Seeking relief from the special hideousness of the Abu Ghraib scene, some commentators thought back to My Lai. It could only be said about that black day in Vietnam in 1968, in search of an explanation this side of concluding that American soldiers are mass killers, that some of the men who engaged in the massacre did what they did under the impulse of hot pursuit. You are waging the war, there are snipers and other hidden assailants, and you find yourself authorizing your men to use their machine guns to just mow everybody down–one way to do it. In Iraq there seems to have been nothing there in the sense of dodging bullets and returning fire. It seemed sheer sadism, pleasure taken from torture. Psychological torture, we have reason to believe, though there are corpses to be accounted for. But there is no accounting for forcing naked men to enact sexual practices, some apparently perverse, for the gratification of an assembly apparently stripped of any thought of humane behavior.
Yes, the miscreants, or at least those who are identifiable–the photographers were here useful–will be tried. It is hard to imagine what their defense will be, though no doubt it will be a plea based on the strain of their assignment and the disorientation of war prison duty. Lieutenant William Calley, whose infantry company killed the civilians in My Lai, pleaded the fever of the war, but he was convicted to life in prison. A startling thing then happened. What seemed all of America rose up in protest against the sentence. The American people were not saying, clearly, that it was wrong to convict someone who had so crassly violated the rules of war. But they were saying that they thought the sentence inordinate, and the pressure was so immense that President Nixon bowed to it, sharply reducing the sentence.
It is unlikely that a great protest would follow upon the conviction of the Abu Ghraib torturers, but what will not be accomplished simply by trying and convicting them is any sense of national expiation. The American people are so dumbfounded by what happened, they are listening attentively to a cry for the dismissal of Donald Rumsfeld.
The case against the secretary of defense goes beyond the events in the prison. For those, he has already apologized. But there was a sense there of a man apologizing because the Tables of Organization list him as the man-in-charge, a little like the mayor of San Francisco apologizing for the earthquake. Not yet explained is how it is that Donald Rumsfeld, looking at the report in March describing the behavior of the prison guards, did nothing more than merely approve their prosecution. Clearly what cried out to be done was a public repudiation of the misbehavior combined with the public exposure of it.
No doubt Mr. Rumsfeld acted entirely on military considerations. The scene in Iraq had got bad, in March, and he was surely motivated by the temptation to think of anything other than the containment of the terrorists as clerical in nature. But of course he was wrong, and his misjudgment is paradoxically hitting him the hardest. While he might reasonably have thought the prison doings trivial in the context of a war in which 135,000 American soldiers were engaged, some being killed every day, the public has been seized by the hideous detail, seeing it as a sore that suddenly illuminates the disease coursing through the whole system. Abu Ghraib is causing some people to say: What in the hell were American soldiers doing in that grisly place? With those grisly people! While some of their companions were being ambushed and shot every day. Oh! And by the way, they are asking for billions of dollars more to pursue that nightmare.
Not lucid thought, granted. If we had applied the same reasoning to incidents in the Pacific sixty years ago, we’d have declared the war diseased and unjustified, and fired Douglas MacArthur for losing the Philippines. History teaches us that the firing of a general, when wars go badly, is a pretty routine thing. President Lincoln fired General George B. McClellan, who then proceeded to nomination for president by the Democratic party in 1864. Japanese culture made way for failed generals to disembowel themselves in propitiation.
President Bush is understandably determined not to let Abu Ghraib dictate the course of our entire Mideast enterprise. But he may not succeed, and Donald Rumsfeld may be giving thought to whether his continued service is a strategic mistake.