EMU Homepage

On Abu Ghraib and war itself: See through relativism of abuse

Posted on June 22nd, 2004

By Earl Martin and Pat Hostetter Martin

As religious pacifists, we have grieved deeply – with the rest of the world – over the images of dehumanization that have emerged from the Abu Ghraib prison. We want to avert our eyes from those images and tell ourselves that these horrendous abuses did not really happen.

But they did happen. And, anguished as we are, we must face those realities. And what shall be our response?

The powers that be are preparing to investigate and mete out punishments to individuals deemed to have been involved. And indeed, individuals must be called upon to take responsibility for their own actions – even in war. The Nuremberg Principles and others have established that. At the same time, many signs suggest that a whole system up the chain of command not only permitted, but encouraged harsh treatment of Iraqi and Afghan prisoners.

Take, for example, Pfc. Lynndie England, the young woman whose face has appeared on some of these photos of abuse. She will be prosecuted and most likely punished for her offensive behavior.

But does this behavior make Private England an evil person? From all reports, she was a fun loving, adventuresome young person not much different from all of our daughters and sisters. As people of faith, we choose to believe that within Lynndie England, as within all persons, resides the spark of the divine.

The same goes for each of the Iraqi prisoners in those photos. Regardless of their histories – and reports suggest at least some were just innocents scooped up during military sweeps – we choose to believe that the divine presence lives within each of them, too. Have some of them done evil things? Perhaps so. Given the absence of fair trials, we don’t really know. But even if they have, we cannot think of them as evil persons any more than we can think of Lynndie England as an evil person.

And that’s where the logic of war becomes so grievous.

We label each other as “terrorist” or “infidel,” or “good guy” and “bad guy,” with the assumption that it is appropriate to kill the “bad guy.” If we arrogate the right to kill, it is inevitable that many other dehumanizing abuses will ensue.

Before the United States launched “the optional war” in Iraq, practitioners of nonviolence were advocating concrete alternatives that would have sought to depose Saddam Hussein without war. One plan called for a massive humanitarian assistance program to the Iraqi people while launching a campaign to declare Hussein a war criminal and to carry out even more rigorous arms inspections throughout the country. Of course, many of us nonviolent activists were dismissed as being hopelessly naive.

But is the logic of warfare and occupation really wise? Does it really make sense that we can bomb neighborhoods, storm into people’s homes at night, imprison thousands in degrading conditions without charge, and then assume that these people will love us? Where does the greater naivete lie? Do we really believe that we have created a safer and more stable world because we launched a war in Iraq?

We worked with a relief agency among farmer refugees in Vietnam for five years during the war there. Our home was just five miles from the village of My Lai, where more than 400 villagers were slaughtered on a March morning in 1968. My Lai was that war’s Abu Ghraib. Unhappily, we learned that the massacre in My Lai, while possibly the largest of its kind in that war, was far from an isolated case.

Do we blame the individual soldiers who participated in those war crimes? Again, there must be personal accountability and responsibility. But those soldiers were forced to serve among a people whose language and customs they barely knew. Without intimate knowledge of the society, they could not know who was friend and who was enemy. So many became fearful, if not contemptuous, of all Vietnamese people. Little wonder that atrocities took place. It is the logic of war. It is naive to think it will be otherwise.

Today, most US officials and commentators, while condemning the abuses revealed in the Abu Ghraib prison, speak in terms of finding ways to fix the system so these abuses will not happen again.

The need is deeper. We need to understand that if we choose the option of war, abuses will inevitably follow. It is the very nature of war. Indeed, war itself is abuse.

Earl Martin and Pat Hostetter Martin worked with the Mennonite Central Committee in peace and development programs for 25 years. Ms. Martin is now codirector the Summer Peacebuilding Institute of the Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.

Comments are closed.