Whistling in the dark
Seymour Hersh’s May 10 New Yorker article “Torture at Abu Ghraib,” along with the 60 Minutes II broadcast of the pictures showing U.S. abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, let loose a flood of reaction all over the world.
Rush Limbaugh touted the incident as equivalent to a “fraternity initiation prank,” while Arab populations were outraged and angered at the despicable humiliations. Senators rose to speak indignantly, with Joe Biden wondering “who’s in charge for God’s sake,” but Senator Jim Imhofe huffed that he was “outraged by the outrage,” implying the prisoners got what they deserved. The President was driven to do live “damage control” interviews on Arabic-language networks, while Condi Rice smilingly lectured on Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, the troops fight on, the clock for handing over sovereignty to the Iraqis ticks ever closer to June 30, and both anti- and pro-war factions continue whistling different tunes in the dark. Even Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said it was “not a pretty picture”—which might be the understatement of the year.
One issue this breakdown in discipline in Iraq raises is the question of whistle-blowers. The official Army report by Major General Antonio M. Taguba began the unraveling, but the courageous action of Army Specialist Joseph M. Darby busted the case wide open when he gave a CD-ROM containing the incriminating photographs to investigators. Darby was courageous, as America has not always treated whistle-blowers kindly. What we have seen is a tendency in our culture to shun if not punish whistle-blowers for “doing what was right.” An egregious and tragic example is the case of Karen Silkwood in 1974 which ended in her alleged murder for attempting to blow the whistle on safety and health infractions at the Kerr-McGee plutonium fuel-production plant in Crescent, Oklahoma. Only time will tell how Darby will fare.
CBS’s 60 Minutes recently ran a story about a famous whistle-blower from the Vietnam era which involved the My Lai massacre. On March 16, 1968, Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson flew his helicopter and crew into the midst of the massacre and rescued civilian men, women, and children being indiscriminately slaughtered by U.S. troops. He later reported the atrocity to field commanders and thus forced at least some of the miscreants to be brought to justice. After being shunned for decades by his peers, Thompson was recently admitted to the Aviation Hall of Fame for his bravery on that March morning in Vietnam. In his book Flower of the Dragon: The Breakdown of the U.S. Army in Vietnam, journalist Richard Boyle described the massacre this way: “My Lai was not the act of one man ... it was the result of an ordered campaign ... conceived at high command levels to teach a lesson to the villagers of Quang Ngai Province.” It was one man and his crew who risked their lives to bring justice to the situation.
Coincidentally, it was Seymour Hersh who also broke the My Lai massacre story thirty-six years ago.
Closer to home, retired National Park Wilderness Ranger Jim Walters of Santa Fe is doing his share of whistle-blowing about the loss of wilderness areas in our National Park System.
Under the influence of early twentieth-century figures such as President Theodore Roosevelt and onetime Albuquerque resident Aldo Leopold, America slowly became conscious of the decimation of wild nature across the country. These energies for the wild culminated in the 1964 Wilderness Act, which strove to set aside wilderness areas before industry, development, and the exploding human population turned America into the proverbial parking lot at Disneyland. As recently reported in The New Mexican, Walters cites longtime neglect by the National Park Service regarding the preservation of wild areas. He notes that the NPS has evaded action by dwelling on feckless discussions about what “wilderness” is, and has allowed the forces of development to triumph over the intended aims of the Wilderness Act, which attempts to preserve areas of wild nature—without roads, vehicles, helicopters, and recreational amenities for nature-savaging tourists—so that the native ecology can exist.
Let us hope our wilderness is not the victim of a massacre by “an ordered campaign conceived at high command levels” to eradicate the last vestiges of wild nature in America. “The wild” is essential to our human wholeness and survival as a part of the natural community.