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May 16, 2004
Post: A Confusion of Chaos and Purpose?

The Washington Post reports today on the continuing investigation into the Abu Ghraib abuses, reducing the story to two somewhat contradictory themes. The first theme, and the one which grabs the headline, says that the abuses resulted from decisions made within the command structure to allow for harsh interrogation techniques and the conflating of MP and intelligence roles, something that the military normally avoids. The second theme lays the blame on a lack of discipline that extended even to casual dress within the prison facilities themselves.

On the first theme, R. Jeffrey Smith names Col. Thomas M. Pappas as the author of the first theme by his insistence that Army reservists assigned MP duty at Abu Ghraib set the table for interrogations:

But the fact that a plan for such intense and highly organized pressure was proposed by Col. Thomas M. Pappas -- a senior military intelligence officer in Iraq who took his job at the insistence of a general dispatched from the Pentagon -- suggests a wider circle of involvement in aggressive and potentially abusive interrogations of Iraqi detainees, encompassing officers higher up the chain of command, than the Army has previously detailed.

While the Army has blamed the physical abuses documented in soldiers' photographs on a handful of night-shift soldiers at Abu Ghraib who ignored rules on humane treatment, government officials and humanitarian experts say the order indicates the abuses could instead have been an outgrowth of harsh treatment that had been approved.

They suggest in particular that military intelligence officials may not only have improperly tolerated physical abuses, as stated in the Army's official internal report, but also that they may have deliberately set the stage for them. According to a hypothesis now being explored by members of Congress, this stage was set through a directed collaboration between two units of military police and intelligence officers, virtually unprecedented in recent Army practice.

I'm not sure how "unprecedented" this truly is. "Recent Army practice" is a dangerous qualifier to use for a military force which hasn't had this kind of mission for over thirty years, at least. At any rate, while I don't have experience in military service and don't have a good handle on detention practices either, I can see where merging the two functions could cause some concern, especially if the MP brigade has no solid training in intelligence work and its limitations. On the other hand, I can also recognize that having the two units working at cross purposes could keep valuable intelligence from flowing to the trained interrogators.

Reviewing the Post's litany of orders and directives, I am struck by the caution taken in them to ensure that physical injury to detainees be avoided. For instance, two of the memos explicitly state that detainees must be treated humanely. The one which Smith reports contains an OK for dogs to be present also says they must be muzzled at all times, rendering them only psychologically threatening. It appears that throughout the chain, intelligence and other officers tried to lay out boundaries for gathering critical information without crossing over the line into torture or abuse.

More compelling is Smith's reporting on the breakdown of discipline, which current and former members of the services have told me is the much more likely cause of the abuses than conflation of mission:

All of the Iraqi prisons were understaffed because promised civilian contractors never appeared, Karpinski said. Unlike the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, which has 800 police guarding 640 detainees, Karpinski had one soldier available to guard every 10 detainees in a prison population that included men and women of varying ages, criminals, terrorists and mentally ill persons.

"It's like being in Dodge City in the 1870's without speaking the same language," said a newsletter home last summer from the 372nd Military Police Company, the Cresaptown, Md., unit assigned in October to guard Abu Ghraib. "The prison 'detainee' climate is becoming more strained as the months drag on," the December newsletter said. "We take each day as it comes, do our jobs, and wait for the day when we all get to go home."

Discipline among the soldiers slumped over time, according to internal Army reports. Military police were permitted to wear civilian clothes to boost morale, but it contributed to sloppiness about other rules, investigators concluded; platoon leaders encouraged some of their soldiers to carry concealed weapons while walking among the detainees, a violation of regulations. Punishments for minor offenses were rare; a climate of leniency developed.

Discipline is essential to maintain mission, and that's true outside of the military as well as within it. Discipline has to be the first task of command. If true, this indicates laziness in the immediate command structure in this unit, and all other problems flow outward from there. If you put a brigade of reservists, who (as a milblogger told me yesterday) are primarily involved in the military one weekend a month just to get some money for college, in charge of prisoners for months on end and fail to maintain discipline, you will wind up with the types of abuses we've seen and heard described by members of Congress. A well-disciplined unit does not have its members conducting sexual relations in the hallways of Iraqi prisons and cheerfully photographing it for posterity.

Instead of focusing on who wrote to whom regarding interrogation techniques that obviously attempted to work within a legal framework, we should be focusing on the lack of discipline in a few reserve units in the theater of war and determine how that can be expeditiously reversed.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 16, 2004 9:05 AM

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