It was a bizarre kind of "friendly fire," one where not a single "friendly" life was directly lost. Yet it was still one of the worst setbacks in U.S. military history. Although the enemy gained not a single inch of ground, the joint force commander, lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, characterized the outcome as "clearly a defeat"1 for his forces. Few dispute that the events at Abu Ghraib inflicted operational effects just as damaging as any combat-imposed loss.
The highly-publicized reports of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal2 energized the Iraqi insurgency and eroded vital domestic and coalition support. Most damaging was the negative reaction of ordinary Iraqis, a constituency whose backing is essential to strategic success. A 2004 poll found that 54% of them believed all Americans behave like those alleged to have taken part in the abuse.3 So adverse were the strategic consequences that it is no overstatement to say that Americans—and will continue to die—as an indirect result of this disciplinary catastrophe.