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Our POWs deserve compensation, too

If the administration wants to compensate Iraqi prisoners, it can't continue to deny money to U.S. soldiers tortured by Saddam.

In Secretary Rumsfeld’s testimony last week, he said the administration is seeking a way to provide appropriate compensation to the abused Iraqi prisoners. “It’s the right thing to do,” Rumsfeld said.

It is the right thing to do, and on its face, it makes good sense. Compensation represents a symbol of our sorrow and shame to the families of the victims and the Arab world as a whole. As I’ve said on many occasions, we’re supposed to be better. We’re supposed to be helping them create a society that reflects the elevated values of a democracy. One that eradicates the brutality known under Saddam’s reign.

But if these abused detainees are going to be paid for their suffering, how can the administration justify fighting 17 U.S. POWs who won a huge verdict against Saddam for the torture and suffering they endured in the 1991 Gulf War? A judge awarded them nearly $1 billion in damages to be paid from $1.7 billion in frozen Iraqi funds, but a change in the law led the judge to rescind his initial order. Now on appeal, the administration continues to argue that the frozen funds should go to rebuilding Iraq instead and, it now seems, to paying Iraqi victims of abuse as well.

Our soldiers endured beatings, burning, starvation, mock executions and castrations. They, too, should be guaranteed compensation. They’re not going to get anywhere near $1 billion—I think they accept that fact. But as the administration reaches out to the Iraqi victims, they must also reach out to our troops who are not just morally entitled to compensation but legally as well.

In a previous editorial, I said I don’t want to hear any “buts” when it comes to the abuses endured by the Iraqis. No “but look what they did to our troops,” no “but the investigation went well….” I attacked media apologists who tried to deflect blame and minimize this disaster. Trying to put it into context, I argued, will only prolong the pain.

But paying damages is very different from just accepting responsibility. The money is designed to send a message. It’s a message that should be sent. And we have to ensure it doesn’t send the wrong one to our own troops.