Integrity Matters
May 12, 2004

Everyone pays for military atrocities

Question: (E-114)

Dear Jim:

Where is the integrity of the "liberating American army" when it commits atrocities on Iraqi prisoners of war? What ought to be done to make right this ever-widening military abuse scandal?


The integrity of American military forces has not been destroyed by the hideous behaviors of the Abu Ghraib prison-guard group. But the humanity of this small, misguided, perhaps even degenerate segment of a larger military force has been diminished. What has happened at the Baghdad prison is awful. Appropriate actions are being taken and will continue to be taken -- as this investigation reveals more and more of exactly what happened. Our leaders will fix the problem, and a shocked American society will brace itself for global reactions, many of which will be understandably negative. And we will go on. Going forward to make things right -- even when things go wrong -- is what integrity requires of individuals, nations and societies.

Everyone pays for atrocities, one way or another. We may see an erosion of national pride and confidence. Some people will be embarrassed, feel guilt and experience a lowered self-image. The nation will likely come away with some further loss of cultural innocence. This is a costly mistake. Some few soldiers behaved hideously. The images they have created with their behaviors will not easily fade away -- especially for those who were targeted.

One of my friends, a retired judge, reminded me that only about 6 percent of the people -- in any walk of life -- create an overwhelming percentage of problems. Even though most people, probably 94 percent, go about their lives responsibly, a minority creates chaos and captures headlines. Because the news often addresses irresponsible behavior or catastrophic events, people can easily conclude that just about "everything" is wrong, as opposed to the "truth" that some things and some people are problems and will always create pain for others.

Regarding your question about the integrity of those American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad who committed these unspeakable acts:

President George W. Bush owns these behaviors because he is commander-in-chief. We know all leaders are responsible for what happens "on their watch" -- for better or worse. Depending on how he chooses to deal with this -- and how he acknowledges his own responsibility -- he could help this nation sustain a sense of direction, confidence and integrity. Today, the world is watching the United States, just as other nations were observed after World War II regarding how they dealt with those responsible for death camps and murdering children with bayonets.

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