In January 2004 I visited Abu Ghraib prison. Even before the name became infamous in the world, the prison was notorious within Iraq. The prison is named for the town of Abu Ghraib and lies to the West of Baghdad, just off Highway 1.
Highway 1, commonly referred to in Iraq as MSR Tampa, begins in the south near Kuwait and travels north through the center of the country towards Baghdad. During my tour in the country the road was a modern, four lane divided highway similar to one of our Interstate highways. A portion of the road north of An Nasiriyah was unfinished. There the road was a dusty, gravel strewn scar through a desolate landscape that resembled the moon.
South of Baghdad MSR Tampa curves West and brushes the edge of the city on the way to Anbar province and the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. The easiest (and safest) way to leave the Baghdad airport in January 2004 was to depart the back gate and jump on MSR Tampa. On that January day in 2004 that was my plan. However a Ukrainian officer who was with me asked that we stop by the prison on the way back and I agreed
The Ukrainian government wanted the officer to check on a Ukrainian citizen who was being held at the prison as a criminal. Evidently this Ukrainian was a sailor aboard a ship that called on the Iraqi port of Um Qasr. While ashore, he had been arrested for smuggling and shipped to Abu Ghraib.
The prison was one exit to the west of the airport and we arrived there in the middle of the afternoon. I explained to my Ukrainian friend that we had to be out of there in an hour in order to make it back to Al Hilla before dark. Traveling in Iraq was bad enough in the daylight without making things worse by traveling at night. The prison looked like a large, imposing stone fortress. U.S. Army Military Police were responsible for the security of the prison. I followed the Ukrainian officer inside because I was afraid his idea of "Be back in thirty minutes" might be different than mine.
Interestingly enough, Abu Ghraib is the only prison that I have entered in my life so I had liitle basis on which to compare. The cell block that I entered was dark, dingy and depressing. I waited in an administrative office with a number of MPs who appeared to be in a better mood than I would have been had I worked there.
Not all jobs in Iraq were the same. Some were more dangerous than others. Other jobs were just plain nasty. Being a prison guard in Abu Ghraib looked like a dangerous and nasty job. I spoke to an MP sergeant about his working conditions and he explained that life in Abu Ghraib was much better than it had been before, for the guards and the prisoners alike. When he first arrived at the prison most of the cells were filled with several feet of excrement. I have that comment as a fond memory of my visit.
I thought of this visit as I read the article by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker in which he interviewed General Taguba, the general officer responsible for the investigation of the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs. As a twenty plus year subscriber to the New Yorker I have read many articles by Seymour Hersh. I read his article where he accused General Barry McCaffrey of war crimes in the first Gulf war. I also read his breathless account of the Pentagon's preparations for an air attack on Iran (Imagine!). I finally decided that Hersh was a slimy son-of-a-bitch and I wasn't going to read his articles any more. At the recommendation of an email from an Army buddy I changed my mind.
I am sure General Taguba is a fine man and is entitled to his opinion and to be heard. Some of what the general said I agreed with. On the other hand, how much of what he said did Seymour leave out? If you read the article carefully you will find that Hersh composed a shrewdly crafted smear job. He does not provide conclusive proof about any of his allegations. But he makes a lot of nasty insinuations and allegations. He harped a lot on what Don Rumsfeld did or did not know. The former Secretary of Defense made a lot of decisions that can be criticized. A lot of these criticisms are sound and important. Whatever criticisms Hersh made in this article do not fall into that category.
As I said, I have a lot of respect for General Taguba and he deserved to be heard. I find it unfortunate that he used Seymour Hersh as a vehicle for his opinions.
I read the article. I'll not read another by Seymour. He and Michael Moore have the worst kind of similarities.
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