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U.S.: Did America's Leaders Inadvertently Set Mood for Prisoner Abuse?

In any war, leaders seek to dehumanize their enemy as a way of motivating their own soldiers to fight. The Iraq war has been no exception, with U.S. President George W. Bush portraying Saddam Hussein and his inner circle as men who have victimized their own people. Could this somehow have contributed to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. forces?

Washington, 14 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Ever since the attacks of 11 September 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush has made it clear that he believes the enemies of the West represent not merely a different world view, but evil itself.

At the same time, Bush has portrayed the United States as embodying the best in the world: it is prosperous and powerful, he says, because its people, for the most part, are fair and upright. Even the scandal over prisoner abuse in Iraq -- and perhaps Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay as well -- cannot mute his praise for American goodness.

Bush reiterated the sentiment on 10 May in Washington: "I know how painful it is to see a small number dishonor the honorable cause in which so many are sacrificing," Bush said. "What took place in the Iraqi prison does not reflect the character of the more than 200,000 military personnel who have served in Iraq since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom."
Allard rejects the notion that somehow the soldiers' leaders bear any responsibility for contributing to a soldier's excessive anger to his enemy.

Yet these abuses occurred, and were committed by men and women whom many would presume to be too young to harbor natures cruel enough to grin for a camera while subjecting a fellow human being to sexual humiliation. Had something in their training, or in their culture, driven these military jailers to such an act?

In a way, yes, according to retired U.S. Army Colonel Kenneth Allard, a former intelligence officer who now teaches military affairs at Georgetown University in Washington.

Allard tells RFE/RL that many American soldiers took September 11 very seriously, and notes that many have enlisted in the military to avenge the attacks. He says such motivation is good for soldiers, but it must be kept in check: "[American soldiers] have been told that the reason they were going to Iraq was something that had a direct relationship to 9/11," Allard said. "It turns out that that relationship was not nearly as direct as we would like to assert. But they were the kids on the ground there in Iraq. Every time you put a guy into a combat situation, you have to train him, very carefully, and supervise him, very carefully, in a way that will restrain him."

According to Allard, at best this restraint was not used by the jailers' supervisors. At worst, officers ignored, or encouraged, or even ordered their subordinates to abuse the Iraqis.

Allard says the abuse of prisoners is not new to war, given that soldiers' lives are constantly at risk, and often watch their friends die horrible deaths. He says commanders are expected to be aware of their subordinates' emotions and make sure they do not act on them: "Any time you have a POW situation, then what you've got to be very, very aware of is the inherent potential for abuse, because it is there," Allard said. "And there is literally nothing that you can do except be aware of it and take steps to prevent it, because it is just too easy for people to go over the edge."

But Allard rejects the notion that somehow the soldiers' leaders bear any responsibility for contributing to a soldier's excessive anger to his enemy. He says he agrees with Bush not only that the abuse is limited to a few soldiers -- and perhaps a few officers -- but also that the United States does indeed represent the best of the world.

But Peter Kuznick says he believes no one is more to blame than Bush for what he calls the dehumanizing of America's Iraqi enemy. Kuznick is a professor of history at American University in Washington. He specializes in the history of war.

Kuznick tells RFE/RL that President Franklin Roosevelt's propagandists during World War II were very successful in demonizing the Allies' two chief enemies, Germany and Japan. The Nazis were portrayed as evil, although most German people were called victims. But he says all Japanese, regardless of their roles in the war were, in the minds of the propagandists, "vermin who should have been exterminated."

Much the same approach is visible in the Iraq war, Kuznick says, with what he describes as Bush's overly simplistic call to war: "What happened in this war is, right from the very beginning, after September 11, President Bush said that this is a monumental struggle between good and evil, which in many people's minds translated into a struggle between Christianity and Islamic fundamentalism -- the antithesis of all of our Western values. It led to this idea that the Iraqi people were fundamentally different," Kuznick said.

Kuznick says such messages are very powerful for young soldiers, many of whom are not well educated or experienced, and who may be driven to take part in behavior that otherwise they would find unthinkable.

But Bush is not entirely to blame, according to Kuznick. He says young American soldiers also are susceptible to what he calls the dehumanizing influence of an increasingly violent global culture:

"[Young American soldiers have] grown up in a world with these video games, with the remarkable violence on television and the movies," Kuznick said. "I don't think that our culture prizes human life in quite the same way that it did when we were growing up [four decades ago]. The 20th century was in many ways a horrible century. What happened in the 20th century was that it was a century when life was increasingly devalued."

Kuznick also attributes the soldiers' attitudes to the fact that they and their families have never experienced war on their home soil. Those who have not experienced war, he says, do not fear it as they should and so tend to be more likely to support it.

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