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Victor Davis Hanson on the Ugly Americans of Abu Ghraib

In "Abu Ghraib," Victor Davis Hanson gives an eminently sensible, informed, and worldly-wise assessment of how we should understand the recent ugliness that took place at Saddam’s old Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. To give the sense of his May 3rd editorial, I include just two paragraphs--the last sentence of which brings to mind at once Shakespeare and Churchill:

Right now we see only revolting pictures that properly shock our sensibilities. But because we do not know the circumstances of the interrogations, the conditions of confinement, or the nature of the acts that warranted imprisonment, we are also ignorant to what degree, if any, these men were responsible for horrendous acts--or if their clumsy interrogators were trying to shame and humiliate them to extract information to save other lives.

We who are appalled in our offices and newsrooms are not those who have had our faces blown off while delivering food in Humvees or are incinerated in SUVs full of medical supplies--with the full understanding that there will be plenty of Iraqis to materialize to hack away at what is left of our charred corpses. War is hell, and those who do not endure it are not entirely aware of the demons that are unleashed, and thus should hold their moral outrage until the full account of the incident is investigated and adjudicated.

Discussions - 9 Comments

Lucas, I have to respectfully disagree, though we’re usually on the same page. I could not access the entire editorial, but I was quite shocked by what VD Hanson wrote (and I usually agree with his views as well). It did not remind me of Shakespeare or Churchill but rather a feeble attempt to provide context to defend the indefensible. From what I’ve seen, and it may be less than others, this was a brutal, sadistic act with smiling faces and photographs that is a disgrace to the American military and American principles. The comparison of this act, not of the entire war effort, with Saddam’s acts doesn’t seem all that unreasonable. I welcome more information, and I am certainly willing to amend my views as we learn more, but right now I am horrified and disgusted and see not one iota of context for justifying these acts.

So the problem for Hanson is inappropriate moral outrage? Wow.

I don’t mean to be a jerk here, but what about free will? What about the absolute difference between good and evil? Seems to me that stripping prisoners naked and forcing them to simulate sex acts with one another -- and smiling while you are photographed with the prisoners in those positions -- should fall pretty clearly on the "evil" side of the line. Why should one even need to point this out?

I’m not sure if Brett was referring to my posting or not. I agree one hundred percent with what you said, and I don’t think my posting indicated anything else. Clearly, the character of the soldiers’ actions are objectively wrong and thus evil. And, I fault Hanson for trying to justify them according to situational ethics. War might be hell, but that doesn’t justify anything! And, responding to the comparison to Churchill, I doubt whether Churchill would have used grand, sweeping rhetoric such as, "Never in the course of human history has so much been owed by so many to so few," to describe the soldiers’ actions except in a derogatory way to discuss how much they have negatively affected our war effort at the moment.


I think that we agree on this, and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise! I’m not sure what Hanson is up to in that editorial.

Let’s look again at just a few of the things that Hanson wrote:

"We must insist on a higher standard of human behavior than embraced by either Saddam Hussein or his various fascist and Islamicist successors." Where is his claim that these degarding acts were not evil or below the dignity of what is clearly a departure of the typical American approach to war and therewith our treatment of prisoners?

"The guards’ alleged crimes are not only repugnant but stupid as well." Conclusion: Does he have to repeat the word "repugnant" to show his moral discernment? Hanson is prudent enough to realize that even if the guards thought their acts were defensible, they only served to undermine the overall effort to secure peace and justice in Iraq and the greater Middle East.

"The number of accused is apparently small." Conclusion: This is most likely an isolated incident, and hence ethnic cleansing is not a distinctively American way of war-making.

The central aim of the op-ed was to "put the sordid incident in some perspective." This does not imply any defense of the reprehensible, but rather to put it--as one puts anything involving the realm of moral choices in a necessitous and fallen world--in context, which means in this case the arena of war. It makes a world of difference if this had happenened in Toledo, Ohio, during peacetime as opposed to when and where it apparently occurred. In both cases, the depicted acts would be wrong and debased, but in one scenario it would be all the more reprehensible. This is not situational ethics; this is plain common sense and prudential reasoning.

Hanson adds, "already the self-correcting mechanisms of the U.S. government and the American free press are in full throttle. Responsible parties, from Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt to President Bush himself, have condemned the accused guards and promised swift punishment when and if they are found guilty." Would that our enemies were as devoted to these mechanisms and institutions to protect the innocent and punish the guilty as we have been.

I could go on and on, repeating what Hanson says and drawing the manifest conclusion, but then, that was the point of getting folks to read and consider for themselves his editorial. So go, read it again, and then ask yourself if you are misconstruing what he actually wrote and explained point-by-point before you conclude that he is defending what appeared in those degrading fotos.

Lastly, I did not say the editorial was Churchillian or Shakespearaan; just the line that reads in part: "War is hell, and those who do not endure it are not entirely aware of the demons that are unleashed."

As I stated, I could not access the entire editorial because of a subscription, so I was just going off what you earlier quoted. With the other parts that you quoted, I am certainly much more willing to agree with Hanson’s comments. Your additional commentary certainly also clarified many things. Thank you.

Don’t have access to the full op-ed. Your additional quotes help, but in the section you excerpted, Hanson is asking people to hold their ’moral outrage’ until more facts about these appalling incidents come to light. That is, in fact, tantamount to an excuse for the actions. If you’re not outraged now, your moral compass is not reliable, in my view.

Hanson appears to be arguing -- or at least intimating -- that the torture would be less reprehensible (that we should temper our moral outrage) if the guards were responding to the psychic damage caused by war, or to the acts of the particular individuals being tortured, or to the need for reliable intelligence information. That’s a bad argument, and it’s not made better by calling the acts "repugnant."

During these difficult times I’m glad to hear that people are finally thinking for themselves.

Please allow me to agree with Lucas further by referring to VD Hanson’s other writings, which may help to explain his points of view as well as provide further context and justification for his point of view.

In Hanson’s "Carnage & Culture," "The Western Way of War," "Who Killed Homer?" and "Ripples of Battles," among other books, Hanson argues that it is a unique quality among Western civilization to lay forth democratic, free principles that allows free speech, a free press, critical inquiry and examination, and free deliberation according to a universal natural law of right and wrong that is applied to all actions, including our own.

So, unlike Saddam’s regime, which is rooted upon tyranny, illiberalism, and dictatorship in violation of freedom, self-government, critical inquiry, and natural law, the principles and virtue of the American system means that ultimately we will use our principles for a critical, rigorous examination of our own actions. Therefore, in the genius of our system, we are unique in our ability to live according to the same principles that we uphold for all to follow as a universal good.

Thus, the press has exposed, the people are outraged, deliberation in public is occurring, and appropriate actions by different institutions will correct abuses and gross violations of natural rights. In our system of republican self-government, a system of checks & balances can help in part to control abuses of freedom and corrupt behavior, but it is also the responsibility of our leaders and citizenry to act virtuously as well - to do otherwise would mar and destroy the very foundations of our nation. To uphold those virtues is to breathe life into the vision of the Founding Fathers.

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