efore becoming a photographer I served in the Danish Army as a peacekeeper in Croatia and Bosnia in the mid-1990s. It was a very different conflict from Iraq--there were actual front lines, violence was only occasionally directed against the peacekeepers, and we were clearly instructed to act as guests in the region, rather than as an occupying force. Now, while I don't see the Balkan missions as a complete success, I consider them a lot more successful than Iraq, which seems to spin ever more out of control.

During the few days I was embedded with an infantry company in the Sunni Triangle during January, 2004, the American soldiers routinely violated the Geneva Conventions. I witnessed them raid a hospital with the intention of taking anybody with a gunshot wound back to the base for interrogation; I was told (but not shown) that a prisoner at the Forward Operating Base who had been shot in the abdomen would receive no medical attention unless he decided to speak.

I also witnessed the implementation of a policy called “Leave No Refuge,” aimed at destroying the houses of suspected highway hijackers. In the process of finding those houses, the soldiers raided literally every house in the village. They forced villagers to do push-ups, just for the fun of it or to extract information. I saw them kick in villagers' doors and offer their kids teddy bears confiscated in earlier raids as compensation.

At times it was truly absurd, as when they used 8 TOW missiles (at an estimated $20,000 each) as well as hundreds of rounds of other ammunition, to destroy the empty houses of two of the suspected hijackers.

The US forces have not had an easy time figuring out the response to an insurgency they never really expected and hadn't prepared for. While it is unrealistic to think that the US forces will leave Iraq anytime soon, it is essential that this administration comes clean and offers a different strategy than the one that brought us the Abu Ghraib pictures.

As much as rules to live by, the Geneva Conventions can also be seen as limits of acceptable behavior: not only constraints for the benefit of the vanquished, but guidelines for the victors that prevent them from becoming mortal enemies to be avenged, rather than the nameless, faceless professionals who have to wage a war that has been decided elsewhere. As an eyewitness, I can report that the transgression of the Geneva Conventions unfortunately has contributed to a state of affairs where the Americans have ceased fighting a limited military war and are now waging a cultural battle that completely alienates the civilian population.

I know a little bit about what it feels like when the boundaries of civil behavior are crossed. For eight long days during the invasion of Iraq, I became a prisoner of Saddam Hussein’s regime at Abu Ghraib, along with three other journalists and a peace activist. We were never harmed physically, but heard and saw other prisoners being abused on a daily basis, and feared for our lives. We were lucky enough to be released on April 1, 2003. A week later, on the day when American troops first rolled into Baghdad, the prisoners in our section were executed.

All photographs and text copyright © 2004 Johan Rydeng Spanner