WHEN THE world first saw photos of the sexual abuse and humiliation of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib, apologists for the US soldiers involved minimized the incidents by noting that the prisoners might have been on leashes or menaced by dogs but were not killed. Gradually, however, military investigators and journalists learned that US troops had, in fact, killed as many as 31 detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq in cases that are confirmed or suspected homicides.
This is a stain on the reputation of the US armed services. Any hope that commanders would vigorously prosecute all such cases to deter future deaths dimmed with last week's report from the Army that officers had decided not to bring charges against 17 soldiers implicated in three prisoner deaths in Iraq. Military investigators had recommended that the 17 be prosecuted. In some other cases of detainee deaths, the military has brought charges against US servicemen.
Bush administration officials cannot ignore polls that show hostility toward it throughout much of the Islamic world despite the recent embrace by Afghanistan and Iraq of elections that US military action made possible. Critics of the United States know that democracy can lead to chaos without the rule of law. The failure to prosecute all detainee killings, as well as the extended confinement of detainees in Cuba, Afghanistan, and Iraq without protection of the Geneva Conventions or access to courts, represents a shameful breakdown in law and in the US tradition of humanitarian treatment of combat prisoners.
In one of the detainee deaths investigated by the Army, an Iraqi lieutenant colonel died of ''blunt force injuries and asphyxia" at a US base in Iraq in January of 2004. An Army official said the gagged Iraqi had been lifted to his feet by a baton held across his throat, and that this caused a throat injury that was a factor in his death. Army investigators had recommended that 11 US soldiers be prosecuted in the killing, but commanders decided that the force used was lawful ''in response to repeated aggression and misconduct by the detainee." Evidence at a full court martial might have borne out that conclusion, but it is a mistake for commanders in cases as serious as this to ignore the recommendations of investigators and exonerate the dead Iraqi's captors.
The 31 detainee deaths, the interrogation techniques described by the International Red Cross as tantamount to torture, and the Abu Ghraib abuse have been a disaster for the reputation of the United States. Bush should have long since fired those officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who permitted this to occur through vague or contradictory orders on the treatment of detainees.