Bringing out our best, and our worst

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are revealing the best that America has to offer, and the worst.

Pat Tillman epitomized the best. We all know the story: turning down a $3.6 million-per-year NFL contract to join the military out of a sense of duty for his country, and making the ultimate sacrifice. Thousands like him gave up good jobs and the safety and security of home following 9/11, in order to try to preserve a way of life.

The best of America is reflected in the hundreds of thousands of American military personnel and civilians risking their lives to bring electricity, water, schools, health care, sewage disposal, transportation, telecommunications, and other benefits to the people of a distant region. It's reflected in the efforts of the administrators, diplomats, soldiers, security workers, and NGO workers trying to instill freedom and the rule of law.

Few seem to grasp how radical a phenomenon this is. From ancient times until the 20th century, whenever one nation vanquished the regime of another, what typically followed was a vast transfer of wealth from the latter to the former. The people of the weaker state would be plundered and/or forced to pay burdensome taxes or "tribute" to the dominant state while getting nothing in return.

And many of their freedoms were taken away.

When the United States prevails, the opposite occurs. Americans transfer vast amounts of their wealth to the weaker state; in the case of Iraq, tens of billions of dollars so far. And rather than oppressing the defeated, America endeavors to bring them liberty, democracy and economic opportunity.

Compare the current condition of nations we defeated, such as Germany and Japan, with those we did not: Vietnam and North Korea.

But alas, the Middle East conflict is bringing out the worst in America as well.

The Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse photographs are as bizarre as they are appalling: keeping prisoners naked for long periods of time; forcing male detainees to wear women's underwear; arranging prisoners in sexually explicit positions for photographing; forcing groups of male detainees to perform sexual acts while being photographed.

Only among Americans, it seems, would prisoner abuse take this bizarrely perverted form, complete with pictures. Even the guards reportedly photographed themselves having sex.

While they rather than society deserve the blame, some of the worst aspects of our society did show through. In language and deeds, sexual crudeness in America is rampant. The Abu Ghraib prison guards took it to a new level.

As Sen. Joseph Lieberman asked, was one of the contributing factors behind these acts the "cumulative effect on a generation raised in an entertainment and Internet culture that has grown increasingly violent and pornographic?"

The prison guards took the phrase "the ugly American" to a new level as well, in their disrespect for a culture known for modesty in dress and sexual taboos.

To be fair, in addition to reflecting the bad in our society, the guards did reflect some good as well; like Tillman, some of them joined the military service following 9/11 out of a sense of duty. Their deeds, moreover, should be kept in perspective; were there photographs of what Saddam's Hussein's prison guards routinely did, they would be far too disturbing to be published in any mainstream media outlet.

The recent prisoner abuse incidents showed that in a military force as large as the one in Iraq, there are bound to be a few people who get out of hand. Anticipating that fact, and perhaps dispatching a team of ombudsmen throughout Iraq to try to prevent such things from happening, is something the Bush administration apparently did not do.

Meantime, it is much too early to assess what kind of road in Iraq America's good intentions are paving. Despite the pitfalls of late, Iraqis as a whole are far better off than under Saddam Hussein; the Kadhimiya, Iraq-based Human Rights Centre reportedly estimates that had he been allowed to remain in power, an additional 70,000 Iraqis would have died at his hands by now. Of course, there is always the danger that civil war could erupt or another murderous regime bent on WMD could emerge. In that case, it would be despite America's best efforts, not because of them.

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