Monday, May 23, 2005

Command responsibility

I've commented before on the different approaches taken by the British and American governments towards prosecuting their soldiers for atrocities committed in Iraq: the US drags its feet or simply denies any wrongdoing (and if cornered, hands out a slap with a wet bus-ticket), while the UK puts even accidental deaths before a civilian jury so as to send a message to its troops that the lives of Iraqi civilians are valuable. Well, now we have another one: the British believe in command responsibility. Four soldiers from the Queen's Lancashire Regiment will shortly be standing trial for the murder of Baha Mousa and for the systematic assault and torture of other Iraqi prisoners taken in the same incident. And their commanding officer is going to be right there in the dock beside them.

The contrast with the US couldn't be any clearer. With Abu Ghraib, in the words of Seymour Hersh, "the buck always stops with the handful of enlisted army reservists"; their commanders - who allowed the prison to turn into a zoo - have not been held responsible. Local commanders have recently been reprimanded or demoted - a slap on the wrist with a wet bus ticket (and an administrative, rather than criminal, punishment). Meanwhile, their superiors, such as Major General Geoffrey Miller, who ordered that Abu Ghraib be "Gitmo-ized", or Lt General Ricardo Sanchez, who explicitly authorised the behaviour one of his subordinates was reprimanded for (the use of dogs to intimidate prisoners during interrogation) - have simply walked away.

What's truly shocking is that, if anything, command responsibility has been applied more strictly at Abu Ghraib. I am unaware of commanders being held responsible for the actions of their subordinates in any of the other numerous cases of abuse and torture in Iraq. Which I think shows exactly how "serious" the US is about preventing it. Commanders who face prosecution have a strong incentive to prevent abuse. Commanders who don't, don't. It's as simple as that.