Running the Ship-of-State Aground
by Walter Brasch
May 6, 2004

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Let’s pretend it’s wartime, and the nation’s largest aircraft carrier has just run aground.

(OK, so it’s not likely that a carrier will ever run aground, but in the past three years we’ve been asked to pretend a lot. Let’s pretend George W. Bush was not elected by a 5-4 vote . . . Let’s pretend that the Saudis had no culpability in the 9/11 murders . .  . Let’s pretend there’s a connection between Saddam and 9/11 . . .  Let’s pretend there really are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.)

Anyhow, for the sake of the argument, let’s pretend a carrier really did run aground. Capt. Horatio Hornswaggle says he’s really ticked off about it, has admonished his lesser officers, but he can’t be blamed since he had just come off a 16-hour work shift and was getting a much-needed sleep. Cdr. Lesley Lobridge says it’s not really his fault because he was in the officer’s mess at the time, grabbing a quick snack before getting back to work. Lt. Cdr. Mizzen Mast says he wasn’t on the bridge because he had to take a head break.

By the time the investigation ends, Petty Officer Second Class Peachfuzz Pitfall, the helmsman, is found guilty of dereliction of duty, malfeasance, and running a red light. No one else is charged—they weren’t responsible.

Is this scene really plausible? Of course not. The captain, even when asleep, has a responsibility for the proper discipline, education, and execution of his crew and the ship’s mission. And, it’s not likely that the Navy’s mission is to run billion-dollar carriers onto a reef. The captain, and all others in the chain of command, and maybe even a flag officer, might be brought before courts martial.

In Iraq, several American soldiers abused, assaulted, manhandled, and humiliated Iraqi prisoners. A scathing 53-page report by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, classified in late February 2004 and not meant for public release, but leaked to investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh, found that the Army in Iraq had committed numerous instances of “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses.” “60 Minutes II” released some of the pictures showing gloating American soldiers. An Army investigation led to charges included aggravated assault, battery, maltreatment, and dereliction of duty for seven soldiers.

President George W. Bush was quick to condemn the actions as “disgusting.” He and his national security advisor went on Arab television to apologize for American atrocities. He scolded Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for not advising him of the problem until pictures appeared on television. Rumsfeld said the Defense Department was taking care of the problem of these “rogue” soldiers, although innumerable officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, had said that numerous attempts to have Defense take care of wide-ranging problems in Iraq had gone unanswered. Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the problem was small, caused by “just a handful” of soldiers—but he hadn’t read the report several weeks after a draft was available. Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, a Reserve officer in charge of all prisons in Iraq, rightly blamed military interrogators for establishing conditions that led to the abuse, but didn’t seem to want to take any blame.

Taguba’s report didn’t just stop with condemnation of enlisted soldiers. Seymour Hersh, in “The New Yorker,” said that report revealed “a much broader pattern of command failures than initially acknowledged by the Pentagon and the Bush administration in responding to outrage over the abuse.” Taguba blamed interrogators, military intelligence officers, and civilians hired by the Department of Defense for not only allowing but also encouraging the prison guards to “soften” up the prisoners.

One of the soldiers who was charged with the crimes told “60 Minutes II” that the prison guards “had no support, no training whatsoever. And I kept asking my chain of command for certain things . . . like rules and regulations. And it just wasn’t happening.”

Innumerable times, President Bush told the nation he was giving his military all the resources they needed to fight. Either this was political spin of the truth, or his subordinates didn’t take him seriously. Gen. Karpinski told Newsweek she didn’t have enough troops or resources, that her brigade wasn’t properly trained, and that when she complained to her superiors, they ignored her. “They just wanted it to go away,” she said.

Almost a year earlier, the inspector general of the Department of Justice revealed the detention of individuals in the United States was “indiscriminate and haphazard,” and that there were “significant instances” of “a pattern of physical and verbal abuse,” including beatings of illegal immigrants, most of them Muslim or Arab, almost all imprisoned for minor offenses, by various employees and officials of the Department of Justice. Included were employees of the FBI, Bureau of Prisons, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Immigration and Naturalization Service.

In England, Lord Justice Johan Steyn, senior judge in the House of Lords, and one of the nation’s most respected judges, said that conditions imposed by the Department of Defense at Guantánamo Bay were of “utter lawlessness,” a “monstrous failure of justice,” and “not quite torture, but as close as you can get.” BBC diplomatic correspondent Barnaby Mason pointed out, “It is rare for British judges to speak on contentious political issues and almost unheard of for them to attack a foreign government.”

President Bush may condemn the actions of a “few.” He, like the rest of the world, was personally “disgusted.” He may rebuke his subordinates. His staff and cabinet secretaries may launch investigations. And, there will be courts martial, especially since the world now knows what happened in Iraq. But, the problem, as others are pointing out, goes far beyond the actions of “just a handful” to expose critical problems in how this country has undertaken its mission in the President’s self-proclaimed “War on Terror.”

This president has defined himself as a commander-in-chief. As a war president. As the leader of this war, in which almost 800 American soldiers, and several thousand others, most of them civilians, have died. He is the one guiding this ship-of-state. The loss of civil rights of American citizens and human rights of all persons was, and is, his responsibility. It’s one from which he can’t deflect criticism or go AWOL.

Walter Brasch is most recently author of  Sex and the Single Beer Can, a witty and incisive look at American media and culture. You may address him at brasch@bloomu.edu or through his web site, www.walterbrasch.com

Other Articles by Walter Brasch

* Janet Jackson, George Bush, and No. 524: There Are No Half-Time Shows in War
* Kicking Around a Peace Prize