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There is no excuse for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib

By Tony Smith - posted Friday, 21 May 2004

The news that occupying forces in Iraq have used torture would surprise only very naïve observers. Opponents of the 2003 military campaign by the Anglophone "coalition of the willing" argued that warfare destroys civilised standards. Similarly, only the naïve would accept government assurances that such abuses will be eliminated. Indeed, the US, British and Australian responses to these revelations show that we are deeply embedded in a debilitating "war against terror", an ideological campaign that could rival the cold war of the second half of the 20th century in length and intensity.

Critics of the Iraq campaign believe that Australia's Prime Minister Howard, Britain's Prime Minister Blair, and US President Bush constructed the war for cynical political purposes. The torture revelations suggest that the three do not know how to retire honourably from Iraq, and have even less idea about how the campaign against terror will unfold. One probability about this dive into the unknown, which sadly resembles the cold war lurch towards the nuclear abyss, is that a spiral of mistrust and hatred will spur more terror.

The abuse of prisoners is damaging because it undermines the benign rhetoric of Western leaders. It belies their claims of moral authority and references to freedom and democracy. Unfortunately, some attempts to explain the abuses make matters worse. Despite assurances that those "responsible" would be punished, responsibility here does not involve leaders accepting the blame for the behaviour of underlings. Rather, the responses follow the familiar rules established by ministers when avoiding accountability in parliament.


First, plead ignorance. You did not imagine that such abuses would occur, and do not know how they could. Hope that people accept that war can be an honourable pursuit - like cricket perhaps. Reject talk of Vietnam and My Lai. Second, act appalled. Express horror at this unAmerican, unAustralian practice. Promise that rotten apples will be composted so they cannot corrupt the integrity of the decent majority.

Third, reject as outrageous any comparison with the human rights abuses of the former regime. Play word games. Ask whether this was torture or simply mistreatment. Argue proportionality. Ask whether anyone thinks that our torture is as bad as the abuses we stopped. Fourth, assure people that US interrogation techniques have medical supervision. Ignore questions making comparisons with abuse of psychiatry against dissenters in the Soviet Union. Fifth, attack your critics. Charge them with wanting to do nothing, to leave the former regime intact, and to let torture continue uninterrupted.

These arguments are seriously flawed. Despite the vicarious guilt attaching to a country that supports the US unconditionally, Australians should be objective enough to detect and reject inconsistency. Torture might be unAustralian but our political and military cultures differ from those of the US. We have different homicide rates, incarceration rates, attitudes to capital punishment, and positions in world affairs. Only the US can effectively claim an unfettered right to pre-emptive military action, and so only the US is tempted by the principle that might is right. The US was prepared to debilitate the UN because it does not need international law or multilateral permission.

Authorising people to kill on your behalf entails the risk that they might abandon respect for all laws. Add to this volatile mixture the US policy of defining captured enemies neither as prisoners of war (lest they be subject to Geneva Conventions) nor as criminals (lest they come under international protocols on Civil and Political Rights), and this slipperiness must affect the lower ranks. Besides, our troops were not filled with hatred before the war and did not think that they were seeking vengeance for the attacks of "911".

Pleading proportionality is the most appalling justification for torture. Just as having nuclear weapons was good for the West but bad for the Soviet Union, apologists for the Iraq occupation suggest that our torture is directed to good ends, while that of the former regime was used for evil. So ours, while not necessarily good, is at least, less bad. This argument echoes the original case for war. The government enthusiastically described the horrific torture of children by the former regime but seemed unmoved by the fact that our bombing of Baghdad would also cause the deaths of many children. The official line implied that it was better for some children to die under coalition bombs than for all to live in fear. Our government would be reluctant to tell an Australian parent that his or her child would have to die for a greater good, and yet we accepted that it was ethical to kill innocent Iraqi children to achieve our ends. We should tremble when fallible governments claim the god-like power to determine who shall live and who shall die.

To argue that our torture and our killing are justified by proportionality is not just distasteful but positively evil. When the architects of the Iraq adventure employ such arguments, they show that the entire edifice is built on sand. We accept such arguments only because we are in denial. In such an atmosphere, discussions about public morality are meaningless. Ethical failures of this kind give credence to those critics of the west who claim that something is seriously wrong with the way we live.

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About the Author

Dr Tony Smith is a writer living in country New South Wales. He holds a PhD in political science and has had articles and reviews published in various newspapers, periodicals and journals. He contributed a poem 'Evil equations' to an anthology of anti-war poems delivered to the Prime Minister on the eve of war.

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