Who is Responsible?
Recently some of our readers said that liberals are too inclined to blame Bush and his administration for Abu Ghraib while dismissing the responsibility of the individuals who were actually involved in the abuse. I believe that we must hold all responsible parties accountable: those who created an environment where the prisoners in their charge were to be considered less than human and those who actually acted in such an awful manner to their fellow human beings.
Furthermore, there has been some discussion on this board about blaming the soldiers for the atrocities in Iraq such as the wedding massacre this past week and whether the soldiers in Iraq should be condemned for taking part in this war. Those that believe this are wrong -- just as wrong as those who believe that all Arabs are terrorists or all Muslims are responsible for the acts of Osama bin Laden.
So who is responsible for Abu Ghraib? I believe we as human beings are responsible for our own actions, yet I also believe that systems (the environments created by leaders) also create and encourage the actions of those working within a system. Therefore, those that create the system are responsible for the actions of those who carried out their roles the leaders defined and the individuals who carried out the actions are also responsible for their part in these acts.
Should all soldiers be held responsible for the war machine in which they are part? NO. One of the worst attributes of the Vietnam war was to blame all soldiers who fought in that war for the insanity of that war. Each soldier that was sent there had a choice about how they acted and most were not Lt. William Calley. And for those at home, each protester was also responsible for their actions as well - did they create more confusion and anger or did they help create an environment that allowed the US to see that that war was wrong and it was time to stop? Each of us has a choice about how we react to the world and it is this - our reaction and our actions - for which we are responsible.
Here is another take on this subject that I published on the American Street earlier this week. What should we be doing next - for our soldiers, for Iraq and for our country?
What is happening in Iraq is deeply troubling and the sense that we are on the edge of further horrific incidents and decisions is growing. All wars are corrosive of morality simply because of the violence used to obtain certain ends. Even the "good" or justified wars have cases where some humans caught up in the fear and the killing step beyond the bonds of defensible behavior and do things that are wrong. Yet, war that is fought to defend against aggression, with a leadership that remembers that the enemy is human and that war itself is an awful thing that should only be used when there are no other choices lessens the chance that people will resort to excessive brutality. This was the leadership Abraham Lincoln showed when reflecting on the ongoing Civil War: "Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away."
However, when a country goes to war that is unjustified and unnecessary, when the reasons are based on lies to support the blood lust or avarice of warmongers, the immorality of the war stains the honor of the country. And this is especially true when the leadership encourages warriors to smash the enemy without regard to their humanity (neither the soldier's nor the enemy's). Worse yet, is when the leaders sanction disrespect and outright cruelty of prisoners captured during war.
George W. Bush's administration is filled with people who seem to care not a whit about the soldiers that are fighting on their behalf as shown by their disregard for the soldiers well being. This is seen in the callousness of the leaders shown in how they speak of the soldiers (Donald Rumsfeld called our soldiers "fungible"), in the proposals to cut veteran benefits and hazardous duty pay, in the lack of preparation, the lack of supplies, and the lack of body armor and in the careless language that taunts others to "bring 'em on." (Note the even greater callousness in regards to the civilians caught in the crossfire where our military command refused from the beginning to even count the number who died.) Is it any wonder that some soldiers feel free to indulge in sadism and brutality?
So where do we go from here? One problem that we face is how to accord responsibility for the failures: the failures of leadership and the failures of the individual soldiers. And how do we avoid the anger that will fall out from yet another war like the Vietnam War where the demoralized troops come back and face citizens disappointed in the military venture that failed or angry at the excessive violence done in their name? Perhaps we should hold a national truth and reconciliation forum.
Here, it is important to recognize the responsibilities of the individual for his/her actions, not to focus just those at the top. As demonstrated at the Nuremberg Trials, saying "I was just following orders" is no excuse. Yet, another principle of those trials was there is no collective guilt and therefore no collective punishment. Not everyone was responsible for the sadism and not everyone was indiscriminate in striking out at the Iraqis. The test for the nation will be to find ways to atone for our actions against the Iraqis, to mend the hearts and souls of Americans, both those who fought in or supported the war and those who protested against the war, and to finally put this destructive war behind us.
Now seems like a good time to review the wise words of Dr. Viktor Frankl, who survived the Nazi concentration camps and used his experience to chart the greatness of the human spirit which can survive with dignity and decency even when facing the worst other humans can inflict. And we can begin to see how we can assess responsibility for the actions done in Iraq.
What can you tell us about the psychological make-up of the camp guards? How is it possible that men of flesh and blood could treat others as so many prisoners say they have been treated? Having once heard these accounts and having come to believe that these things did happen, one is bound to ask how, psychologically, they could happen. To answer this question without going into great detail, a few things must be pointed out:
First, among the guards there were some sadists, sadists in the purest clinical sense.
Second, these sadists were always selected when a really severe detachment of guards were needed.
There was great joy at our work site when we had permission to warm ourselves for a few minutes (after two hours of work in the bitter frost) in front of a little stove which was fed with twigs and scraps of wood. But there were always some foremen who found a great pleasure in taking this comfort from us. How clearly their faces reflected this pleasure when they not only forbade us to stand there but turned over the stove and dumped its lovely fire into the snow! When the SS took a dislike to a person, there was always some special man in their ranks known to have a passion for, and to be highly specialized in, sadistic torture, to whom the unfortunate prisoner was sent.
Third, the feelings of the majority of the guards had been dulled by the number of years in which, in ever increasing doses, they had witnessed the brutal methods of the camp. These morally and mentally hardened men at least refused to take active part in sadistic measures. But they did not prevent others from carrying them out.
Fourth, it must be stated that even among the guards there were some who took pity on us. I shall only mention the commander of the camp from which I was liberated. It was found after the liberation - only the camp doctor, a prisoner himself, had known of it previously - that this man had paid no small sum of money from his own pocket in order to purchase medicines for his prisoners from the nearest market town. But the senior camp warden, a prisoner himself, was harder than any of the SS guards. He beat the other prisoners at every slightest opportunity, while the camp commander, to my knowledge, never once lifted his hand against any of us.
It is apparent that the mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing. Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn. The boundaries between groups overlapped and we must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils. Certainly, it was a considerable achievement for a guard or foreman to be kind to the prisoners in spite of all the camp's influences, and, on the other hand, the baseness of a prisoner who treated his own companions badly was exceptionally contemptible. Obviously the prisoners found the lack of character in such men especially upsetting, while they were profoundly moved by the smallest kindness received from any of the guards. I remember how one day a foreman secretly gave me a piece of bread which I knew he must have saved from his breakfast ration. It was far more than the small piece of bread which moved me to tears at that time. It was the human "something" which this man also gave to me - the word and look which accompanied the gift.
From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two - the "race" of the decent man and the "race" of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of "pure race" - and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards.
Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil? The rift dividing good and evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp.
Man's Search for Meaning, Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, pp. 105-108.
Thus, the responsibility for actions (whether good or evil) belongs to the individual as well as those that ordered or enabled the acts. As Dr. Frankl so eloquently reminds us, we each have the seeds of good and evil within our own hearts, and this is the challenge we confront in our lives: how to be part of the decent race - indeed, how to live lives that have real meaning.