I found myself getting more angry the more I heard senior U.S. officials and politicians denounce the humiliating treatment of Iraqi prisoners by their own soldiers as inhuman and fundamentally un-American. What was bugging me was that this U.S. self-criticism was merely an example of the old-fashioned military ethics that flow from the gentlemanly tradition of professional warriors who respect the brave and gentlemanly professional warriors of the same class, even if they are on the other side. U.S. troops got caught violating warrior ethics, and the politicians are going to keep the debate from moving into the realm of civilian, human or political ethics.
"Oddly enough, the Abu Ghraib prison abuse is probably one of the least immoral things U.S. government agents have done to the people of Iraq over a 50-year history of backing Saddam's coup, invading the country twice and denying crucial medicines and water treatment during the embargo between invasions," my cynical side lectured me.
And then it really hit me. They were going to succeed in pulling off that hegemonic trick because many people lack the internal radar to distinguish between first- and second-order moral failures.
I should explain that I spend a lot of my time trying to arouse public concern for the 15,000 children around the world who die every day from illnesses directly related to hunger. For a year or two, I tried to put those issues into perspective with a comparison to 9/11. When the Iraq scandal hit, I started to figure out how to update that speech. Why isn't it just as disgusting that the parents of 15,000 families are humiliated every day because their children are dying from starvation? You can see why no one invites me to parties.
I try to be philosophical about the need for a moral compass that goes beyond specific horrific events. There was no evolutionary advantage for early hunter-gatherer humans in having the needs of the world's many other beings as top-of-mind issues. To this day, most of us learn about morals the same way we learn about manners.
That's one reason why the Iraq prison scandal became a scandal. Most people can understand that what those guards did was rude and mean - bad manners, no matter what the politics of the situation.
Not to put too fine a point on it, what that army woman did, taking cheap shots at a man's moral compass, gave a whole new meaning to "offensive," on a level that NASCAR dads and rugged North American men could grab hold of. The scandal even shook up limousine liberals such as Harvard's Michael Ignatieff, who until this scandal was lecturing the world's flaky liberals about the importance of backing the U.S. invasion of Iraq, including the bombing of innocents, on the grounds that the defence of freedom is not a matter for "herbivores."
Praise human rights and pass the ammunition. But the prison scandal is a meaty issue even Ignatieff finds troubling. Testosterone and morality converge more easily over photos of humiliated men than over images of mothers comforting their dying babies.
Geopolitically, the rudeness and personal violation in Iraqi prisons exposed an American perversion of justice to the entire world and threatened stability in the Muslim world if apologies were not forthcoming immediately. U.S. military and political leaders had the cojones to know what was at stake, and what had to be said.
Since many issues that have to do with ethical politics do not dovetail so perfectly with good or bad manners or mistreatment of individuals, we need to face up to some problems.
Humans probably survived because we were sociable enough to hunt together or fend off predators together, and because we had the wit to develop tools - a nice way of saying weapons, really - that allowed us to kill big animals from a safe distance. First rocks, then spears, then bows and arrows, then rifles, all the way up to missiles from space. And with each increase in distance came a decrease in the up-close-and-personal sense of responsibility for killing.
With distance, one of the relatively few opportunities to rev up face-to-face, mano-a-mano adrenaline for combat comes from artificial basic training. It's considered perfectly acceptable to break individual conscience and will by humiliation, including sexual, as long as it's imposed by people on your own side and designed to boost the unthinking collective. That's what boot camp is all about.
What's not been accepted is the other side doing it to troops that have been captured and can't be used to kill. That breaks the warrior code. And that's what was broken in Iraq's prisons. The violation of that code makes the specific apology possible.