Supporting our troops

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Thoughts about leadership

The tabloid New York Post has Pfc. Lynndie England on its September 27, 2005 front page. “Lynndie Leashed,” its huge headline seems to gloat, and the first sentence of the accompanying article refers to her as “the pathetic poster girl” of the Abu Ghraib prison scandals. Looking at her homely face and lumpish body today, one wonders if this is the same slightly built, even elfin, certainly gleeful young woman photographed humiliating naked Iraqi prisoners. The humiliator is now the humiliated.

Can there be any baby more unfortunate than the 11-month-old offspring of this “poster girl” and Charles Graner, her tutor and enabler in abuse? Graner, now serving 10 years, had cast Lynndie aside long before her child was born and, prior to his conviction by a jury of Army officers, had married another reservist who pleaded guilty in the case. Nothing seems more certain that that these liaisons were fueled by the erotic dimension underlying the sadistic activities at the prison. They were getting off on the degradation of their captives.

I for one am somewhat persuaded that Lynndie England was an unformed young person with no inner moral compass to speak of. There is some truth in what her defense attorney said: she was “overly compliant,” infatuated with Graner, and unable to distinguish what authority was legitimate and what was not. We know from numerous studies that most people will go along with whatever they are led to believe is acceptable group behavior. Very, very few will be able to muster the courage to say “this is wrong and I’m not going to do it,” when their peers are all doing it. It is small wonder that this is the case, given the demotions and firings that await most whistle-blowers.

The question that should be raised by all Christians whenever we get a chance is, Where were the majors and colonels and generals? In every substantive article I have read, the question arises over and over: where was the leadership? There are a number of superior officers, several of them women, who have been identified as negligent or indifferent to the torturing of prisoners under their command. Some of them are now being discussed for promotion.

There is a great deal of reverence for the military in the churches today, and there are prayers “for our troops” every Sunday, but the right questions are not being asked. What is the command of young men and women for if not for the shaping of young minds? My father graduated from the Virginia Military Institute; some of my most vivid memories were of listening to him talk about honor in the corps, the absolute prohibition of lying, cheating, stealing and the responsibility of each corpsman to report such violations. The huge cheating scandal at West Point in recent years rocked the Point to the core. What is the matter here? Is abuse and torture of “Persons Under Control” (PCUs) considered a lesser offense than lying, cheating and stealing? In recent developments (see previous Rumination, “Double Shame for America” on this website), several soldiers have testified that when they reported abuses to their superiors, they were told to shut up. It took one of them 17 months to get through, and the only way he could do it was to go to Senator Warner and Senator McCain.

Imagine what it would have been like at Abu Ghraib if the commander had been a humane leader with a clear sense of his/her responsibility for curbing the worst human instincts among the troops. There would have been regular meetings in which it would be stated in no uncertain terms: “There will be no, repeat NO, abuse or humiliation of prisoners. There will be regular unannounced inspections to make sure that this does not happen. Prisoners will be treated with watchfulness and suspicion if necessary, but there will be respect for them as fellow human beings. They will be treated as you would want your buddies to be treated if they were taken prisoner. Moreover, there will be no fraternization among the troops guarding this prison. Is that clear?”

If that had been done, there would have been no photographs of naked prisoners, no American shame, no prison term for a hapless young woman, and no poor misbegotten baby with two notorious parents hating each other in their respective prison cells. What a failure And to this date no one in the higher reaches of the Pentagon has paid any price whatsoever.

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