Columnists > Voices

Cultures have consequences

Abu Ghraib was merely fruit from a tree borne in season

Issue: "Bob Geldof: Whose jubilee?," June 25, 2005

With all the opinion spilling again through the media about Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, Michael Cannon Jr. has a right to be heard.

Maj. Cannon served as the head chaplain for the 800th Military Police Brigade, the unit that gained such notoriety over the last year because it was in charge of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq where the most notable abuses of prisoners seem to have taken place. For several reasons, the Cannon perspective is not all encompassing. But it is up-close and personal. I find him a persuasive witness.

In a pair of national appearances on C-SPAN 2 and through his new 280-page book, Abu Ghraib: Through the Looking Glass, Maj. Cannon charges that the mainstream media have vastly oversimplified the whole issue of prisoner abuse. Not for a second does he justify or minimize the crude and dehumanizing behavior of some of his colleagues in the 800th, and only occasionally does he sound defensive. Instead, he paints a large-canvas context that he thinks should help Americans see the issue in sharper perspective. If you're like me, you'll respond often by saying, "I wish I'd been reminded of that before."

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Keep in mind, for example, that most of the 7,000 personnel of the 800th Brigade came from northern New Jersey-and that many were personally acquainted with friends or neighbors who had died in the 9/11 attack on New York's World Trade Center. Don't forget that as reservists, these were "weekend warriors"; their habits and mindset were more civilian than military.

"They wore civilian clothes for 28 days and military clothes for two," the chaplain told me-stressing the challenges of the rapid shift in thinking required of those in the brigade. "I was working the processing table, giving religious support and counsel to the soldiers processing for deployment, when a young female asked if she could speak with me in private. She was about 26 and had been married four years. She spoke of her 3-year-old child. Tears poured from her eyes each time she mentioned him. Her maternal instincts pressed her, and her fears of never seeing him again weighed heavy on her mind. The part-time money from drills and the college grants the military promised suddenly seemed unimportant to her now that she faced deployment to hostile territories and an uncertain future."

The Cannon account details the hurried call-up of the 800th, the bleak and tearful weeks of stateside preparation, the faltering trip to Kuwait, the skimpy support. It was hardly a conducive setting for indoctrinating young soldiers in the nuances of the Geneva Convention.

But especially so, says Maj. Cannon, when you consider the culture that had shaped those soldiers. The very 60 Minutes program that first publicly broadcast the shocking Abu Ghraib photos was subsidized by commercials for drugs to help with sexual dysfunction. "It's a sex-saturated society," Maj. Cannon told me last week. "Why should we be surprised that people in their 20s would watch Desperate Housewives, and then act any way different from the way a few of them did act? It doesn't make it right, of course. But it takes away the surprise."

Maj. Cannon stresses how severely that same culture is also history deprived. When folks hear Guantanamo compared to the Soviet gulags, too many have no reference point to make fair judgments. Do the deaths of tens of millions of people at the hands of the Soviet government, or 6 million Jews at the hands of the Nazis, even belong in the same discussion with accusations against a young woman for crudely demeaning Iraqi prisoners? So Mr. Cannon goes on in gruesome detail to provide some of that missing history, giving his readers a chance to set the recent offenses in a proportionate context.

Maj. Cannon self-published his book. "Secular publishers thought it was too spiritual," he told me. "Religious publishers didn't know just where it fit." Along the way, the editing process was terribly compromised. If Maj. Cannon paid a proofreader, he should get his money back, with usurious interest. Still, the book's core message is so vivid as to shine right past all those glaring mistakes. If at this stage in the Iraqi conflict you don't know your own mind about reports of prisoner abuse, let Michael Cannon help you decide. Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million are all among those who will lend you a helping hand.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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