In France on June 29 a soldier taking part in a demonstration mistakenly fired live rounds instead of blanks. He wounded 17 people who were watching the display. The Chief of Staff of the French Army, General Bruno Cruche, submitted his resignation to President Sarkozy, who accepted it next day. There had been speedy analysis of a horrific incident ; immediate acceptance of responsibility ; then a self-imposed and principled end to a distinguished career by an officer who has set an example in honor and decency for generations of French soldiers. And for any others who care to take note.
Compare this incident with the aftermath of the evil scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where scores of Iraqis were tortured by US soldiers in the most disgusting circumstances. All the victims of casual violence, which was enjoyed so much by their torturers, as was evident from their happy photographs, were scarred for life, mentally or physically. Some were murdered in the prison; some died later. And we don’t know the half of what went on there. In 2004 US legislators were shown videos and still pictures of even more revolting and degrading atrocities than had been leaked to the public. There are scores of scenes of dreadful torture that the US administration has ordered to be kept forever secret.
A Democrat Senator said these pictures were terrible : “worse than anything I had anticipated,” but other legislators were not in any way disturbed at the agony endured by the victims of torture by American soldiers : “I’m probably not the only one up at this table that is more outraged by the outrage than we are by the treatment,” declared Republican Senator James Inhofe. (Where do they get such people from? Are they really human?) But in spite of the secrecy and the contemptible attitude of those who approve of cruel and filthy degradation of human beings, we outsiders know enough to state that the Abu Ghraib outrage was despicable and that it was indubitably carried out by the US army. But did any generals resign over this appalling affair? Nary a one, of course.
A few people were court-martialled. But most charges were reduced, dismissed, or dealt with by “non-judicial punishment” – you’ve got to laugh about that particular weasel-wording in spite of all the horror. Then a female one-star officer was reduced in rank. Apart from that : nothing – except that the officer appointed to investigate the sickening mayhem, Major General Taguba, ended his career when he recorded the truth. What a poisoned chalice he was handed : allow a cover-up and advance to three stars ; or permit the truth to be told and be destroyed for what his peculiar superiors would call “disloyalty”. And this sort of thing has continued. Countless atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan have been denied, ignored or covered up. The conduct of US troops has only too often been horrendous to the point that the phrase “war crimes” is inadequate. The lies told by US army officers of the highest rank concerning the accidental killing of Pat Tillman by his own comrades in Afghanistan are a blot on the army’s reputation. But not one of these reptiles resigned.
What a contrast in honor with French custom. What a commentary on the different perspectives of “Old Europe” and the strange new US Army. But what on earth has happened to the code of honor of West Point? How far down has the US Army gone in its plunge (or surge?) to its seemingly unconditional acceptance of political amorality?
Fifteen years ago I attended the graduation parade at West Point of a son of close friends. Not only was it an impressive ceremony, but I, a cynical old “seen-it-all”, was damp-eyed about the attitude of the newly-commissioned young officers. They were dedicated and keen to serve their country, of course ; but there was something more. They had a tangible sense of responsibility to their calling, the Profession of Arms : they had a sense of honor. But I wonder where that is now?
The disgraced and unlamented Donald Rumsfeld, the worst secretary of defense in US history, declared about the atrocities in Abu Ghraib that “We’re functioning in a – with peacetime restraints, with legal requirements in a wartime situation, in the information age, where people are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise, when they had not even arrived in the Pentagon.” His public relations people quickly conjured up a new statement for him, of course ; but he had shown what he really thought. His objection was to publicity of torture; not to torture itself.
Rumsfeld’s generals said nothing. And the generals of Mr Gates, his successor, say nothing, either. Nothing about the war crimes, the deliberate killing of civilians, the evil of the prisoner cages where torture takes place. The code of West Point now seems to have gone off at a tangent from “Duty, Honor, Country”. The West Point oath that future officers will “not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do” appears to have been bent a bit. No doubt there are very few officers who would cheat or steal. But it seems there are some, and some of high rank, who lie and tolerate lying.
France’s senior soldier, General Cruche, didn’t indulge in the sort of cowardly eye-closing that seems to afflict senior US officers who know of unlawful activities in current operational theatres. He has a moral code. He knows that responsibility in the Profession of Arms rests at the top. Nowhere else. And when something terrible happened, he resigned.
Duty, Honor, Country.
BRIAN CLOUGHLEY lives in France. His website is www.briancloughley.com