Robert Fisk: The US military and its cult of cruelty

The change to 'warrior' creed is encouraging soldiers to commit atrocities

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In the week that George Bush took to fantasising that his blood-soaked "war on terror" would lead the 21st century into a "shining age of human liberty" I went through my mail bag to find a frightening letter addressed to me by an American veteran whose son is serving as a lieutenant colonel and medical doctor with US forces in Baghdad. Put simply, my American friend believes the change of military creed under the Bush administration - from that of "soldier" to that of "warrior" - is encouraging American troops to commit atrocities.

From Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo to Bagram, to the battlefields of Iraq and to the "black" prisons of the CIA, humiliation and beatings, rape, anal rape and murder have now become so commonplace that each new outrage is creeping into the inside pages of our newspapers. My reporting notebooks are full of Afghan and Iraqi complaints of torture and beatings from August 2002, and then from 2003 to the present point. How, I keep asking myself, did this happen? Obviously, the trail leads to the top. But where did this cult of cruelty begin?

So first, here's the official US Army "Soldier's Creed", originally drawn up to prevent anymore Vietnam atrocities:

"I am an American soldier. I am a member of the United States Army - a protector of the greatest nation on earth. Because I am proud of the uniform I wear, I will always act in ways creditable to the military service and the nation that it is sworn to guard ... No matter what situation I am in, I will never do anything for pleasure, profit or personal safety, which will disgrace my uniform, my unit or my country. I will use every means I have, even beyond the line of duty, to restrain my Army comrades from actions, disgraceful to themselves and the uniform. I am proud of my country and it's flag. I will try to make the people of this nation proud of the service I represent for I am an American soldier."

Now here's the new version of what is called the "Warrior Ethos":

"I am an American soldier.
I am a warrior and a member of a team. I serve the people of the Unites States and live the Army values.
I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.
I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained and proficient in my warrior tasks and drills. I always maintain my arms, my equipment and myself.
I am an expert and I am a professional. I stand ready to deploy, engage and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat. I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life.
I am an American soldier."

Like most Europeans - and an awful lot of Americans - I was quite unaware of this ferocious "code" for US armed forces, although it's not hard to see how it fits in with Bush's rantings. I'm tempted to point this out in detail, but my American veteran did so with such eloquence in his letter to me that the response should come in his words: "The Warrior Creed," he wrote, "allows no end to any conflict accept total destruction of the 'enemy'. It allows no defeat ... and does not allow one ever to stop fighting (lending itself to the idea of the 'long war'). It says nothing about following orders, it says nothing about obeying laws or showing restraint. It says nothing about dishonourable actions ...".

Each day now, I come across new examples of American military cruelty in Iraq and Afgha-nistan. Here, for example, is Army Specialist Tony Lagouranis, part of an American mobile interrogation team working with US marines, interviewed by Amy Goodman on the American Democracy Now! programme describing a 2004 operation in Babel, outside Baghdad: "Every time Force Recon went on a raid, they would bring back prisoners who were bruised, with broken bones, sometimes with burns. They were pretty brutal to these guys. And I would ask the prisoners what happened,how they received these wounds. And they would tell me that it was after their capture, while they were subdued, while they were handcuffed and they were being questioned by the Force Recon Marines ... One guy was forced to sit on an exhaust pipe of a Humvee ... he had a giant blister, third-degree burns on the back of his leg."

Lagouranis, whose story is powerfully recalled in Goodman's new book, Static, reported this brutality to a Marine major and a colonel-lawyer from the US Judge Advocate General's Office. "But they just wouldn't listen, you know? They wanted numbers. They wanted numbers of terrorists apprehended ... so they could brief that to the general."

The stories of barbarity grow by the week, sometimes by the day. In Canada, an American military deserter appealed for refugee status and a serving comrade gave evidence that when US forces saw babies lying in the road in Fallujah - outrageously, it appears, insurgents sometimes placed them there to force the Americans to halt and face ambush - they were under orders to drive over the children without stopping.

Which is what happens when you always "place the mission first" whenyou are going to "destroy" - rather than defeat - your enemies. As my American vet put it: "the activities in American military prisons and the hundreds of reported incidents against civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere are not aberrations - they are part of what the US military, according to the ethos, is intended to be. Many other armies behave in a worse fashion than the US Army. But those armies don't claim to be the "good guys" ... I think we need... a military composed of soldiers, not warriors."

Winston Churchill understood military honour. "In defeat, defiance," he advised Britons in the Second World War. "In victory, magnanimity." Not any more. According to George W Bush this week "the safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad" because we are only in the "early hours of this struggle between tyranny and freedom".

I suppose, in the end, we are supposed to lead the 21st century into a shining age of human liberty in the dungeons of "black" prisons, under the fists of US Marines, on the exhaust pipes of Humvees. We are warriors, we are Samurai. We draw the sword. We will destroy. Which is exactly what Osama bin Laden said.

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