WASHINGTON, May 10 (UPI) -- A column I wrote last week titled "A very different shock and awe," concerning the maltreatment of Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad generated a flurry of replies from readers.
Most of the e-mails were encouraging, expressing "thanks," as well as a few words of encouragement. There were also the usual idiotic verbal assaults from over-simpleminded people suggesting that the U.S. simply "neutron bomb" the entire Middle East and just "kick Arab ass."
But the one that particularly grabbed my attention was the honest "cris de coeur" from Beckie, who described herself as a "naïve American." Referring to the civilian contractors brutally murdered in Fallujah last month, Beckie asked, "Where is the shock and awe as to the four people burned alive, cut up in pieces and hung from a bridge?
"Who is apologizing for that one?" she asked.
The United States, said Beckie, is always held accountable but no other country is. Why, she wanted to know?
Look around, she said, "They all do it, all countries do it. Look at Vietnam ... the atrocities there on both sides. Why is it OK for others to do it?"
I felt this e-mail deserved more than the usual polite acknowledgement that, time permitting, most readers receive. Here is my reply.
What happened to the four guys in Fallujah is indeed horrible. I have written about it dozens of times, and so have others. But let's rewind the tape a bit and try and look at the unfolding of events as objectively as possible. I stress the word objectively, so if for the duration of this message, you can suspend your political affiliations and beliefs and please bear with me.
First of all, let me restate that no one -- including the Bush administration's staunchest opponents -- supports the heinous crimes that took place in Fallujah. It was horrible, and no one deserves to die this way. But as we later found out, the Fallujah four were armed "civilian contractors." In other wars such people were called mercenaries. We have become a more politically correct society, and the word mercenary has been sidelined for the more sociably acceptable "civilian contractor." But they are one and the same.
In the African wars of the 1950s and 60s, mercenaries were often hacked to death when caught by the "other side." Again, please understand that I do not condone such actions, but I am simply trying to place things in context.
There are roughly 20,000 armed mercenaries working in Iraq (correct, this is not a typo, 20,000). I say "roughly," because no one -- neither the Pentagon nor the Coalition Provisional Authority -- knows exactly how many mercenaries are operating in Iraq, nor can they tell us whom many of these people answer to. The reason there are so many armed mercenaries in Iraq is because Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, acting against the advice of many of his generals, has reduced the size of the U.S. military to the point where they are forced to hire outside help to maintain the occupation of Iraq and to function adequately.
Some of these "contractors" are engaged in functions typically assigned to the military, such as providing protection for certain facilities. A number of them have even been caught up in firefights with insurgents. Some contractors have their own armed helicopters.
Furthermore, an additional 20,000 unarmed contractors are working in Iraq, or at least there were, until the Fallujah incident. Contractors comprise the second-largest armed force in Iraq, after the U.S. military and ahead of Britain, the second-most important member of the U.S-led coalition, which contributes about 10,000 men.
In fact, the U.S. military is so short-handed that they resorted to hiring civilian contractors as interrogators and intelligence officers. Civilian interrogators! I am not talking about government civilians working with the military, such as the CIA or other intelligence officers. These are civilians like you and me conducting the interrogation of Iraqi prisoners. This is previously unheard of in a war environment. You can double-check the facts yourself in Pentagon papers and other press reports.
Secondly, the abuses of Iraqi detainees goes back to last summer, gathering momentum between October and December 2003. Again, you don't have to take my word. This is all documented in Pentagon statements and reports from the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as testimony Donald Rumsfeld gave to the Senate and House Armed Services Committees last Friday.
Iraqi prisoners were already being abused by Americans by the time the Fallujah four were caught and mercilessly slaughtered last month. Now, two wrongs certainly don't make a right, but one should also question why they ventured into Fallujah, when they knew it was "a no-go zone." Who sent then there, and why, are questions that so far have not been asked.
If I had to blame anyone, I would point an accusing finger at those responsible for creating the messy situation in the first place and dispatching civilians into a war zone.
Thirdly, yes, the United States is held accountable because it is a law-abiding nation that follows the rule of law and its Constitution, and accordingly, should be held answerable for its actions. President George W. Bush said the United States went into Iraq to liberate the people from a tyrant, yet we now learn of "widespread" abuses conducted in the same notorious Abu Ghraib prison that was once the symbol of Saddam Hussein's regime of terror. And in Rumsfeld's own words to the Senate Armed Forces Committee Friday, there will be more revelations of prisoners' abuses to surface in the next few days or weeks.
Yes, Beckie, many countries torture prisoners, but the United States is not supposed to, and when it does, it should be held accountable because this is not the American way of doing things. In Rumsfeld's own words, the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in "un-American."
Finally, we should keep in mind that while the war in Iraq remains on the front pages of our newspapers, the now less-talked about war on terror is still unfinished. And there is no better recruitment poster for al-Qaida and their affiliates than the photograph of a naked Iraqi prisoner lying on the floor of the his prison cell, a dog leash around his neck arrogantly held by a young female American soldier. This type of behavior plays directly into the hands of America's detractors. Those responsible for these despicable acts -- all the way to the top of the civilian ladder -- must be held accountable.
I hope this has helped you understand why the United States should be judged by higher standards.
(Comments may be sent to Claude@upi.com)