The Problem Is At the Top

SEA ISLE, NJ – There’s a simple ceremony in this ocean town on Memorial Day. People gather in the morning in the town square, taps are played, there’s a gun salute and then there’s a short walk to the beach, a block away. To honor the naval dead, flowers are placed in a row boat, they’re taken out to sea, right past where the waves are breaking, and tossed into the water.

Not all that far from here, young men and women are coming home from Iraq to the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. What sticks in my mind is an article that ran last Monday in The Philadelphia Inquirer about the mortuary chaplain at the base, Lt. Col. John W. Groth.  

“After 14 straight months on the job, Groth still can hardly bear the sight of young men and women torn to pieces,” reported Inquirer writer Tom Infield. “But what upsets him most is the body that doesn’t have a mark on it, as if the soldier or Marine had just fallen asleep.”

Groth, an Air Force reservist and Presbyterian minister, explained: “You should be able to walk over, snap your fingers, and say: ‘Wake up.’ But, obviously, you can’t. For me, personally, that’s harder – because you think: ‘Why did this happen?’”  

Why did it happen? Because of bad intelligence, because of exaggerations about the threat from Iraq, because we missed the clues before 9-11, and because, once we invaded, we went in too light with not enough troops, not enough equipment, too few allies and no real planning about how to handle things in the “post-war” period – and because of yet another domino theory, this time saying that a new and improved Iraq would send the winds of change blowing throughout the entire Middle East.

 As of last week, 84 bodies had arrived at the Dover base from Afghanistan and over 700 from Iraq, in addition to the remains of the 188 people who were killed at the Pentagon in the 9-11 attack. The bodies arrive in what the military now calls “transfer cases.” No cameras are allowed. “After being unloaded from cargo planes, remains are scanned by an X-ray machine to make sure they carry no unexploded shells,” reports Infield. Following the X-rays, autopsies are done to give the military information of what kind of damage is done by various types of bombs and bullets, and to provide information on how body armor might be improved.

Once this processing is completed, the soldiers are dressed in “a crisp new uniform with medals gleaming” – unless the bodies have been too blown apart. “Mangled bodies,” explains Infield, “may have to be wrapped in plastic, with uniforms laid on top.”

Groth’s job is to keep everyone sane, including himself. Especially hard, he says, is the handling of a soldier’s personal effects – a wallet with photos of his girlfriend or wife, his mother’s picture, a ring, a watch. “They will break into crying at a moment’s notice,” says Groth about the new workers at the mortuary, “and they’re not sure why.”

Other troops, more lucky, are coming home to be jailed. They’re supposed to be part of the solution to what went wrong at Abu Ghraib prison. The second part of the solution is an order from Defense Secretary Rumsfeld that bans digital cameras, camcorders and mobile phones fitted with cameras from all U.S. military compounds in Iraq. The third part, as proposed last week by President Bush, calls for knocking the prison down, an answer that seems to suggest that President Nixon might well have come out a winner if only he’d have dispatched a few bulldozers to the Watergate.

What’s wrong with blaming a few Army reservists for Abu Ghraib is that it pretends that Major General Geoffrey Miller, the head of interrogation at Guantanamo, wasn’t summonded to Baghdad last year to teach U.S. commanders in Iraq a few new tricks of the trade. It pretends that the Bush administration didn’t decide, long before Army Pfc. Lynndie England put anyone on a leash, that captured members of alleged terrorist networks and other alleged evildoers and “dead-enders” weren’t eligible for the protection of the Geneva Conventions.

In all of this, at both Abu Ghraib and Dover, the problem is at the top and those at the bottom are paying the price.