TCS Daily

Prison Abuse, Language Abuse

By John E. Tamny - May 20, 2004 12:00 AM

"The soldiers who were guarding the bridge took turns to see who could hit my face the hardest. After the contest, they tried to force dog dung through my teeth, bounced rocks off of my chest, jabbed me with their gun barrels, and bounced the back of my head off the rocks that lay in the bottom of the ditch."
--Excerpt from Prisoner of War: Six Years in Hanoi by John M. McGrath, LTCM, U.S. Navy

The treatment of Iraqi prisoners of war continues to make headlines, with a front-page article alleging "pervasive abuse" one of the top stories in Tuesday's Los Angeles Times.

The Times headline follows over two weeks of frantic accounts of the supposedly "horrific" (USA Today) treatment of Iraqi POWs that the May 17 U.S. News & World Report called "Shocking and Awful."

"I was delirious with pain. I was suffering from a badly dislocated and fractured left arm, two fractured vertebrae and a fractured left knee. The Vietnamese dislocated both my right shoulder and right elbow...."

- p. 6 Prisoner of War: Six Years in Hanoi

Perhaps fearful of the power of a bloodthirsty media, a bipartisan collection of politicians has joined the echo chamber, with Republican Senators Chambliss ("My stomach gave out.") and Frist ("Appalling") imitating their reliably hysterical adversaries from across the aisle, Senators Daschle ("Horrific") and Wyden ("...significantly worse than anything I'd anticipated.").

"During the summer of 1969 many men in camp were being beaten with rubber hoses and straps. One man very nearly died when he received 100 strokes a day for 9 days."

-- p. 46 Prisoner of War: Six Years in Hanoi

What is the torture that has given the media and the political elite such fits? So far we've seen pictures and heard allegations of forced simulation of sex acts, forced masturbation, panties on heads, sleep deprivation, exposure to barking dogs and possible biting by dogs, and uncomfortable squatting. Some of this amounts to a day in the life of a fraternity pledge or an NFL rookie, but apparently enough to have really spooked our political leadership and those that report on them.

As for former POWs (irrespective of the war), one can only guess that they wish they'd been U.S. prisoners. Humiliation, panties, and sleep deprivation are not a vacation, but definitely preferable to the rubber truncheons, electric shock treatments, and starvation that are traditionally experienced. Fraternity pledges would presumably take sleep deprivation and girls' panties over the wooden paddlings they routinely receive, while barking dogs and squatting would seem like a walk in the park to NFL players used to two-a-day workouts in the summer heat.

"If the prisoner has not broken down by this time, his arms are rotated until the shoulders dislocate. Words could never adequately describe the pain, or the thoughts that go through a man's mind at a time like this."

- p. 78 Prisoner of War: Six Years in Hanoi.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there have been media accounts of the Arab world being "inflamed" over the "shocking" treatment of the Iraqi prisoners. Indeed, before sawing Nicholas Berg's head off, Abu Musab Zarqawi cited the "satanic degradation" (you know, the panties, dogs, and forced "kneelings") of Muslims in Abu Ghraib as the reason for the aforementioned act, and future ones similar to it.

One might think Zarqawi guilty of misrepresenting the Arab "street," except we already know how it has reveled in the beheading of Daniel Pearl (the Arab equivalent of lingerie on the head?), the mutilation and charring of four American contractors in Fallujah, not to mention the celebrations across the middle east nearly three years ago this September.

While it's not hard to be disgusted by Arab actions at this point, they can no longer surprise us. The media? London's Daily Mirror is the most recent newspaper to follow USA Today's lead (and the New York Times before it) in being caught for falsifying a story. While we ask for honest reporting, media members might reply that we buy dishonest, hyped reporting.

In truth, our disgust should be reserved for the politicians who have chosen political expediency over honesty while our troops are in harm's way. Surely we expect politicians to bash business while taking money from it, expect them to talk up family values while an affair is breaking up their own, and generally expect them to often mean the polar opposite of what they say.

This time it's different. Indeed, if sleep deprivation and sexual simulation are truly horrific and appalling, are there words that begin to describe what our enemies do to us? We can't always, but occasionally we have the right to expect leadership from our leaders. In buckling under to media hype they've shown a cowardice that puts them far lower than those on the verge of being court-martialed. Excepting Oklahoma Senator Inhofe, seemingly all of the House and Senate have joined the Arabs, the press, and the Europeans in their anger at our troops.

The press writes of retribution for the acts of Abu Ghraib guards, but in fact the true retribution will ultimately result from the utterings of a political class programmed to take the easiest, most politically expedient paths. For in the future what soldier will want to go in harm's way knowing that those with the power to send him into battle will not meet his courage with similar courage? If words no longer have meaning, will any U.S. soldier ever again believe a politician's words that recommend war?

In devaluing words like horrific and appalling, the U.S. political class has also devalued any kind of moral authority that it once had, and that mostly kept our enemies in line. It's said to be a truism of foreign policy that when a country shows its weaknesses, the criminals of the world take note.

The world's criminals have surely noticed our weak link, and it's the politicians that presume to lead us. The main question now has to be how much blood will be spilled by U.S. soldiers and citizens alike for the failings of our elected leadership. Here's hoping the voters recognize the latter's abdication of responsibility and vote accordingly in November. It might be the only thing that saves us from more grief.

John Tamny lives in Washington, D.C. and can be reached at


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