TO GET TO MY SMALL VACATION CABIN at Deep Creek Lake, Maryland — right at the very tip of the Maryland pan handle and bordering West Virginia and Pennsylvania, I drive through the Allegheny mountain town of Cumberland, Maryland.
Cumberland is a great, simple, working class town with a distinctive mini skyline of very thin and dramatic church steeples which I enjoy seeing as I drive in from the east on the 68 Freeway. It’s the town where William H. Macy of “Fargo,” “Magnolia,” and “Boogie Nights” — and more lately, “Seabiscuit,” was reared.
Cumberland is also home for seven people charged in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal who were deployed as reservists in Iraq as part of 372nd Military Police Academy. Whenever I stop at one of the local restaurants up there or stroll the aisles of Lowe’s Hardware, I look around and realize that the folks caught up in this scandal are really just like us — well not like well-heeled, inside-the-beltway types — but they are from and of core American life.
I think America lost what little moral authority it had (not that we ever had much) in this Iraq mess when the disturbing photos of these in-prison crimes came to light, but I want to know why America did not demonstrate how important ‘accountability’ is in our form of democracy. Don Rumsfeld should have been fired — and if the president wanted to continue to have his counsel, there is no shortage of advisory posts, public and private, that Rumsfeld could have been appointed to. But small town folks from Cumberland who allegedly dreamed up these torturous conditions for prisoners under their watch are pretty much being hung out to dry alone by those above them.
What is really sad is the news that a detachment of Oregonians, from the Oregon National Guard, “disrupted prisoner abuse by police at the Iraqi Interior Ministry on June 29 and were ordered to remand the detainees back to Iraqi custody.”
According to a UPI report and the Portland Oregonian:
Capt. Jarrell Southall, who provided the Oregonian with a written statement describing the incident, said the armored guardsmen pushed into the detention yard “basically unchallenged,” where they found prisoners who said they hadn’t eaten in days and “were barely able to walk.” He added Iraqi police soon became defiant and hostile toward the Americans.
After interrupting the abuse, distributing water bottles and discovering a cache of potential torture devices including metal rods, rubber hoses, electrical wires and bottled chemicals, Lt. Col. Daniel Hendrickson of Albany, Ore., radioed the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division to report the incident and receive further instructions. An unidentified general then ordered the Americans to leave the prisoners and withdraw from the area.

This incident took place the day after the United States transferred formal sovereignty back to the Iraqis. However, our 135,000 troops give America clear informal sovereignty over Iraq — but why when it matters in these symbolically important abuse cases — can’t American generals get it right? We certainly have little compunction about pulling strings regarding the appropriate political leadership for the country (or is it now a protectorate?)
I applaud the Oregon National Guard for trying to do what was right — and while appalled by Abu Ghraib, I believe like many others who have reported on this that the real culprits are high up in the defense command structure.
In the late 90s, it was popular to discuss the civil-military gap, the gap between what was considered to be the social norms of the military and that of the society. John Hillen, then of the Council on Foreign Relations and then CSIS, was an active participant in this discussion and argued that new-fangled notions about the role and status of women and homosexuals should not be applied to military culture.
I don’t know the answer to why there may have been divergent behaviors between the reservists from Oregon as opposed to Cumberland, Maryland — but I do know that what makes sense for the country is that the norms of the military not be buffered or held distinct from the evolving social norms of America’s citizenry.
The generals running and perpetuating the military code of conduct seem to have been as off base at Abu Ghraib as they were when they forced these thoughtful Oregon National Guard reservists to return torture victims to their torturers.
Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has demanded an explanation from the Pentagon, so we should hear more soon.
— Steve Clemons