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Saturday, May 8

Iraq prison photos may represent historic turning point

By Ken Fuson | The Des Moines Register

Most photographs document history. A few change it.

At first glance, the graphic snapshots that have emerged in recent days from Abu Ghraib, the military prison in Iraq, appear destined to join the photographs of Bull Connor's snarling dogs during the Civil Rights movement, and the picture of the Vietnamese girl, naked and screaming, running from her village after a napalm attack during that war.

Time transformed those images into a mirror, reflecting a harsher, unwelcome view of American character. Here was proof, many said, that we don't always occupy the moral high ground.

So it is with Abu Ghraib. We see photographs of hooded, naked prisoners, stacked on top of each other, or wearing animal leashes, with smirking American soldiers flashing thumbs-up signs to the camera.

But we see much more.

Some Americans see one battle lost in the war on terror, with the ramifications affecting everything from international relations to the presidential election this November. And their conclusions were reached even before Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld warned a Senate committee Friday to expect more photographic and video images from the prison that are "blatantly sadistic, cruel and inhuman."

"It's not just a military thing," says Harold Johnson, 67, of Blakesburg, Iowa, a retired Air Force colonel who was held nearly six years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. "It's a real reflection on American things that are happening.

"We have a lot of immoral and deviant things happening in our society, and it just gives fuel to al Qaida's feeling that this is the land of Satan."

Others consider the photographs an aberrant blip in American history, or they play the hypocrisy card. Where was the world's outrage when four American contractors were murdered, burned and their bodies hung for all to see?

As many have pointed out, former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein promoted the most effective torturers at Abu Ghraib. The U.S. military, by contrast, promises to punish those found guilty of mistreating captives.

Everyone sees something in the photos. Nobody can turn away their gaze for long. The images are shown repeatedly on 24-hour news channels. The repetition does not temper the shock, as the mind attempts to process what the eyes behold.

Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, sees the odds increasing that terrorists will launch another attack on American soil.

Kenneth Quinn, the former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia and current president of the World Food Prize Foundation in Des Moines, fears Osama bin Laden and his followers will use the photographs to attract recruits.

Michael Casey, a former Navy commander who teaches a course at Graceland College in Lamoni on the ethics of war, considers the photographs an insult to his 20 years of military service.

"I want to see the hides" of those responsible, Casey said. "I want to see them nailed to the doggone side of the barn."

Such is the stark power of the photographs that many Americans now feel some of what the Iraqi prisoners must have felt: shame, outrage, embarrassment and humiliation.

In Vietnam, Johnson survived far worse than the treatment depicted in the Abu Ghraib photographs, but he says what's different is the extent of the degradation. Photographs of grinning captors pointing at naked prisoners is another, more personal, level of abuse.

"It's not so much mistreatment, but an abuse of decency," he said.

When Americans think of themselves, they see other images - the Marines hoisting the flag at Iwo Jima, brave soldiers securing Omaha Beach on D-Day, firefighters scrambling up the stairs to their doom at the World Trade Center.

They don't see a prisoner, his face covered in a black hood, with electrical wires streaming from his body.

"This isn't what we think of ourselves," said Charles Dobbs, a history professor at Iowa State University. "We think of ourselves as somewhat better and, frankly, through most of our history we have been."

That's an opinion not shared by much of the world. To its detractors, America is the only country to have used an atomic bomb on a population, the aggressor that invaded Iraq. It may be propaganda, but the photographs will only reinforce that anti-American sentiment.

After the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, "a lot of Americans were totally unaware that people around the world didn't like us," said Michele Soria, executive director of the Iowa Council for International Understanding. "Hate is a strong word, but they actually had some of those thoughts and feelings about the United States. That was a shock for a lot of people."

Let the world remember that that the last five battles the U.S. military has engaged in, including Kuwait, Bosnia and Afghanistan, have been waged to help Muslins, said John Menzies, president of Graceland College. He is the former ambassador to Bosnia and the former chief of mission for the U.S. Foreign Service in Pristina, Kosovo.

The photographs are appalling, Menzies said, but reflect nothing more than the horrible judgment of the people who took and posed for them.

"What happened is that some outrageous behavior was captured on film," he said. "It will be dealt with by the military. I think the administration has moved quickly and effectively to cauterize this wound.

"This is not what the men and women of our armed forces are about."

Spc. Ashley Mentzer suffered shrapnel wounds and some hearing loss in the Iraq war. The 21-year-old Boone man served with the 186th Military Police Co., guarding prisoners at an internment camp and transporting some 20 miles away to Abu Ghraib.

"We guarded prisoners, and never once did that cross anyone's mind to do that kind of thing," he said. "It's inhumane. I don't even know what they were thinking. It's almost to the point of someone being crazy to do that.

"I mean, who takes people's clothes off in that situation? I was over there for a year, and never saw anything even remotely close to that, and I worked closely with the Abu Ghraib prison."

But something happened there, something impossible to see and not wonder if historians someday will point to those photographs and say they represented a turning point in the war against terrorism.

It's too soon to know that; the photographs are still in front of us, still casting their power to shock, their impact still being assessed. We only know they are not going away anytime soon.

"No matter what, this is stunning and visual," Quinn said, "and it leaves an impression that is very hard to completely erase."