GI's 'Sharp Moral Compass'

War's not just about warfare, as the US military was strongly reminded this week in an official report coming out of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses.

Soldiers who misbehave toward detainees can influence the overall war on terrorism as much as combat. And commanders who fail to foresee that potential, and to prevent such abuses, only hurt the goal of turning the Middle East into a terror-free zone through an expansion of civil liberties.

The report, done by an independent investigative panel that included two former secretaries of defense, suggested all US soldiers involved in detainee operations need a "sharp moral compass." The war on terror, after all, is a contest over ideas. Thus, the panel's 14 recommendations are aimed mainly at tightening supervision and training of guards and interrogators to follow the moral rules regarding detainees encoded in international and US law.

At Abu Ghraib, that supervision was sorely lacking. One reason was the Pentagon's failure to anticipate a postwar insurgency in Iraq that filled US-run prisons, which were woefully understaffed. But also, the abuses were caused by "a series of tangled command relationships" and the use of interrogation techniques not approved for the Iraq situation.

The worst outcome of those mistakes was the sordid antics of guards working the night shift on Cell Block 1 at Abu Ghraib, where the abuses were photographed and seen around the world. The damage to the US as a moral leader has been immense.

The panel found these acts were of "a unique nature fostered by the predilections of the noncommissioned officers in charge." But it's just those sort of predilections that proper training and supervision - or instilling a "sharp moral compass" - should prevent.

Also preventable was the slow reaction to the abuses by top US commanders in Iraq. They were too occupied with the conflict, failing to foresee the "image" problem of soldiers behaving badly.

Despite those problems, the panel wisely points out that the bulk of the US armed forces involved with detainees has done well.

Of 50,000 detainees held in Afghanistan, Iran, and Guantánamo, only 66 cases of abuses have been confirmed.

The Pentagon should aim for zero.

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