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Military Must Squarely Face New 'My Lai'

Abu Ghraib scandal is a test of values for the U.S. officer corps.

August 31, 2004|Andrew J. Bacevich

For the present generation of American soldiers, Abu Ghraib is fast becoming what the My Lai massacre was to the generation that fought in Vietnam -- an episode of horrific misconduct transformed through subsequent mishandling into a full-fledged moral crisis.

The similarities between the two episodes are instructive. So too are the differences. For those differences suggest what must be done to prevent the current situation from further eroding the integrity of the armed services.

The similarities between My Lai and Abu Ghraib begin with the incidents themselves. In each, units -- not wayward individuals but groups of American soldiers -- not only broke the law but violated the most basic standards of human decency. At My Lai in 1968, GIs murdered hundreds of Vietnamese civilians. In 2003 at Abu Ghraib (and perhaps elsewhere), soldiers systematically humiliated, abused and even tortured detainees in U.S. custody.

For a time, each episode remained hidden, as seasoned officers averted their eyes, lied or actively sought to suppress all knowledge of what had occurred. In the case of My Lai, conscience eventually moved a young draftee to blow the whistle. In the case of Abu Ghraib, a junior-ranking enlisted soldier refused to be complicit in wrongdoing.

As each incident erupted in public, it evoked a similar response from the upper echelons of the Pentagon. First came denial and then damage control. In passing off Abu Ghraib as the work of a few bad apples, Defense Department officials in 2004 behaved very much as had their predecessors in 1969. Then as now the hunt for expendable scapegoats began almost immediately, with Lt. William Calley the precursor of today's Pfc. Lynndie England.

But in one crucial respect, the two episodes differ. The numerous official inquiries that Abu Ghraib has spawned have amounted to a well-choreographed exercise in evasion. Thus far at least, these investigations have produced much hand-wringing, but on the central question of who shall be answerable, reticence has been the order of the day. Although the word "responsibility" is much bandied about in connection with the prisoner abuse scandal, it appears to have no address -- at least none that links directly to the names of regular Army colonels and generals.

Much as the College of Cardinals embodies the Catholic Church, these high-ranking officers embody the military profession. As long as they evade direct accountability, the crisis brought on by Abu Ghraib will continue to fester.

Rather than speaking blunt truths, investigators fall back on weasel words. Former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger, who headed one inquiry, ascribed Abu Ghraib to what he dismissively called "the night shift." Gen. Paul Kern, who directed the Pentagon inquiry that released a report last week, allowed that certain unnamed high-ranking officers might bear some responsibility for the prison abuse scandal, but he resisted the notion that any might be "culpable."

In contrast, the My Lai massacre produced an investigative report that had no difficulty in calling a spade a spade.

That report, issued in March 1970, was the work of Lt. Gen. William Peers. A crusty soldier of the old school, Peers refused to let the several echelons above Calley off the hook. Senior leaders -- colonels and generals -- had made My Lai possible and then had conspired to cover it up. Only by confronting their malfeasance, dishonesty and corruption could the officer corps as a whole begin to rehabilitate itself. So the Peers report bluntly called the chain of command to account and did not hesitate to name names. Peers wanted heads to roll.

The upshot was a far cry from perfect justice. In the end, only Calley was convicted of a crime. But due in large measure to the Peers report, Calley's division commander, Maj. Gen. Samuel W. Koster, was reduced in rank and retired in disgrace. Other senior officers, including Calley's brigade commander, endured the humiliation of court-martial, and their careers were destroyed.

More important, at a time rife with moral confusion, Peers had reminded the officer corps of something fundamental: If lapses from professional standards have no consequences, then "responsibility" becomes empty of meaning. For an army, that way lie indiscipline, dishonor and defeat.

Today as in the days that followed My Lai, moral confusion is eating away at the American military, with Abu Ghraib the most troubling but by no means only symptom to appear. In a war that is ultimately about values, as the war on terror surely is, the erosion of soldierly standards in the U.S. armed forces, if left unchecked, could well mean the difference between our victory and defeat.

The remedy to this disease is clear. Reaffirm the core values of the military professional ethic. Insist that leaders uphold those values. Hold accountable those who don't -- by naming names and forcing lofty heads to roll.

"We are better than this" -- that was the message that Gen. Peers communicated to his fellow soldiers. In the bleak aftermath of Abu Ghraib, we need his like again.

Andrew J. Bacevich, a Vietnam War veteran, is professor of international relations at Boston University and author of "The New American Militarism," forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

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