The humiliation, abuse, torture and perhaps even murder of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. and British forces have enormous implications—if the American and British publics choose not to deny them. In the “us” versus “them” climate that wars often bring, however, excusing or downplaying abuses by “our team” is quite common. In the current Iraq prison scandal, many American newspapers—including the flagship New York Times—buried the shocking photos of Iraqi prisoners being humiliated and tortured in their interior pages. American newspapers and media outlets, conscious of the bottom-line, know that their readers and viewers feel uncomfortable when being exposed to gross misconduct by “Team USA,” especially when many prisoners should already have been released in accordance with the Fourth Geneva Convention. A U.S. Army report noted that more than 60 percent of the civilian inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison were deemed to be no threat to society. Unfortunately for the Anglo-American war cause, the rest of the world’s newspapers and media outlets showcased the story of prisoner abuse rather than burying it.

The British and American governments attempted to quell the uproar by deeming the abuse an isolated incident among the many valiant Anglo-American military men and women of high ethical standards. But Brigadier General Mark Kimmit, the spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, said that he couldn’t rule out such abuses in other U.S.-operated prisons in Iraq. After all, the entire Iraqi prison system was supervised by one person—Brigadier General Janis Karpinsky—who was relieved of her command by the Army. And undoubtedly U.S. military intelligence and CIA interrogators frequented most or all of the prisons—trolling for information that would be of help furthering the counterinsurgency.

Seymour Hersh, a journalist who exposed the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and has investigated the abuses in Iraq’s prisons for the New Yorker, concluded, “The 372nd’s [a reserve military police unit] abuse of prisoners seemed almost routine—a fact of Army life that the soldiers felt no need to hide.” Hersh’s statement is dramatically illustrated by the photos taken of Iraqi prisoners being tortured and humiliated. It was conscientious British soldiers who gave photos to the British press of their fellow soldiers beating an Iraqi prisoner with rifle butts. The soldiers said that the horrific treatment of Iraqi prisoners was widespread, and that the coalition was fighting a losing war because of the fierce opposition such abuse generated in Iraq. Now the photos have circled the globe, acting as a magnet to recruit jihadists—inflamed by the sexually explicit humiliation of prisoners in a conservative Islamic culture—to the fight in Iraq.

For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume that the U.S. and British governments are correct that the Abu Ghraib incident is an aberration, not the rule. Are the top echelons of the U.S. and British governments absolved of guilt? Quite the contrary. In any unnecessary war, the leaders of the attacking side are morally responsible for all deaths in the enemy military: accidental killings of civilians (the military euphemism is “collateral damage”) as well as abuses by rogue elements of those same groups toward enemy prisoners. The military leaders set up the situation in which the deaths and abuse occurred.

And there is little doubt that this war was unnecessary. After no “weapons of mass destruction” were found and allegations arose that the Bush administration had twisted and exaggerated intelligence to make its case for war, the administration’s changing emphasis on its justifications for the invasion should be a hint that the invasion of Iraq was a “war of choice”—a euphemism for an unnecessary war. Already, the sins of this quagmire are many. The moral bankruptcy of torturing and abusing Iraqi prisoners, many of whom may have done nothing wrong, can be added to the ever-growing pile.