated with respect? His religion respected, and his family? What if he were questioned as a peer, and allowed to hold his counsel until such time as he chose to speak? What if his captors were decent to him, and he got a chance to see what they were really like, what freedom to speak and write and think really means, to begin to analyze their values based on firsthand good experience of them? He would have a very different story to tell when he finally got back home.

The Geneva Convention doesn't apply to them, we are told. Oh. Okay. One hopes that a certain level of respect for a fellow human beings does, though -- or is it only by the sanction of a rule that we will rise to the occasion of respecting other human beings? Do we only do so when we must?
Copyright © 2022 Barbara Crafton
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