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For Abu Ghraib, a limited prosecution

Responsibility for the crimes has fallen almost entirely on the lower ranks - which can be typical.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 29, 2006


In May 2004, just weeks after the images of abuse at Abu Ghraib had become public, the commanding officer of American forces in the Middle East sat before Congress and shared what he considered to be a bedrock tenet of military leadership.

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"Officers of the United States military are responsible," said Gen. John Abizaid. "Every officer is responsible for what his or her unit does or fails to do."

Yet two years later, as the military nears the end of its efforts to prosecute those who staged the Abu Ghraib photographs, the responsibility for those crimes has fallen almost entirely on the lower ranks - at least publicly. The question of why has in many respects far overshadowed the rest of the legal process.

The reasons are many and begin with the obvious: Those who commit the crimes - on film, no less - are the easiest to snare. Yet many experts add that the lesson of the courts-martial of Abu Ghraib is: Once war's chaos descends, it becomes ever more difficult to trace the line of accountability upward through the ranks.

In this case, the confusion was not caused by bullets or bombs, but by the administration's decision to adopt new and undefined rules for detainee treatment before the war. With the new rules, the worst of war crept into the cellblock, and the chain of command all but evaporated.

"The fog of war does exist, and that's why you have to be so clear and drill, drill, drill," says Walter Huffman, who served as judge advocate general of the Army from 1997 to 2001. "When you inject uncertainty into a situation that was already filled with uncertainty, my experience is that this is exactly what happens."

Even in the best situations, establishing responsibility along the chain of command is among the thorniest of tasks for the military, whether the incident involves a ship run aground or a bungled battle plan. With Abu Ghraib, those bearing the public blame - and the jail time - have been enlisted men and women.

Last week, the 10th court-martial connected to Abu Ghraib concluded. As in every other case, the defendant was convicted and was not higher than the rank of staff sergeant. One final court-martial remains in May, also for a sergeant.

In some respects, that is typical, not least because soldiers on the ground are more likely than officers behind the lines to commit obvious war crimes. Yet experts note that officers are not exempt from discipline: It just comes in a different form.

Abu Ghraib has followed that pattern. The two highest-ranking officers known to be punished in connection with the scandal - Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski and Col. Thomas Pappas - were given nonjudicial punishments that seriously blighted their careers. As a rule, though, nonjudicial punishments are not a matter of public record and therefore bring less attention than courts-martial.