05/03/2004: Some musings on military hijinks versus actionable abuse...
In this morning's Morning Sedition Sue Ellicott brought up an interesting point; apparently she'd spent the weekend in England (those of you who have listened in and heard her talk know she's obviously a native of Old Blighty), and while flying back to the U.S. she read a newspaper article where the mother of one of the soldiers charged by the Army in these cases tried to defend her daughter's conduct, saying that these were just pranks, the kind of youthful hijinks that perhaps just got carried a bit too far.
I don't want to pick on this poor woman too much. In my legal career I've dealt with the parents of clients accused of crimes (particularly of about the age that a lot of these soldiers probably are--late teens to early twenties), and it's rare that the parents of a criminal defendant will tell the authorities, "You've got him dead to rights; my son's an awful, awful person, and I hope you lock him up and throw away the key." (On the other hand, when I was a public defender in St. Louis I actually handled an arraignment/pretrial release hearing for a defendant whose mother basically told the judge that she would much rather her son stayed locked up until trial; at about that time I began to hear the case file start barking, and I knew that this wasn't going to be one of My Greater Triumphs Before The Bar.) I can understand this mother's desire to excuse her daughter; she tried her best to raise her daugher right, thinks of her as "a good person", is probably proud that she elected to serve her country in the Army Reserve (IIRC, the soldiers involved in this incident are reservists), and can't bear that thought that her child is capable of such behavior. Unfortunately, from what we know of human psychology, it's possible both that her daughter is "a good person" and yet is also capable of committing the atrocities she's accused of.
Before we take up that subject, though, I'm going to go off on a tangent which is, however, a bit relevant to the subject of this discussion. If you don't like that, blame the soldier's mother; she started it by characterizing her daughter's conduct as "youthful hijinks". That opens up for discussion the question of what does qualify as "youthful hijinks", and there's been a recent case that does qualify. I'm referring to the interesting controversy surrounding LCPL Ted J. Boudreaux, USMC. Those of you who've been following such matters closely are probably familiar with Boudreaux, if not by name. Boudreaux is the Marine who appears in a photograph with two Iraqi kids. All three of them (Boudreaux and the two kids) are giving the camera the "thumbs up", while the Iraqi kid in the middle of the picture is holding a hand-lettered sign made of brown cardboard. The controversy over this photo concerns what the sign says; in the most common version of the photo I've seen, the sign reads: "Lcpl Boudreaux killed my dad th(en) he knocked up my sister!" This isn't the only version of the photo that's out there though; some of them are merely "innocently" humorous ("My country got invaded and all I got was this lousy sign!"), or make LCPL Boudreaux look like a hero ("Lcpl Boudreaux saved my dad th(en) rescued my sister!"). For a fairly good discussion of the incident, you can check The Urban Legends Reference Pages, which lists this one as "undetermined".
As the ULRP page discusses, there appears to be an issue of which of the various versions of this picture is the "true" picture, and which has been digitally altered. Of course, the wingnuts supporting the war immediately latched onto the "Lcpl Bodreaux saved my dad...." version as the "true" one, and the "Lcpl Bodreaux killed my dad...." version as a forgery, which, of course, they assert was foisted on the 'net by evil, anti-war liberals who are trying to besmirch the honor of Our Noble Boys Over There.
For what it's worth, I'm inclined to believe that the "Lcpl Bodreaux killed my dad...." version is more likely to be the "true" version, in that I think the balance of probability is that Bodreaux and one of his buddies actually took the picture with the Iraqi kid holding that sign. My reason for concluding this is my own experience as a Navy Judge Advocate who has represented a number of Marine clients who are pretty much like Bodreaux. This is the kind of silly, tasteless, disrespectful-to-foreign-nationals humor that is likely to appeal to a bored Marine in a combat zone (let me make clear that I in no way believe that Bodreaux committed the acts boasted of on the sign; there is no evidence to support such a conclusion, and of course the "humor" of the photo is in the Iraqi kids holding up the sign with (most likely) no idea of what it really says). Since coming to that conclusion, a member of the SKEPTIC mailing list claims to have opened up the photo (or one of the many versions out there on the 'net) in Adobe Photoshop, and he's expressed his opinion that the "Lcpl Bodreaux killed my dad...." photo has been digitally altered. If so, I'm still of the opinion that it has been altered by Bodreaux or one of his fellow Marines (with access to a computer and Photoshop or another image manipulation program), as a joke.
However, my point here is simply that this is a paradigm case of a "youthful prank". LCPL Bodreaux's photograph, assuming that he and/or his fellow Marines are the persons who perpetrated this prank, is, if a bit tasteless, nonetheless fairly harmless. Assuming the worst--that the Iraqi youths actually held the "Lcpl Bodreaux killed my dad...." sign, they were most likely unaware of the meaning of the sign, and unaware of the ridicule that they were being subjected to. Certainly neither of these youths were physically harmed. They were merely the butt of a tasteless joke, and, unlike many butts of tasteless jokes, at least they were spared the shame of knowing that they were the subject of the joke. Assuming that Bodreaux was the perpertrator (or one of the perpetrators) of the joke he should be punished, but he's not deserving of any more punishment than being taken to his battalion or regimental commander and having a new asshole chewed out for him by the CO (and anyone who thinks that isn't a punishment hasn't been chewed out by a grizzled old Marine colonel; about the only thing that might be worse would be being chewed out by a grizzled old Marine master gunnery sergeant).
The Abu Ghuraib cases, on the other hand, are far from a mere youthful prank. A number of Iraqi prisoners have reportedly died from the abuses. Many have been physically injured; most have no doubt been subjected to physical pain of varying degrees of intensity. Most, if not all, have been humiliated in such a shameful manner (relative to their culture and traditional Islamic taboos involving sex and nakedness) that they would have chosen death rather than such treatment.
No, this isn't a "youthful prank". This is shameful, degrading treatment, which no human being should be subjected to. Not to mention a violation of the Geneva Conventions relative to the treatment of prisoners of war and of the Geneva Conventions relative to the treatment of subject peoples by an occupying power. In other words, big time violations of the law of land warfare.
And, it should be mentioned, the kind of obvious violations which should have been obvious to any reasonably intelligent soldier with a minimum of acquaintanceship with the law and the morality governing his/her actions. Some of the excuses being given for these soldiers ("They weren't trained properly") don't fly for that reason. Not only is ignorance of the law not an excuse, but the inherent wrongness of these actions from both the pragmatic (i.e., "winning hearts and minds") aspect and the moral/legal aspects.
That being said, this doesn't necessarly imply that all of the soldiers involved in this incident are evil, depraved persons who should be severely punished (obviously there are some who are indeed evil persons who should be severely punished; the challenge facing the military justice system is rooting them out and making sure they are suitably punished). Many studies, including the famous experiments in obedience to authority conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale in the '60s, and the Stanford Prison Experiment show that normal people can, in the right circumstances, become brutal monsters to their fellow men.
It's a lesson that, I fear, we'll be learning again. And again, and again.
Len on 05.03.04 @ 07:59 PM CST