Waiting to Happen

When President George W. Bush asserted in his May 5 attempt to mollify the Arab and Muslim worlds that "what took place in [the Abu Ghraib] prison does not represent the America I know," Judy Greene nearly spat out a spoonful of dinner in disbelief. A veteran prison-policy analyst with the group Justice Strategies, Greene marveled at this remarkable manifestation of cognitive dissonance and denial. "I'm sitting here," she recalls, "going, 'Has he ever set foot in a prison in the state that he ran?'"

The release of images and reports detailing the abuses visited on Iraqi prisoners under U.S. military control in Abu Ghraib resulted in the predictable round of outrages, spins, and denials, with figures from all sides making one common point by design or by default: None of what happened should be seen as representative of America, or of anything systematized. Indeed, the flurry of media attention tended to cast the affair as something isolated, if not aberrant -- certainly not reflective of anything insidiously present, if not institutionalized, in American culture. Even a cursory reading of recent reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on the systematic brutality and lack of accountability intrinsic to U.S. prison culture today proves differently, of course. But as author and prison scholar Kelsey Kauffman (herself a former prison guard), notes, "It would be surprising if we treated Iraqi prisoners substantially better than we treated our own."

In her 1988 book, Prison Officers and Their World, Kauffman sought to explain generations of brutality perpetrated by Massachusetts prison guards, and she made a convincing case that character was hardly a predictor or reflection of brutality. Rather, it is the very nature of the captor-captive situation that begets abuse and torture -- essentially the same thing that Stanford psychologist Phil Zimbardo discovered in his seminal 1971 experiment in which "good" college students were placed in guard-prisoner roles in a mock prison. (Within six days the "guards" indulged in sadistic and humiliating practices almost identical to those committed in Abu Ghraib.)

How, then, to consider the horror of Abu Ghraib in the context of its perpetrators? To some, it says much about the Bush administration's poor stewardship of the military and the entrenched resistance of the permanent military establishment to notions of progress. According to numerous military officers and veterans I spoke with in the days after the story broke, the Abu Ghraib affair is, among other things, a case study in both an overall lack of strategic consideration by the administration's civilian leadership and the Army's atrophied training regime, particularly with regard to the Reserves.

While much of the initial media focus was aimed at the actual mistreatment of prisoners -- and whether the MPs facing court-martial were dutifully complying with the instructions of intelligence officers -- largely neglected was "Part Three" of Major General Antonio Taguba's report dealing with the "training, standards, employment, command policies, internal procedures, and command climate in the 800th MP Brigade." The picture Taguba paints here is not a pretty one, and it substantiates what many in the Army -- be they regular Army, Reserves, or National Guard -- have known and, in some cases, futilely tried to draw attention to or remedy: that training standards before and after deployment, particularly for Reserve and Guard units, are abysmal.

"There is abundant evidence," Taguba writes, "that soldiers throughout the 800th MP Brigade were not proficient in their basic [military occupational specialty] skills, particularly regarding internment/resettlement operations ... . [They were] not adequately trained for a mission that included operating a prison or penal institution ... . [They have] not received corrections-specific training ... . [T]hey could not train for specific missions ... . [T]he training that was accomplished at the mobilization sites were developed and implemented ... with little or no direction or supervision." Perhaps most damning: "I found no evidence that the Command, although aware of this deficiency, ever requested specific corrections training."

Taguba also diagrams a culture in the brigade that "did not articulate or enforce clear and basic Soldier and Army standards." He pointedly notes that "despite the fact that hundreds of former Iraqi soldiers and officers were detainees, MP personnel were allowed to wear civilian clothes," and that the handful of actions for which more than a dozen officers and senior noncommissioned officers were reprimanded or disciplined for -- from lax security enforcement to drinking to fraternization to even, in the case of one captain, "tak[ing] nude pictures of ... female Soldiers without their knowledge" -- certainly detracted from creating an environment conducive to notions of duty and honor.

While the absence of other military tenets -- another point Taguba makes is that "saluting of officers was sporadic and not enforced" -- may seem minor, some Army veterans say it demonstrates how devoid of seriousness and purpose Army culture has been allowed to become, particularly in the Guard and the Reserves. "What it shows is the absence or complete breakdown of anything that makes a good unit," says Major Don Vandergriff, an Army ROTC instructor at Georgetown University and a prominent military reformer. "A good unit will bond but is united by good discipline and pride, and to keep those things will police itself -- in this case, people became buddies because they let each other get away with things, doing the easy wrong instead of the hard right."

Indeed, there's one line in the Taguba report that reveals how the "weekend warrior" culture of nonregular units undermines authority. "Because of past associations and familiarity of Soldiers within the Brigade," Taguba writes, "it appears that friendship often took precedence over appropriate leader and subordinate relationships." Even if the MPs charged with crimes contend that they were simply following the orders of military and civilian intelligence personnel (a matter that has rightfully occasioned a separate investigation into interrogation training and practices), as Vandergriff and others interviewed for this article assert, it's still no excuse for not knowing the basics of pertinent military and international law -- or not taking action. "This is the whole point about why we have to make sure that people we sent into these situations are actually educated early on about war and the rules of land warfare," Vandergriff says. "When someone is a captain and they see stuff like this, they know it's wrong and that acts like this can adversely affect the strategic environment."

While Vandergriff's incisive scholarship on flaws in the Army's personnel and training systems have won him an appreciative following in some quarters, his reform proposals are still marginalized. Though angered by the conduct detailed in the report, he's not entirely surprised.

"A good military unit does not have an 'anything goes' attitude, and reflects discipline that comes from a sense of pride that ensures discipline under stress," says Vandergriff. "What this incident shows is that they never had that even before they went over to Iraq. You see how smaller things like nonenforcement of uniform standards and fraternization create an environment that leads to bigger problems. And one of the bigger issues is that the officers were not prepared to deal with a stressful environment. This is part of what happens when we commission vast numbers [of officers] versus having high standards, and too often we allow training standards to be compromised."

Every military officer and noncommissioned officer I discussed the matter with is appalled by the ground truth of Abu Ghraib, and feels that contempt and outrage is rightfully directed at his or her fellow soldiers. But some also note that Taguba's report touches on a broader issue that's essential to understanding how what happened happened -- and that places some blame squarely on the civilian leadership in the Bush administration. Though Taguba's report demonstrates how a pervasive lack of training, discipline, and leadership enabled scandalous behavior, the major general also notes that the 800th MP Brigade was originally due to come home on May 1, 2003, after completing its initial and formidable mission of processing between 7,000 and 8,000 detainees at another facility -- but that the brigade was then shifted to Abu Ghraib. Not only did morale suffer; the 800th was clearly undermanned for the task at hand.

The report also notes that the "quality of life for Soldiers assigned to Abu Ghraib was extremely poor," notable for the absence of basic amenities that act as a pressure valve for soldiers -- something necessary for service personnel dealing with "numerous mortar attacks, random rifle and RPG attacks and a serious threat to Soldiers and detainees in the facility."

While the report rightfully faults the brigade's senior officers for failing to deal with these issues, it also illustrates what one Army Reserve officer I spoke with last year described as "how out of touch with reality people like the president and the [defense secretary] were when it came to the strategic planning for Iraq." As a regular Army officer puts it in this case, "You would think that going in that we would have known we were going to have prisoners, we were going to have to replace or supplement the judicial and penal systems, and someone would have said, 'How are we going to do this?' That would have taken a lot of planning. And this situation reflects a failure of strategic planning."

Perhaps unlike all the others, this is one for which this administration may finally pay a price.