Perry Jefferies, now retired, served as a First Sergeant in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He now volunteers as a veteran outreach coordinator for Operation Truth , the nation’s first and largest Iraq War veterans organization.
It has been a year now since the first photos of the abuses at Abu Ghraib were published. For some, this might be seen as a low point in the war in Iraq, but to me, it was an arbitrary point in a travesty that predated the publication of the photos and seems to have continued since. In the passing year, we’ve found the abuse was systematic, widespread and—if not authorized—then at least encouraged by official policies and statements from high-level military and civilian officials. We also find that the leaders who helped set up and continue the torture were rewarded, promoted or absolved, while some of the troops involved are headed for long jail sentences.
As a soldier, now retired, who was on the ground and was often charged with handling detainees around the same time that these photos were taken, I still find myself amazed, disgusted and frustrated with the manner with which this was dealt. I love the Army, and as a member of several veterans’ groups, I frequently find myself in conversations with civilians about our men and women in uniform and the conduct of the war in Iraq. It still strikes me—but no longer surprises me—when the public paints the armed forces as a homogenous whole, and dismisses the conduct at Abu Ghraib as either a minor incident of war, or representative of the conduct of all our troops. War and fighting for your life can only be romantic to those who are not engaged in it, or are lucky enough to witness it from afar. Up close, it is dirty, frightening, time-altering and hard. Guides to conduct like the Geneva Conventions and the Code of Conduct are necessary to protect our troops’ welfare and offer solace for the soul.
It should be obvious that anyone willing to engage in the conduct depicted in the pictures from Abu Ghraib is neither a hero nor an innocent. And it should be just as obvious that they could not have committed these crimes alone or in isolation. “Every soldier has a sergeant,” my command sergeant major used to say, and the job descriptions on most evaluations of officers and non-commissioned officers include lines like, “responsible for everything the unit does or fails to do.” When I look at the pictures and read the accounts from Abu Ghraib, my first questions are always about the leadership. In Iraq, I read the orders that frequently came down the chain of command about proper supervision and leadership involvement in detainee operations. I know the abuse and torture could not have happened on such a wide scale, over such a period of time, unless many, many leaders did not follow these orders. People who are charged with knowing better helped set up these situations and then turned away to let others deal with the problems. They neglected their duty to ensure that the orders given were realistic, proper and able to be followed.
The implications of the Abu Ghraib photos and the actions that precipitated them are indicative of wide-ranging problems in the invasion and subsequent actions on the ground in Iraq. The unrealistic planning and expectations involved in that planning set the stage for this abuse, just as the legal contortions over the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay clouded the issue for America. My unit struggled to find enough water, food, transport and medical care for the soldiers assigned or attached to it. When we began to receive dozens of prisoners, this only increased the work load and multiplied the problems of movement and sustainability. A lack of procedure, the absence of entire support systems and an overextended command and control chain meant that every day was a struggle to do the right thing for both the soldiers and the detainees whom we held. My soldiers paid the price for the absence of this leadership, but they continued their missions. Obviously, some did not.
What leads to the greatest frustration for me is the total abdication of responsibility and lack of accountability from the senior leaders and chain of command. I am accustomed to the public misunderstanding the circumstances and actions of soldiers, and their tendency to turn away when faced with difficult situations. Not so with the leaders of the military. This leaves a dirty smear on the honorable service of so many thousands of soldiers, Marines and others. It puts our men and women of the armed forces squarely in the sights of those who plan to exact revenge or exercise similar care, should they become the captors. The photos from Abu Ghraib insure that the depredations there will not be forgotten, but our government's actions since since seem designed to insure it will be neither prevented nor avoided in the future.