Is there anyone not familiar with the shocking images of the degradation of Iraq prisoners by U.S. Army personnel in Abu Ghraib that were leaked in April 2004? The scandal unleashed a firestorm of condemnation on the United States, seriously undermining our image as a champion of human rights.
There is no excuse for the monstrousness that the photos revealed, but, as psychologist Larry James makes clear in his book, there is an explanation. He says that placing ill-trained National Guard and Reserve military police units in control of Abu Ghraib, the sprawling Saddam Hussein-era prison complex west of Baghdad, was a crime in itself. There was little or no oversight by superior officers, and the commander at the time was more concerned with creature comforts than with the filth and anarchy rampant at the prison.
The Army brass, burned badly by the scandal's fallout, ordered the place squared away -- yesterday! They turned to James, who made his mark getting state-of-the-art mental-health facilities installed at Guantanamo Bay.
James was not prepared for what he found.
He arrived at Abu Ghraib unannounced late at night and found a trash-strewn, barren sty built on a garbage dump. The stench of raw sewage nearly made him retch. The temperature at 11 p.m., he notes, was 130 degrees.
More than 6,000 detainees were watched over by about 2,000 U.S. soldiers.
In the crisp, no-nonsense language that is a pleasing hallmark of his book, James tells us that "desperation, hopelessness, poor leadership, depression, abandonment, rage, sexual exploitation, and a sense of defenselessness collectively yielded a climate of despair, which was exacerbated by the torrid, smothering heat, and unsanitary living conditions." And that was just for U.S. personnel; the predicament of the prisoners was exponentially more dire.
Of all the troubled souls at Abu Ghraib -- the name, he tells us, translates loosely as the "House of Strange Fathers" -- the most wrenching were the teenagers. For the most part they were illiterate boys who were turned into robotic killers by fanatical mullahs and preyed on sexually by gruesome tribal elders. How James dealt with these kids is one of the more edifying aspects of his tenure at Abu Ghraib.
In fact, how he dealt with the whole mess is remarkable. It wasn't easy, and the criticism he endured, particularly from ignorant members of the news media, cut deeply. He answers his critics -- whom he names -- convincingly.
This is a serious eye-opener of a book. That James persevered, that he succeeded at all, in the face of stupendous odds is a credit to his professionalism and humanity, and to the Army.