Abu Ghraib



The Enemy Within

Abu Ghraib was one of Saddam Hussein’s worst prisons. 

In June 2003, at the age of fifty, Janis Karpinski, an Army reserve brigadier general, was named commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade and put in charge of military prisons in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib.  Prior to that she ran grueling executive training programs for those who wanted to scale the corporate ladder. Now relieved of command, she is back home on Daufuskie Island, just below Hilton Head, in South Carolina, while her lieutenant colonel husband, George, serves at the U. S. embassy in Oman. 

One cannot know Mrs. George Karpinski’s heart or what she knew and when she knew it.  She claims to be completely innocent, and she may well be.  There were officers in the Third Reich who claimed the same thing.  Finally, there is no true justice until the Lord comes:  “Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.” (1 Corinthians 4:5.)

The story of Abu Ghraib is a particularly gruesome one, especially the photographs.   They remind me of a warning that our Lord gave:  “. . . An hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God.” (John 16:2.)  One aspect of total depravity is that humankind lost more than a gift of super-added grace (donum superadditum) in the Fall; in the Fall, we lost our capacity to reason rightly.  We deceive others because we first deceive ourselves. 

An aspect of this includes the impact of our peers:  our consciences have a chameleon like quality; apart from a Holy Spirit induced commitment to God’s Law in Christ, we take on the moral color of those around us.  This story profoundly illustrates that truth.  One of America’s first great terrorists, William Tecumseh Sherman, said, “War is Hell.”  He was right.  War changes people . . . The winners no less than the losers—maybe the winners more than the losers.  What would turn ordinary American and British young people into monsters?  It is the hell of war . . . Of war, where you see your comrades betrayed and brutally killed . . . Of war in the Middle East, where the killer may be a little child.

The on going story about Abu Ghraib reminds me of why all of us need regularly to pray the Lord’s Prayer.  Among other things, there we plead, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:13.) 

Many years ago I first read Deuteronomy 28 with seeing eyes and an open heart. 

“Because of the suffering that your enemy will inflict on you during the siege, you will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of the sons and daughters the LORD your God has given you. Even the most gentle and sensitive man among you will have no compassion on his own brother or the wife he loves or his surviving children, and he will not give to one of them any of the flesh of his children that he is eating. It will be all he has left because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege of all your cities. The most gentle and sensitive woman among you—so sensitive and gentle that she would not venture to touch the ground with the sole of her foot—will begrudge the husband she loves and her own son or daughter the afterbirth from her womb and the children she bears. For she intends to eat them secretly during the siege and in the distress that your enemy will inflict on you in your cities.” (Deuteronomy 28:53-57.)

These warnings were made, not to heathen people who lived in defiance of God, outside the pale of the covenant; they were addressed to people who were part of the community of those who call on the name of the LORD.  And they were not addressed merely to the dregs of Israelite society; they were issued also to the crème de la crème:  Paul Harris Fellows of the Rotary Club, patronesses of the Junior League, “saintly” older ministers and the cultured and refined teachers whom people so admire . . . the “most gentle and sensitive . . . among you.”

History testifies that these dreadful warnings literally came true repeatedly in the experience of the Jewish people; this was true not only at the fall of Samaria and the two falls of Jerusalem, but at other times as well, such as during the Syrian siege of Samaria in the ninth century before Christ:  ‘Then he asked her, “What’s the matter?”  She answered, “This woman said to me, ‘Give up your son so we may eat him today, and tomorrow we’ll eat my son.’ So we cooked my son and ate him. The next day I said to her, ‘Give up your son so we may eat him,’ but she had hidden him.” (2 Kings 6:28, 29.)

When I sit in judgment of others, I need to see myself as potentially doing the same things that others have done, be they the Nazis who ran the death camps or the monsters of the various Russian state security agencies, from the Okhrana to the Cheka, the NKVD and the KGB, lest I become like them and do what they have done.  Without the grace of God, we will always return evil for evil, until finally we become so colored by evil that the objective observer can discern no real difference between us and the monsters we stalk. (Romans 12:14-21; 1 Peter 3:9, “Not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing.”) 

We do become like those we hate, don’t we?  In Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians, is there not at least something reminiscent of the Nazis?  Of course, there is much reminiscent of the Nazis in the actions of many Arabs toward the Jews as well, but if my life is framed and defined by the bitterness of the past, do not my enemies become the model by which my life is shaped, even if that model passed into history over a half century ago? 

“The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’”  (Luke 18:10-12.)

The problem with the Pharisee who prayed in the Temple was not that he did not attribute his moral goodness to God—he gave God the glory, afterall—it was his failure to recognize the plague that was present within him.  The bottom line was that he failed to comprehend that he was no different than the man beside him who “would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast.” 

As I hear the confessions of people, I try always to remember that I am no more deserving God’s grace and forgiveness than they are, that, indeed, the only difference in me and them is that God has not allowed the seeds of the same corruption to grow up in my life the way those seeds have sprouted in others. 

This has been sorely tested, like the time that a man came into my office and confessed to raping a child.  My flesh was revulsed as this loathsome creature spewed his broken story about sodomizing his step son.  But the Holy Spirit reminded me of a great truth:  never say, “I would never do something like that.”  When my pride belches such words, I am inviting God to withdraw his hedge so that Satan can demonstrate the seeds that lie within me, too.  I must not merely confess, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  I must confess that “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing.” (Romans 7:18.) 

As I humbled myself before God, I found the man before me to have been created in the image of God—a gnarled and broken image, to be sure, but the image of God, nevertheless.  He carried out what his own father had done to him, and he had been a soldier in the United States Army, gang raped by his fellow enlisted men.  My interaction with him reminded me of Spurgeon’s words:  “There is tinder enough in the saint who is nearest to heaven to kindle another hell if God should but permit a spark to fall upon it. In the very best of men, there is an infernal and well-nigh infinite depth of depravity.”

His account and the still developing story from Abu Ghraib, remind us that our only hope of continuing to live as a civilized people is the good providence of God:  “The scepter of the wicked will not remain over the land allotted to the righteous, for then the righteous might use their hands to do evil.” (Psalm 125:3.)  “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13.)

In the masterly brief exposition of the Lord’s Prayer contained in The Westminster Larger Catechism, we find these words at Answer 195*:

“. . . We, even after the pardon of our sins, by reason of our corruption, weakness, and want of watchfulness, are not only subject to be tempted, and forward to expose ourselves unto temptations, but also of ourselves unable and unwilling to resist them, to recover out of them, and to improve them; and worthy to be left under the power of them . . .” 

So, I do not sit in self-righteous judgment of monsters; I cry out for God to spare our troops from the seductive power of war.  War is seductive, is it not?  It was that most civilized general, Robert E. Lee of hagiographic memory, who said at Fredericksburg, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”  Fast-forwarding a bit over one hundred, sixty years later, one finds General Lee’s confession confirmed by another American general: “Actually it’s quite fun to fight ‘em, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right up front with you, I like brawling . . . You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil . . . You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.” Lieutenant General James Mattis (Commander of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command at Quantico, Virginia. General Mattis led troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and made these comments in San Diego on February 1, 2005.)

And as I read of Abu Ghraib with its inevitable cover ups and blame shifting, I look back to Genesis 3:10-13 and trace the footprints of our first parents.  Then I humbly plead the words of the ancient Pater Noster:  “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.” (Matthew 6:9-13.)

Bob Vincent

* “In the sixth petition (which is, And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,) acknowledging, that the most wise, righteous, and gracious God, for divers holy and just ends, may so order things, that we may be assaulted, foiled, and for a time led captive by temptations; that Satan, the world, and the flesh, are ready powerfully to draw us aside, and ensnare us; and that we, even after the pardon of our sins, by reason of our corruption, weakness, and want of watchfulness, are not only subject to be tempted, and forward to expose ourselves unto temptations, but also of ourselves unable and unwilling to resist them, to recover out of them, and to improve them; and worthy to be left under the power of them: we pray, that God would so overrule the world and all in it, subdue the flesh, and restrain Satan, order all things, bestow and bless all means of grace, and quicken us to watchfulness in the use of them, that we and all his people may by his providence be kept from being tempted to sin; or, if tempted, that by his Spirit we may be powerfully supported and enabled to stand in the hour of temptation; or when fallen, raised again and recovered out of it, and have a sanctified use and improvement thereof: that our sanctification and salvation may be perfected, Satan trodden under our feet, and we fully freed from sin, temptation, and all evil, forever.”