Six years ago today, on April 28, 2004, CBS television’s 60 Minutes II broke the story of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. I could barely look at those photos at the time, and they still fill me with dread. It’s hard to overstate just how much damage they did to the United States, and its standing in the world.
My brush with Abu Ghraib came almost exactly a year earlier, when times were a little happier in Iraq and US troops thought they were on the winning side. I’d gone out there looking for some of Saddam’s mass graves. There was a squad of US troops standing around, eating peanut butter on crackers and M&Ms chocolates, and generally looking pretty bored. The prison was empty and remained as it had been when Saddam’s goons fled.
I asked the troops’ permission to look around and they shrugged their shoulders with disinterest. It still makes my skin crawl thinking about the place. It was bleak, dank and had a lingering smell of death. There was a large open pit in the exercise yard, which seemed to be the origin of the odour. I couldn’t see any bodies in there, but there were items of clothing and a dog that was acting strangely, like it was very fond of the pit. Inside the cells there were hooks on the ceilings and strange stains on the walls. A really horrible place.
Thomas E. Ricks recounts in his book “Fiasco” that when the news reached the troops in Iraq a 19-year-old lance corporal turned to Marine Major General James Mattis and said: “Some assholes have just lost the war for us”.