The world has focused on US soldiers' abuse of Iraqi prisoners. But the leaked inquiry reveals incompetence worthy of Joseph Heller's novel
May 28, 2004
By David Leigh
The horrors of American military conduct are being documented every day. But one aspect of the leaked US report into prison abuse in Iraq has been little noticed. General Taguba, head of the investigation, painted a picture of an army which can be not only brutal, but is also riddled with incompetence.
Some of the details in his dossier read dismayingly like a chapter from Catch-22, Joseph Heller's second world war black comedy about the lunatics and shysters who held men's lives in their hands at a fictional military base.
What is one to make, for example, of the way Captain Leo Merck is said to have behaved? Captain Merck, in charge of a military police unit, is alleged to have spent his time in Iraq taking "nude pictures of female soldiers without their knowledge".
His colleague, Captain Damaris Morales, is ticked off for failing to train his troops. One of them proved unable, it is alleged, to get out of his vehicle without accidentally letting off his M-16 rifle. Taguba drily notes: "Round went into fuel tank."
The commanders were at each other's throats. General Janis Karpinski was barely on speaking terms with Colonel Thomas Pappas from military intelligence, who had ousted her from control of the Abu Ghraib cells. "There was clear friction and lack of effective communication," says Taguba. "No clear delineation of responsibility between commands, little coordination at the command level."
He found General Karpinski "extremely emotional" and was disturbed, he said, that she seemed unwilling to accept that any problems were caused by poor leadership. She claimed she visited the prison regularly but did not do so, and saw very little of her individual soldiers. Battalion commander Jerry Phillabaum was "extremely ineffective". His unit had to be run day-to-day by the major below him, as "numerous witnesses confirm", but he was allowed to continue nominally in charge.
The general's two staff officers, Major Hinzman and and Major Green, were "essentially dysfunctional". Despite complaints from demoralised colleagues, they stayed in post. The legal officer, judge advocate Lt Col James O'Hare, "appears to lack initiative and was unwilling to accept responsibility for any of his actions".
It was, perhaps, unsurprising that armed solders wandered round the prison in civilian clothes; that logbooks were filled with "unprofessional entries and flippant comments"; that they "wrote poems and other sayings on their helmets"; that old friendships replaced the military chain of command; and that saluting of officers was "sporadic".
Those dishevelled non-saluters at the bottom of the pile - ex-truck drivers, chicken processors and car mechanics - received no training in the guarding of prisoners. They were under-manned, thanks to the incompetence of their superiors. They were provided with few comforts, were too hot, and under constant mortar attack. They were bitter because they had been prevented from going home, as promised. This too was due to the incompetence of their senior commanders, who failed to predict the upsurge in violence last year.
No one disputes that incompetence went far higher than the six who started torturing inmates on suggestions from private-enterprise interrogators, and also, it appears, merely to amuse themselves.
During the inquiries, the overall commander in Iraq, Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez, made a scapegoat of one general, claiming that lack of clear standards, proficiency and leadership "permeates the brigade". But the evidence laid out suggests military incompetence went far higher and wider than that.
Why are US soldiers of such poor quality? One reason for the alarming level of incompetence appears to be that many officers and foot-soldiers are not professionals. They are two-week-a-year reservists. The 320th military police battalion, at the heart of the abuse scandal, was a reserve unit based near Scranton, Pennsylvania. Karpinski, in charge of the brigade, was a corporate management consultant in civilian life. Phillabaum, in charge of the battalion, was a reservist. The company commander, Captain Donald Reese, who "failed to properly supervise his soldiers", was a salesman.
And, as Naomi Klein has pointed out on these pages, many troops were from the poorest parts of rural West Virginia. They had often joined the reserve to pay their way through college, or to get medical care.
The present US administration, led by defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is trying to exploit these 200,000 army reservists, to get a smaller, lighter, cheaper, full-time army, as well as seeking to privatise many jobs out to commercial firms.
"The nature of reserve service as a purely one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer, training group of soldiers that never gets mobilised over a 20-30 year period is over," says Lt Gen James Helmly, its commander. "That is not the world we live in." The army reserve, he adds, should be seen as a good business deal: "The cost for 100 active duty soldiers to maintain readiness for a year is approximately seven times greater than that of 100 army reserve soldiers."
Cheap they may be. But this motley collection of part-timers have now sparked the worst US military scandal since Vietnam. It is they who are accused of being the true face of the force which President Bush claims is bringing freedom to Iraq.
Like several other Rumsfeldian fantasies, it seems the idea that US neo-imperial soldiering can be conducted painlessly and on a grand scale leads to disaster when it comes into contact with reality on the ground.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004