The Road to Abu Ghraib

Chivalry, Mercy and Self-Restraint

abu ghraibChivalry is not about holding doors or tipping hats. The Code of Chivalry is a warrior’s code of honor, not a guide for genteel etiquette — and perhaps there is no more important time to remember that than now, as accounts of war atrocities committed on prisoners at Abu Ghraib are coming to light.

When the U.S. military revealed that detainees at Abu Ghraib detention facility in Iraq had been physically and psychologically abused, a great public outcry arose. This type of behavior is repulsive to Americans, who want to see their soldiers as knights in shining armor, not cruel barbarians. Reports of these atrocious incidents forced people throughout the world to wonder how the military representatives of an honorable nation could have gone so far down the road to such dishonorable conduct.

On a primal level, the atrocities at Abu Ghraib may be understandable given the context of the soldiers’ mission: These soldiers are fighting back against the terrorists who flew airplanes full of helpless passengers into skyscrapers crowded with unsuspecting civilians on September 11, 2001. Does anyone think terrorists will refrain from humiliating or torturing American soldiers (or civilians) who fall into their hands? Treating Iraqi captives the same way truly is “fighting fire with fire.”

Yet, on a cultural level, the Abu Ghraib incident is appalling: One of our most basic social principles is the granting of mercy to those who have surrendered or are helpless. It’s why we expect police officers to respect the rights of arrestees, and why our jails are clean and safe rather than squalid and hazardous.

The dilemma of Abu Ghraib an old and pervasive one: Do we set aside the restraints of chivalry and honor in order to “get the job done” in the most effective way possible?

The Code of Chivalry dictates humane treatment of captured enemies. Ramon Lull, a 12th century Spanish knight who wrote The Book of the Order of Chivalry, said that a knight “should have pity on poor men, helpless and sick, and should have mercy on the men taken and vanquished (in battle) that request mercy and give themselves up for honorable surrender.” Lull also points out that a merciless knight is “an enemy of justice.”

This expectation has been incorporated in nearly all modern conventions of warfare, including the famous Geneva Convention, which states:

“Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely.”

The Code of Chivalry with its ordinance of mercy wasn’t developed to grant dignity or unnecessary liberty to enemies. In a battle against terrorists and murderers, chivalry prevents warriors from becoming the very things they are fighting against. Images of U.S. soldiers emulating the inhumane actions of Hussein’s prison guards in the halls of the same prison where the Iraqi atrocities took place are heartbreaking reminders of how far astray a warrior can go when he or she abandons the seemingly arbitrary restraints of the code of honor.

Chivalry is more than a shield for soldiers’ self respect, however. The U.S. Army’s Laws of Land Warfare refer to “chivalry” as the standard by which soldiers must conduct themselves, stating that the purpose of this restriction is not only to protect the innocent and avoid human rights abuses, but also to “facilitate the restoration of peace.”

There’s little doubt that the Abu Ghraib incidents have poured gasoline on the flames in Iraq and lengthened the duration of this conflict. How many additional months will beleaguered American soldiers have to put themselves in harm’s way because of the actions of a few unchivalrous individuals?[quote]

In the wake of the Abu Ghraib incident, the military is proposing new regulations in an attempt to prevent similar atrocities in the future. That’s certainly a good measure, but it’s hardly conceivable that road to Abu Ghraib was paved by a lack of army rules.

More plausible, it would seem, is that the otherwise-rational young soldiers stationed in that prison succumbed to the illusion that chivalry and honor can be set aside temporarily in order to achieve a goal, or to take advantage of a vaccum of oversight. The road to Abu Ghraib may well have been paved by coaches who teach players to tactically break the rules, by parents who pressure teachers to give unjustified high marks to their children, and by managers and executives who condone “cutting corners” in order to boost profits or increase production. The people who travel such a road are usually following role models who lead by example.

In short, Ramon Lull had it right: When the strong and powerful abandon their sense of justice and fair play, mercy, charity and generosity won’t be far behind.

The Geneva Convention may impose restrictions on soldiers in the theater of conflict, but the Code of Chivalry can apply to everyone, and can create an even more basic and binding appreciation of the tenets of decency and humanity. Restrictions of dignity, courtesy and respect are important — vitally important — in any area of conflict, dispute or competition. They protect the humanity of all those involved, and they prevent contained battles from spiraling into endless cycles of “payback.”

Chivalry maybe idealistic, restrictive and noble; it may also be our best defense against allowing more decent young people to start down the road to another Abu Ghraib.