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Beyond Abu Ghraib

December 21, 2007


You generally have to watch old war films on the Turner Classic Movie channel to see one in which the military is shown in a positive light. More often, the military is portrayed in movies as a large, mindless organization with questionable ethics. The scandal uncovered at the Abu Ghraib prison and all the press coverage about prisoners detained in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with limited legal rights certainly does nothing to enhance the military’s image. From my contacts with military personnel, however, I know that the military’s image is often distorted. It was, therefore, good to read a story that focuses on the positive impact that a true military professional can have when he is placed in a similar situation [“Iraq’s ‘Battlefield of the Mind’,” by Walter Pincus, Washington Post, 10 December 2007]. Pincus’ article focuses on the efforts of Marine Maj. Gen. Douglas M. Stone to improve the effectiveness of U.S.-run Iraqi detention centers.

“Marine Maj. Gen. Douglas M. Stone, commanding general of detainee operations in Iraq, is fighting what he has called ‘the battlefield of the mind.’ He has instituted extensive screening of incoming prisoners and has made available about 30 training and education courses, including religion and civics, to the 25,188 prisoners under his control.”

Stone’s approach is certainly a more enlightened one than the earlier approach that intimidated detainees with dogs and humiliated them by stripping them in front of women and other detainees.

“At a news conference, … he said that once a person is in custody at his facilities, Camp Cropper near Baghdad and Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, ‘we spend a lot of time learning about them now, studying their motivations … why they’re fighting, who they fight for — more so than we’ve ever known before.’ At Cropper and Bucca, he said, there is ‘an assessment phase, and we take 72 hours and then we work really hard on categorizations.’ Based on those assessments, which include having imams evaluate prisoners on their religious beliefs, a decision is made about where to house them in the detention facility. … Stone said the compounds are not organized by geographical areas, so most prisoners ‘don’t really know each other.’ Because extremists are ‘generally the guys that know each other … and they come in to set up kind of a gang court,’ people from the same areas are spread out across the prison.”

One of the lessons learned in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda is that the bad guys are often the best organized. In refugee camps set up in Rwanda and surrounding areas, perpetrators of the genocide used intimidation and organization to run the camps. Although detainees and refugees have different backgrounds, needs, and challenges, there are some similarities about how to deal with groups of people. A vetting process that separates the worst elements from others (in this, case insurgents) is important.


The heart of Stone’s approach is education. Conspiracy theorists will probably see some sort of Manchurian Candidate scenario being unfolded, but Stone wants people to leave his facilities better prepared to contribute to Iraq’s future.

“The courses they take, almost all of which are voluntary, include basic education, vocational training and religion. The religion course, run by one of 43 imams working on the program, lasts four days. The civics course, which each detainee must take before he is released, covers ‘why you should try to get an education — why you should try to have a job,’ Stone said. Other courses touch ‘on how you control anger, the oath of peace, the sacredness of life and property and references back to the Koran,’ he added. The demand for classes has ‘stripped’ the 150 teachers he has available. ‘I don’t change people,’ Stone said. ‘Those people or God changes them, not me, but we do set in motion the ability to have that change take place.'”

As a military professional, Stone’s first concern, of course, is security. He believes that winning the battlefield of the mind is key to making Iraq a more secure place. For him, the battle begins within the wire fences of the detention centers.

“Stone sees the overall program as working with detainees so that ‘they cannot conduct an insurgency inside the wire.’ He added that he hopes that detainees ‘someday maybe even work with us and, of course, by telling us who the bad guys are.’ One result already seen, he said, is that moderates in the prisons are identifying extremists, thus facilitating their segregation from the rest of the population. At Camp Bucca, about 1,000 extremists were identified and pulled from among the 21,000 prisoners, and ‘that made a big difference,’ he said.”

The vocational training Stone provides is important, but it will only contribute to sustainable security if accompanied by a job creation program. If people leaving detention find themselves thrust back into a situation where they have no job and no hope of getting one, they once again become part of the potential pool of insurgent recruits. I discussed this topic in more detail in the post entitled Dealing with Iraq’s Great Depression. Although the military has tried for some time to convince its political masters that creating jobs is a matter of security, policymakers have only recently seen the light. Jobs equal hope and good jobs generate self-esteem as well as people who hold a stake in the future. The projects that Enterra Solutions® is undertaking in Iraq all have job creation as one of their primary goals. Successful Iraqi companies will not generate profits for themselves but will profit the entire country. A good job is the real peace dividend for which most Iraqis are looking.

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