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Who should take the blame for the prisoner treatment in Iraq?

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, May 17, 2004

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Whom are we going to blame?

I thought of that question this week while reading again about the Shelton Laurel Massacre during the Civil War. Confederate troops who were guarding a party of Union loyalists in western North Carolina simply executed them. A witness reported the massacre and the resulting news story embarrassed and demoralized supporters of the Confederate cause.

I have another candidate on whom the blame should rest.

North Carolina's war governor, Zeb Vance, insisted that the guilty parties be brought to justice. But the Confederate military delayed. The "unfortunate action," they argued, had been provoked by the ongoing terror activities of the Union loyalists in the region. More importantly for them, the leaders of those who did the killings were critical to holding the mountain region secure for the Confederates. As bad as the massacre might have been, the army was reluctant to do remove commanders who would be hard to replace.

Unfortunate as this massacre was, Zeb Vance was reminded that these kinds of things happen during a war-particularly one when an army is trying to pacify an unfriendly population.

One hundred and forty years later, we have the same kind of problem with Iraq that the Confederates had with Shelton Laurel-finding people on our side to blame and punish for the terrible things that are a part of this kind of war.

The question that came to my mind as I remembered Shelton Laurel was, whom do we blame for the terrible treatment of prisoners and detainees in Iraq?

Private Lynndie England and her colleagues who show up in the photos as active violators of minimum standards of human decency? Their direct commanders? The officers at the top of the chain of command?

Or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, himself, who, next to the President, sits at the desk where the buck stops.

I have another candidate on whom the blame should rest.


Yes, you. You knew about these things-about what almost always happens during wars and occupations. You can't pretend you didn't.

Our own close-by history teaches us what human beings can do to other humans in times of strife. At Shelton Laurel, otherwise good men shot their defenseless prisoners. "I didn't want to," some would say, "but I was told to follow orders or fall in with the prisoners and get shot myself."

The officers, beat down by the war, would say the event was a necessary retaliation for some horror these prisoners or someone close to them had done to the Confederates.

You have seen photos, taken not so many years ago in our region, of "otherwise good" people gloating at victims of lynching. You watched "otherwise good" people spit on black children making their ways to attend white schools. You know that some young people, the ages of many of our fighting men and women, have to fight back a drive to humiliate their adversaries.

Even though our prisons have systems of controls and many admirable people working there, these tendencies sometimes get out of hand, even in our own back yard.

You knew that.

You knew about Viet Nam. You watched what happened in Bosnia.

You knew that our government has argued that most many basic protections accorded prisoners don't apply to those detained in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Find out where Saddam is. Find out where Osama is. Find out who is making trouble for our troops. Find out who is behind the terrorists. Find out where the next strike against America will take place." You knew that the pressure was on the CIA and the military to come up with the answers. You knew that this kind of pressure leads to compromising the rules, even when there are rules, when it comes to interrogation.

You knew all that. No, you can't just blame Rumsfeld. After all, he is working for you. And whatever you did, if anything, to make a difference, it was not enough.

The buck doesn't stop with Rumsfeld or Bush.

It stops on your desk.

And mine.


D.G. Martin is the author of "Interstate Eateries" a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina's interstate highways-available through "Our State" magazine (800-948-1409).

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