The Ultimate Casualty
Washington Post
By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, March 25, 2008; A15

You know him well. His nickname was Gilligan, and he was a prisoner at
Abu Ghraib, Saddam Hussein's vast prison transformed into a vast
American one and then transformed again by the Bush administration
into a vast national disgrace. Gilligan was deprived of sleep, forced
to stand on a small box, hooded like some medieval apparition, wired
like a makeshift lamp and told (falsely) that if he fell he would be
electrocuted. He was later released.  Wrong man. Sorry.

The story of Gilligan is recounted in a forthcoming book and movie,
both titled "Standard Operating Procedure" because that is precisely
what the abuse of prisoners was at Abu Ghraib. Much of the book,
written by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris (he made the
documentary) and excerpted in last week's New Yorker, relies on the
verbatim testimony of the Americans who staffed Abu Ghraib. Some of
them were the very ones who took the revolting pictures -- including
the iconic photo of Gilligan -- that stunned the world.

What the interviews make clear is how pervasive and public the abuse
of prisoners had been. Physical and mental abuse was conducted in the
open.  Photos were taken and passed up the chain of command. "Sleep
deprivation, sexual humiliation, sensory disorientation and the
imposition of physical and psychological pain," Gourevitch and Morris
write, were all permitted under the makeshift rules of the camp.

"They couldn't say that we broke the rules because there were no
rules," said an Army reservist named Megan Ambuhl. Others talked of
something even more insidious: the growing tolerance for inflicting
pain. This is the stuff of famous psychology experiments (Milgram,
etc.), but it also reminds me -- and I know this is the extreme case
-- of the willingness of ordinary German soldiers in World War II to
spend whole days in the routine murder of civilians.

One of the most terrifying books I've ever read is called "Ordinary
Men." It is Christopher Browning's chronicle of Germany's Reserve
Police Battalion 101, which consisted of civilian cops, firemen and
dockworkers who were not Nazi Party members and not particularly
anti-Semitic but who nevertheless murdered Jews in occupied Poland
because they were ordered to do so. At first a few of them balked, but
ultimately they all participated. They were ordinary men.

Abu Ghraib, too, was staffed by ordinary men -- and women. Because
they were allowed to be cruel, because they were encouraged to be
cruel, they became cruel. "So, over time, you become numb to it, and
it's nothing," said Sgt.  Javal Davis. They knew, in Gourevitch and
Morris's words, that "the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was de
facto United States policy," a consequence of the sneering contempt
for international law evinced by the president, by his vice president
and by his secretary of defense.

Of all the casualties of this sad war, the good name of the United
States is certainly one. It evaporated in the desert like a shallow
pool of water. I do not mean to belittle the lives lost or soldiers
maimed, and I know full well that we are not a country of
innocents. We've massacred prisoners of war and murdered civilians --
at My Lai in Vietnam, for instance -- but these were mostly moments of
madness or terror, not a policy virtually posted outside the orderly

In the end, the photos taken at Abu Ghraib produced an explosion of
outrage.  When I visited Jordan in 2005, my driver -- Bassam was his
name -- brought it up himself. Just as the military's interrogators
knew the intense shame Muslim men feel when stripped naked and viewed
by women, or when forced to wear women's underwear on their heads, so
did Bassam deeply feel that shame himself. "We are Muslims," he said.

The firestorm over Abu Ghraib subsided. Courts-martial were held, and
no one higher than a sergeant was convicted. All the rest, the
officers who knew what was happening at the prison and said nothing,
or the higher-ups in the field and in Washington who suggested
indifference, were not touched. In fact, the Bush administration's
position on torture was much like the military's on gays -- don't ask,
don't tell.

This week we reached the mark of 4,000 American dead in Iraq. It is a
sad milestone in a grinding war that can never be won and is already
lost in so many ways. But even when this war, like Norman Bates's
mother, is gussied up by its embalmers and declared a glorious effort,
the shame of Abu Ghraib will forever stain George Bush and his top
aides. For them, the photos from Abu Ghraib are not pictures. They're