Let’s get one issue out of the way at the outset. The conviction and sentencing of Army Spc. Charles Graner to 10 years in prison as punishment for his part in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison stands on its own. The fact that Saddam Hussein’s minions did much worse to Iraqi citizens — often enough at the same prison facility — or that Iraqi and foreign terrorists have tortured and even beheaded kidnap victims is irrelevant.
Your mother tried to teach you that two wrongs don’t make a right. The fact that our adversaries in Iraq and in the larger “war on terror” are demonstrably vicious does not justify — even if it makes it potentially understandable — vicious or over-the-line activities by U.S. service personnel.
A second question is more complicated. Does the trial and conviction of Spc. Graner — who was the lowest level of non-commissioned officer, equivalent to a corporal — amount to scapegoating lower-ranking military personnel while declining to go after higher ranking military and even civilian personnel who may also bear some culpability for the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and elsewhere?
At one level of analysis the issue mattered little, and should have mattered little, to the 10 military jurors who convicted Spc. Graner. Whether he was acting under orders or as a result of wink-and-nod justification of torture by higher-ups, he was the one who, the jury found, beat and sexually humiliated Iraqi prisoners. It is appropriate that he face judgment as an individual for what he actually did, which went well beyond the bounds of what his training should have informed him was appropriate, even for a Military Police reservist.
The fact that Spc. Graner was put on trial — and that 26 members of the Army have been referred for trial, 75 more troops have been subjected to other disciplinary measures and 14 U.S. Marines have been convicted of abuse in military courts — is an important signal, to U.S military personnel, to the American people and hopefully to the world at large that the U.S. military does not condone such abuse and that it stands ready to punish it when it is proved.
As to higher-ups being held accountable, the question is worth considering but difficult to resolve. The highest-ranking soldier scheduled to be tried is a lieutenant, who is accused of being one of a group that forced two Iraqis to jump from a bridge into the Tigris River (one drowned). His commanding officer, a lieutenant colonel, has been disciplined but not subjected to trial for ordering a cover-up of the death. Should he be tried? It’s hard to find a compelling argument on either side.
There is also little question that various memos have surfaced from military and civilian lawyers that defined torture narrowly and seemed to find ways to justify going right up to the edge of outrage in condoning rougher-than-usual treatment. Did they contribute to a “climate” in which underlings believed they had a free hand? Perhaps. But can their culpability be proved in a trial in which their due-process rights are respected? Hard to say.
The trials of Spc. Graner and others are a good first step toward demonstrating that the U.S. military did not and does not condone inhumane treatment or abuse of prisoners. As for the higher-ups, other ways may have to be found to remind people similarly situated in the future that condoning or seeming to condone excessive brutality is not the way to enhance your career.