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Posted: 5/7/2004 3:46:30 AM EST
Again, The Belmont Club. The only thing I know about this man is that he's a Filipino, and he lives in Australia. He is brilliant.

Abu Ghraib

It wasn't till I got to the center of Jolo town in the late 1980s, some days after the fight between Mayor Saud Tan and Vice Governor Kimar Tulawie of Sulu that I became aware of the scale of the damage. There was a burned out area measuring about 1,000 x 1,500 meters that had been reduced to a flat stretch of blackened timber, twisted galvanized iron sheeting and pools of water. The hospital where I stood was on a hill, and therefore seized by Tulawie's men first. They had set up a mortar in the courtyard and machineguns in the windows where they could overlook the mayor's house 800 meters downrange. The doctors related, with a finely honed appreciation for the absurd, how the panicked patients had jumped out of the windows some still clutching bottles of dextrose hooked up to their veins, and scampered for their lives, the halt overtaking the lame. Tulawie's men found the range by walking the shells up to the Mayor's house, which in Jolo is another name for a fortification, and in the process set fire to the shantytown whose ruins stretched out before me. Two or three dozen people died, more than half a square mile burned out, and it didn't even rate a newspaper story in the capital of Manila. It didn't matter: the dead were buried and the warlords reached a modus vivendi .

A year later I ran into then Mayor Herminio (Miniong) Montebon in Isabela, Basilan (rent Gary Cooper's The Real Glory, a Moro war movie set exactly there) who idly recounted how some of the inland rebels, the precursors of the Abu Sayaf, had picked the previous Christmas Eve to launch a 300 man attack on the town market. On the morning of the attack Montebon was making the final arrangement for the noodles, sandwiches and watery pineapple juice that is the standard holiday fare for a provincial fete, when an informant breathlessly ran up to him to say that the town would be attacked in two hours. Monteban raced to the Army detachment and barely had time to persuade a Captain, the Colonel being absent, to take a company to the market with a V-150 armored reconnaissance vehicle in support where they ran headlong into the attackers. It was a meeting engagement and all hell broke loose. Montebon remembers thinking, as the gunner fired an M2 .50 above him just how easily the bullets went through the plywood walls and stalls of that poor provincial town.

But that was definitely before I took some time out to help a Muslim mayor of an island municipality in the Tawi-tawi archipelago find some pipes for a water system he hoped to build. We boarded an outrigger in Bongao town and headed out until the extinct volcano that rose behind the provincial capitol had slid into the sea. Once out of sight of land, the firearms came out of the gunwales, insurance against pirates, who waylaid outriggers for their two stroke engines, but not before throwing their occupants into the sea where they would be shot, or more commonly, lacerated with barongs and left to the sharks. He was a gem of man, the sort of person a good Muslim really aspires to be, who didn't smoke, drink or swear and who gave a tithe to his charities. We beached just before nightfall with other outriggers on a stretch of coast protected by reefs, where, to strong coffee and fresh fried rice flour pastries, we planned out the waterworks on a map while women and children, his relatives all, cooked and watched a Michael Jackson video on a set powered by a gasoline generator. The next morning we walked across his island municipality to the dam site, and as it was a peaceful sunny day, had but four men with FN rifles preceding us. Sometimes we'd pass a group of deserted palm thatch houses abandoned along the coast, their push-up shutters still held open by bamboo props. In response to my queries the Muslim mayor would only say that the former occupants had a dispute with some other residents and had "moved on".

There were certain matters one didn't press. Another time in Jolo, the day's news consisted of the doings of another Mayor on the eastern coast who had offered to settle a long standing dispute with a rival clan. He invited them to a conciliatory get-together as a symbol of renewed friendship and his rivals duly came in their smuggling boats, twin-screw jobs with double Japanese truck engines, built for skating over reefs, decked out in the best that the Gaisano Bazaar could offer. But as they clambered onto the pier they were shot down to a man by two 30 caliber machineguns which the mayor had sited to enfilade the wharf. The mayor, whose motto was evidently 'waste not, want not' went among the still quivering bodies and looted the dying of their watches and wallets, content that he had solved the clan rivalry for good. There were certain things you didn't ask, because you might meet the same mayor at Alavar's that night for a crab dinner at the table next to the Roman Catholic bishop.

My first thoughts at the news of the Abu Ghraib abuses, the Taguba Report and the Presidential mea culpa which followed was whether posterity would recall the incident in the same way the Christmas Truce in the first year of the Great War is remembered today. The last grasp at enforcing civilized standards of conduct before the brutality of the trenches coarsened men completely. The fraternization of that first December so alarmed the generals that "special precautions were taken during the Christmases of 1915, 1916 and 1917, even to the extent of actually stepping up artillery bombardments" to prevent its recurrence.

The brass didn't have to worry: it was never to be repeated. After the Somme in the following year, infantrymen on both sides filed saw-teeth into their bayonets to make the thrusts more painful. The history which remembers the Second World War as 'the Good War' forgets how four years of fighting transformed Allies that refused to bomb German cities in 1940 into those that planned thousand plane raids on Hamburg and Dresden in 1945 to rain incendiaries on tens of thousands of Western Europeans as policy. There were no reprimands, only medals, for the B-29 crews that incinerated 100,000 civilians in Tokyo in the raid of March 9, 1945. And the sad balance of probability is that Abu Ghraib will be displaced from the front pages by the next terrorist outrage, the next Bali, the next Madrid, the next 9/11 until we find ourselves wondering why it upset us at all.

While it is important to punish everyone responsible for the outrages at Abu Ghraib, the only effective way to stop the corrupting influences of war is to achieve victory. Japanese tourists are welcome in Asia everywhere today because the Second World War ended in 1945. And if by contrast Palestinians hand out sweets whenever a Jewish orphanage and Old Folk's home is bombed it may be because the UN refugee camps there celebrated their 50th anniversary in 1998. If the outrages at Abu Ghraib hasten the end of war it will not have been in vain, but if they lead, as the Left most earnestly desires, to a Vietnam-like stalemate, it will be not the last but the first of many sad mileposts.

The months after Marcos fell, with the help of Paul Wolfowitz, were a time of goodbyes, many between friends whose real names were being revealed for the first time. And in a small late-night restaurant in a back street, a small man in steel rimmed glasses told me, over fifteen cent beer, how he had attended a party given by some academic types the night before. They turned the evening into Commie-fest and gathered round someone he knew slightly as a minor functionary in the Red guerilla army in the expectation of edifying stories from the dark years. He was an ex-seminarian, quiet and softly spoken, who told them about his first mission to eliminate a Marcos informer somewhere in a village in southern Luzon. They forced the informer down from his thatch hut one evening, and to save money and avoid the noise of gunfire, cut his throat at the doorstep of his own home. The seminarian was given the honors and he remembered sawing the knife against the informer's windpipe. What struck him most of all, was the rubbery resistance of the cartilage and cries of the informer's children. 'Papa! Papa!' It took a long time to cut though his throat. Before the story was over all the academic bravos had slunk off, retreating like Daisy Buchanan into the 'vast carelessness' of their fantasy world, leaving the man in steel rimmed glasses to drink with the ex-seminarian, ironically improving the company.

One day Ted Koppel will read, in addition to the names of American soldiers who died in Iraq, the names of friends who will have died in another attack on New York. One day Nicholas de Genovea, the Columbia professor who called for a "million Mogadishus" will understand that it means a billion dead Muslims. And then for the first time, perhaps, they will understand the horror of Abu Ghraib while we all raise our glasses, sardonically like Robert Graves, "with affection, to the men we used to be".
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