Army officials may have known it was time to take their medicine when they announced last month that they were moving courts-martial over Abu Ghraib abuses from the East Coast to Ft. Hood, Texas, the base that has absorbed by far the most casualties in the war in Iraq. The move was meant to consolidate the remaining cases but also gives the service an opportunity to purge itself of a sordid world moment before its harshest critics: the men and women who must recover from the damage done by a few bad men (and women) to soldier on.
The case of Spc. Charles A. Graner Jr. marks the first time a soldier linked to Abu Ghraib contested a court-martial. Spc. Graner, whom witnesses described as a ringleader in the photographed abuses, appeared smiling outside the courtroom and maintained that he was following orders. Inside his counsel, Guy Womack, gave a demented account in his defense.
In light of so much physical evidence showing that Spc. Graner forced Iraqi detainees into a naked human pyramid, Mr. Womack said in opening arguments: "Don't cheerleaders all over America form pyramids six to eight times a year? Is that torture?"
Mr. Womack fought for the testimony of an expert who planned on telling the jury that stacking prisoners could be construed as an inventive and accepted control technique. But the judge disallowed the testimony, and prosecutors pointed out the circumstances-with prisoners hooded and tethered-didn't aid the cheerleading defense.
If Mr. Womack was able to disperse blame to other officers at the prison complex outside Baghdad, he was less successful in portraying his client as a dutiful reservist following orders. Under cross-examination, key defense witness Megan Ambuhl revealed that she had had a sexual relationship with Spc. Graner. Already reported is Spc. Graner's adulterous relationship with another Abu Ghraib soldier, Pfc. Lynndie England, whose court-martial will begin this week.
Left unprobed by both sides is the link between illicit sex among the attendant officers at Abu Ghraib and the perverted sexually explicit assaults they concocted for prisoners. Charges of illegal fraternization in Spc. Graner's case were dropped by the Army.
To make their case, government prosecutors had to repeat the images so demoralizing to Army regulars and degrading to the war effort in Iraq, presenting dozens of photographs of prisoners stacked upon each other, prisoners being forced to simulate sex acts, and guards like Spc. Graner and Pfc. England smiling and giving thumbs-up signs while hooded prisoners stand by.
What the testimony and almost-certain guilty verdicts show-if the photographs aren't enough-is a group of night-shift officers whose exploits stand in contrast to rank-and-file fighting forces in Iraq. But the scrutiny at home and abroad reveals how far the Army has to go to repair the damage done by a few.
-with reporting by John Dawson, at Ft. Hood, Texas