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Abu Ghraib Prison Atrocities: Where was the leadership?

May 23, 2012

There is a one word solution, albeit a partial solution, to the horrendous actions which took place at the Abu Ghraib prison. That word is honor. Follow me here for a minute. Most people will accept the tried and proven management notion which says, “Things that get watched get better.” A true leader, therefore, will carefully watch things within his or her area of responsibility. But even talented leaders can’t see everything. They depend on clear and frequent communications to keep abreast of things. That’s where honor comes in. If people at all levels have honor and speak clearly about what is happening then the leaders can make informed decisions. And the way you get people to be honorable is to set high standards and enforce them, while, at the same time, setting the proper example as a leader.

The officers who should be most expected to provide this leadership are the graduates of our military academies. They are the ones who were screened for leadership qualities before they entered the academies, and who then received rigorous full time military training (as opposed to part time like other officer training programs) for four years, and who lived under a very strict honor code for the entire four years. Why did none of these leaders prevent the atrocities at Abu Ghraib? One possibility is that there were no academy graduates in that chain of command or in close proximity (very unlikely). The other possibility is that the academies are failing at their most important function (my contention). I believe we have failed to enforce sufficiently high standards of honor at our service academies. I can only speak from experience about the U. S. Air Force Academy because that is the one I graduated from but I believe that the expectations and training are similar at the Military Academy and the Naval Academy.

Here is where I am going with this point: The focus in the Abu Ghraib investigation was directed toward finding someone in the chain of command who ordered the front line prison guards to step on a prisoner’s fingers or to put a leash around some prisoner’s neck. This will never be discovered because, quite likely, no such orders were ever given. What more likely happened was that military personnel up and down this chain of command were frequently asked about what information they were able to get from the prisoners. No one in that chain probably ever suggested a specific torture method (or inquired about exactly what was being done to the prisoners). There was probably frequent “averting of the eyes” and “winks” when suggestions were made to be “more aggressive” in getting the required information. I contend that, if military personnel at all levels had the proper sense of honor and were straightforward in their discussions, the specific knowledge of what was being done to the prisoners would have been known farther up the chain of command and abuses would have been stopped. Military academy graduates should be expected to promote such an environment.

Since I was not in the Abu Ghraib prison or even in Iraq, I will site two examples of the point I am trying to make from my own military experience: First, shortly before I retired from the Air Force Reserve I was asked to serve on a colonel promotion board. This is a fairly senior level review that involves several general officers in the evaluation. The honor issue involved here was the veiled attempt to insert consideration of sex in the evaluation. No one ever told us as board members that we had to promote females. The “ambiguous” directives on this issue came in the form of statements to the board members that we would be required to make calculations at the end of our deliberations in ways that would reveal the percentage of females we had promoted, not just with respect to merit, but also with respect to the percentage of the number of females being considered for promotion. And, in case that admonition was not sufficient, we were also read a statement from the Secretary of the Air Force which instructed us that “some females” in the past had been denied command opportunities and that we should not hold this against them. Since there was no way for us as board members to tell from the records which females had been denied command opportunities, this statement from the highest level was obviously a disguised directive to promote females, irrespective of the records we had before us. But this directive was not given in a way that anyone in the chain of command could be accused of ordering promotions based on sex.

Here is one more example: I was a recruiter for the Air Force Academy for 23 years. During that time we were continually asked to produce statistics about the numbers of minorities we were recruiting. We were not asked to lower standards for these minorities. We were not even given any quotas, per se. However, the mere fact that senior officers would continually ask for the results was motivation enough for military personnel below them to do whatever needed to be done to improve the numbers. This naturally involved giving preferences that could not be admitted to in a politically correct environment.

Like most Americans, I believe selections should be based on merit but I do understand that we live in a democracy and sometimes our elected officials put requirements on the military that we might not agree with. Our duty as leaders is to insure that we are honorable in our compliance. The honorable approach would have been to state the quotas for minorities that we needed and then openly adjust the standards to produce these numbers. Then everyone would be clear about what was being done. Instead, senior officials talked in ambiguous terms like “affirmative action.” Every honest person knows that affirmative action is just a euphemism for quotas. (Just ask yourself how long the affirmative actions must be taken—-until the quota is met.) But it was not and still is not politically correct to admit this. We would have had a much healthier climate surrounding minority recruiting if we simply had been honest about our activities.

The above two cases are examples of how a kind of climate of dishonor can be created that allows actions such as those which took place at Abu Ghraib to continue. I believe that, in both of my examples, anyone in the chain of command could have prevented the less-than-honest practices from taking place by acting honorably and speaking honestly. I suspect the same is true at Abu Ghraib, that is, these abuses would have been quickly stopped if knowledge of them were broader, an atmosphere that can be created by simple honesty.

Honor is, of course, important at all levels but I place the responsibility for this honesty more heavily on the shoulders of Academy graduates because they lived the honor code every day in an intense crucible for four years and, therefore, should have developed a greater commitment to honor. Also, they are supposed to be leaders. At Abu Ghraib they failed.

 Our military is charged with protection of our liberty. It is an awesome responsibility and one which sometimes requires the use of deadly force. The highest standards of honor must be maintained and the examples must be set at our military academies. Why else do we have them?


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