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May 09, 2004

IT'S BEEN DELIGHTFUL staying offline and ignoring the news. A quick cast around the blogs, however, suggests that the rest of the world needs to chill a bit, too.

Comparisons of what happened at Abu Ghraib to My Lai, or to Algeria, are ridiculous.

My Lai was on a wholly different scale, involving the murder of large numbers of innocent women and children, not the mistreatment of prisoners. And in Algeria, the French wanted to stay, and keep Algeria part of Metropolitan France. Plus there were the (semi-insane) French colonists, the pieds-noirs, mucking up the situation. Our situation in Iraq is very different -- there are no colonists, and we want Iraq to be self-governing and free as soon as possible. Comparing the two illustrates a serious lack of perspective. Or worse.

Likewise the (sometimes rather hopeful) claims from some on the left that we've "lost the war" here are silly too. We'll only lose this war if we chicken out. One suspects that they desire this very outcome. Losing the war's fine with some, if it can get Bush out of office.

That agenda is way too obvious for me to take their comments seriously. It would be wrong to minimize the misconduct at Abu Ghraib, but it would be equally wrong to maximize it. And there seems to be rather a lot of that going on at the moment.

If all this coverage is leaving you demoralized, and hopeless, and depressed, let me suggest that this isn't an accident -- it's the goal. Don't lose perspective, even if you have to take a few days away from the news to get it back. (LT Smash does a good job of retaining perspective without glossing over things here.)

UPDATE: Reader Lesley Wexler emails:

I've been pondering your Iraq posts and I think the left (at least, the reasonable left of which I consider myself to be a part) is struggling with how to convey to the public how awful Abu Ghraib is. Younger Americans just don't really have a clear context for what's happening. My guess is that advocates and pundits are trying to come up with recent, salient comparisons to trigger availability heuristics and thus tap into larger debates. The two frames through which Abu Ghraib is being made salient are My Lai and domestic prison abuse. I think the left is using "My Lai" as shorthand for "US wartime atrocities." They clearly aren't on the same scale, but the way in which they might be comparable is as a frame for the debate over whether this was the work of a few bad apples (the view of most on the right) or the inevitable/systemic result of either warfare/ prison systems (the far left) or the combination of bad
apples and a failure of leadership/training up the chain of command (the moderate left). I agree that the people who say this is My Lai are being unreasonable, but I think there's something to be said for trying to fit Abu Ghraib into the larger debates about how and why (for lack of a better term) the banality of evil manifests itself in wartime.

Yeah, and I guess I probably fit in the category Lesley puts as "moderate left" here. I think it's bad apples, but -- as is usually the case -- bad apples who get away with it because they can.

What I'm unhappy with here, though, is people who are trying to turn this event into a metaphor for the war in its entirety -- and, in doing so, to exploit the genuine disgust that most pro-war people feel for this behavior and turn it into political capital. Frank Rich likes to analogize things to My Lai because he thinks that his side won in the Vietnam war.

Meanwhile, Chief Wiggles, who's in Iraq now and who has run a military prison, has more thoughts.

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