The government of Iraq last week announced that it had padlocked the infamous prison at Abu Ghraib. The gates are closed, the inmates moved. Whether the closure is permanent or temporary — Iraqi officials suggest the latter — this ought to qualify as a notable milestone. By any measure, this ought to qualify as a notable milestone. What does it signify?
Sometimes a prison is just a building, its closure of no more significance than the demolition of a market or the shuttering of a strip mall. Yet from time to time, the closing of a facility constructed for the purpose of confining humans invites reflection. It presents an opportunity for learning.
When the United States emptied the internment camps in which it had imprisoned Japanese Americans at the beginning of World War II, U.S. officials hoped thereby to expunge from memory a shameful chapter in recent American history. Had they succeeded, a grave injustice would have gone unacknowledged. No less important, a warning about the dangers of war-induced hysteria would have been lost.
In 1986, the building in which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” fell to the wrecker’s ball. Wise heads had salvaged the door of the actual cell in which King wrote his famous letter. Now on display in a local civil rights museum, it educates visitors about the long struggle for racial equality. Perhaps it also helps citizens of Birmingham, Ala., come to terms with their past.
Alcatraz offers another example of an ex-prison bearing witness. Some years after it closed, the National Park Service came up with the idea of offering guided tours of the former federal penitentiary. The crowds flocking to this place of misery and desolation, once home to the likes of Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly, testify to the odd but enduring American affinity for renegades. Is it regard for nonconformity or something seamier that draws us to outlaws, gangsters and reprobates?
The closure of Abu Ghraib connotes something altogether different. Yet it too has much to teach.
Ten years ago, President George W. Bush vowed that the United States would close and then “demolish the Abu Ghraib prison as a fitting symbol of Iraq’s new beginning.” Replacing the prison would be something better and more humane, something that would vindicate the enterprise in which the United States was then engaged.
Bush departed public life and U.S. forces departed Iraq without fulfilling that promise, along with more than a few others.
That the Iraqi government has now done what Bush failed to do represents anything but a new beginning, however. Instead, it illustrates the ongoing collapse of the project launched in a burst of extravagant folly and then abandoned when Americans wearied and decided that they’d had enough.
Until 2003, Abu Ghraib had formed part of the apparatus that Saddam Hussein employed to terrorize Iraqis into submitting to his vision of their future. After 2003, with Hussein removed from power, it became part of the apparatus that U.S. authorities devised to coerce Iraqis into accepting Washington’s vision of their future.
Of course, the Bush administration advertised its purposes as the inverse of Hussein’s. The Iraqi dictator represented cruelty and oppression. The United States represented freedom and democracy.
More than any other single event during the Iraq war, it was the 2004 scandal at Abu Ghraib that rendered this distinction untenable. The U.S. troops who so grotesquely abused Iraqis detained there let the last of the air out of the liberation balloon.
Now the prison’s closing lays bare the full magnitude of the U.S. failure in Iraq. What moved authorities in Baghdad to act now was their fear that Sunni militants would seize Abu Ghraib. “Liberating” those held there would swell the ranks of the insurgency that is plunging Iraq back into civil war. The partial restabilization attributed to the so-called U.S. surge orchestrated in 2007-08 — subsequently styled as a “victory” — is today almost entirely undone.
The Iraqi government abandoned the prison because Iraq itself is unraveling. Of course, it is Iraqis rather than Americans who must deal with the consequences. Even so, those consequences ought to give pause to advocates of U.S. intervention in places such as Syria or Ukraine. To those who will listen, the lessons of Abu Ghraib are unmistakable.
Andrew J. Bacevich teaches at Boston University, where he is preparing a MOOC (massive open online course) on America’s War for the Greater Middle East.