Unbelievable nonsense has been uttered about what took place at the Abu Ghraib prison.
I say nonsense, because my sense of those activities is that they were more like fraternity hazing pranks than abuse, humiliation, torture, and, least likely, atrocities. All those adjectives, and many more of greater or lesser shock value, have been used by a host of public persons including President Bush, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Powell, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Myers, Senators McCain, Clinton, Levin, Daschle, and many others as well as innumerable pundits, commentators, editors and columnists of both the print and broadcast media. And that's just the domestic brands. Why do I shake my head and wonder what all the clamor and wailing and gnashing of teeth is about? Because, to me, it seems more like my Air Force survival training than anything else!
After graduating from Air Force pilot training in October of 1966, I went to Fairchild AFB near Spokane, Washington for survival training. Most of those attending were officers who were freshly—minted pilots, but there were a few enlisted men, as well as more senior officers who earlier in their careers had managed to avoid the challenges of this uniquely memorable experience. This was, at the time, a seventeen day combat survival course that included classroom training, field exercises and a five—day trek in the beautiful, temperate rain forest nestled in the corner of Washington state where Canada, Idaho and Washington come together. I'm sure that it's quite nice in the summer, but in the weeks preceding Thanksgiving it was cold, temps in the high twenties or low thirties, combined with quantities of drizzle, rain or snow sufficient to ensure one's outdoor discomfort, or rather, misery.
This training included a POW capture and interrogation exercise. It starts with an obstacle course that is designed not to test one's physical prowess but rather misery tolerance. You have to pretend that you are avoiding capture by crawling flat on one's belly, sometimes under barbed wire strung a few inches off the ground. If one of the 'monitors' — mostly enlisted personnel who thoroughly enjoy harassing the officers under their tutelage — wanders nearby, one must lie flat, face down and motionless until they wander off. This is capture avoidance simulation. In addition, the course is festooned with trip wires tied to smoke or flare grenades, that if set off result in one's being sent back to the beginning of the course. As a result one tends to play by the rules as there seems to be minimal training benefit, let alone pleasure, in overdoing things.
Having to repeat the course was for me not an option. The night I happened to perform this task was cold, just at freezing, raining in a light drizzle that was sufficient to turn the course to mud. Small puddles formed that were in some cases partially frozen. Even though it took about only ninety minutes to slog through the course, under these conditions it was more than a bit uncomfortable. But I played by the rules, got through without a repeat start, and dutifully submitted to my captors.
Immediately upon being captured I was brought into a holding cell and ordered to strip naked. Still soaking wet and not offered any warm, fuzzy towels, I was intimately examined by a hundred—pound, un—muzzled German Shepard sniffing at my genitals, while I stood at attention in a three—foot square concrete cubicle open on one side only. I could not see any of the other prisoners. I felt more than humiliated. I was wondering if I was ever going to have a family of my own. Luckily, the beast seemed to have no appetite.
After a period of time, I cannot say how long, I was lead away, still naked, for interrogation. Taken to a darkened room, I was positioned facing a menacing—looking figure who was very dimly lit from behind so that I could not see a face, and placed in what's termed a 'stress' position. This consisted of sitting on one's buttocks with one's feet as close by one's sides as possible and with arms outstretched horizontal to the ground. While I'm so positioned the interrogation takes place. Even with this being a simulation, it was more than a bit uncomfortable, humiliating and intimidating.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one's sexual preferences, I didn't have an opportunity to engage in the group activities so splendidly portrayed in some of the Abu Ghraib photos. Of course, things may have changed in the nearly forty years since I went through the program. But much of what is shown in the Abu Ghraib photos is not any worse than the treatment I was subjected to. Also, with there now being female combat pilots in the Navy and Air Force, I don't know if the naked bits are still part of the program. That would certainly add something extra.
I do realize that I had the psychological advantage of being in friendly hands and not being fearful of serious harm. But, if someone had possessed a camera to record those goings—on, it would have appeared not much better than the Abu Ghraib hazing. And besides, I didn't have a hood on, so I would have had the additional pleasure of being publicly identifiable to friend and foe alike. Any torture, murder or rape of Iraqi prisoners would, of course, be altogether separate and far more serious issues. But those incidents at Abu Ghraib that did not involve physical harm are not, by any stretch of the imagination, what Tim Russert called "atrocities."
So I have some difficulty understanding all the shock, indignation and apologies gratuitously offered by Administration officials including the President. Maybe Bush, being in the Guard, didn't have to go through survival school. But Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and John McCain should have a broader perspective on the Abu Ghraib issue. To me, it was a case of group stupidity. And if these things were done with any sort of official sanction for the purpose of softening up the prisoners for interrogation, they were done in an absolutely undisciplined and unprofessional manner. And the pictures? It's like posing for the camera as you rob a bank. The shot of Chevy Chase taken by the bank cam in the movie 'It Seems Like Old Times' pops into my head.
All the mea culpas, especially those voiced by Bush to the Arabs, were overwrought and, in the long run, irrelevant. The Abu Ghraib follies took place during and prior to October of 2003. At the beginning of January this year the Pentagon publicly announced that the allegations of abuse were being formally investigated. Prior to the point when the media frenzy took over, even the International Committee of the Red Cross was fairly pleased with the cooperation they were receiving from the U.S. military in Iraq. The pictures get published, the sky falls, the Earth opens up, the deluge inundates, and all is lost.
Dennis Sevakis is a former Air Force captain and fighter pilot.
[hat tip to reader Marc Young for reminding us that Decretary Rumsfeld served as a Naval aviator, and in the Navy Reserve.]