From Iraq Prison Show We Are Our Own Worst Enemy,
by Philip Kennicott, Wahington Post Staff Writer -
5th May 2004
(Credit: The Washington Post & The Iraq Foundation)
Among the corrosive lies a nation at war tells itself
is that the glory -- the lofty goals announced beforehand,
the victories, the liberation of the oppressed --
belongs to the country as a whole; but the failure
-- the accidents, the uncounted civilian dead, the
crimes and atrocities -- is always exceptional. Noble
goals flow naturally from a noble people; the occasional
act of barbarity is always the work of individuals,
unaccountable, confusing and indigestible to the national
kind of thinking was widely in evidence among military
and political leaders after the emergence of pictures
documenting American abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu
Ghraib prison. These photographs do not capture the
soul of America, they argued. They are aberrant.
belief, that the photographs are distortions, despite
their authenticity, is indistinguishable from propaganda.
Tyrants censor; democracies self-censor. Tyrants concoct
propaganda in ministries of information; democracies
produce it through habits of thought so ingrained
that a basic lie of war -- only the good is our doing
-- becomes self-propagating.
now we have photos that have gone to the ends of the
Earth, and painted brilliantly and indelibly, an image
of America that could remain with us for years, perhaps
decades. An Army investigative report reveals that
we have stripped young men (whom we purported to liberate)
of their clothing and their dignity; we have forced
them to make pyramids of flesh, as if they were children;
we have made them masturbate in front of their captors
and cameras; forced them to simulate sexual acts;
threatened prisoners with rape and sodomized at least
one; beaten them; and turned dogs upon them.
are now images of men in the Muslim world looking
at these images. On the streets of Cairo, men pore
over a newspaper. An icon appears on the front page:
a hooded man, in a rug-like poncho, standing with
his arms out like Christ, wires attached to the hands.
He is faceless. This is now the image of the war.
In this country, perhaps it will have some competition
from the statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled. Everywhere
else, everywhere America is hated (and that's a very
large part of this globe), the hooded, wired, faceless
man of Abu Ghraib is this war's new mascot.
American leaders' response is a mixture of public
disgust, and a good deal of resentment that they have,
through these images, lost control of the ultimate
image of the war. All the right people have pronounced
themselves, sickened, outraged, speechless. But listen
more closely. "And it's really a shame that just
a handful can besmirch maybe the reputations of hundreds
of thousands of our soldiers and sailors, airmen and
Marines. . . . " said Gen. Richard B. Myers,
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Sunday.
image, perception. The problem, it seems, isn't so
much the abuse of the prisoners, because we will get
to the bottom of that and, of course, we're not really
like that. The problem is our reputation. Our soldiers'
reputations. Our national self-image. These photos,
we insist, are not us.
these photos are us. Yes, they are the acts of individuals
(though the scandal widens, as scandals almost inevitably
do, and the military's own internal report calls the
abuse "systemic"). But armies are made of
individuals. Nations are made up of individuals. Great
national crimes begin with the acts of misguided individuals;
and no matter how many people are held directly accountable
for these crimes, we are, collectively, responsible
for what these individuals have done. We live in a
democracy. Every errant smart bomb, every dead civilian,
every sodomized prisoner, is ours.
more. Perhaps this is just a little cancer that crept
into the culture of the people running Abu Ghraib
prison. But stand back. Look at the history. Open
up to the hard facts of human nature, the lessons
of the past, the warning signs of future abuses.
photos show us what we may become, as occupation continues,
anger and resentment grows and costs spiral. There's
nothing surprising in this. These pictures are pictures
of colonial behavior, the demeaning of occupied people,
the insult to local tradition, the humiliation of
the vanquished. They are unexceptional. In different
forms, they could be pictures of the Dutch brutalizing
the Indonesians; the French brutalizing the Algerians;
the Belgians brutalizing the people of the Congo.
at these images closely and you realize that they
can't just be the random accidents of war, or the
strange, inexplicable perversity of a few bad seeds.
First of all, they exist. Soldiers who allow themselves
to be photographed humiliating prisoners clearly don't
believe this behavior is unpalatable. Second, the
soldiers didn't just reach into a grab bag of things
they thought would humiliate young Iraqi men. They
chose sexual humiliation, which may recall to outsiders
the rape scandal at the Air Force Academy, Tailhook
and past killings of gay sailors and soldiers.
it an accident that these images feel so very much
like the kind of home made porn that is traded every
day on the Internet? That they capture exactly the
quality and feel of the casual sexual decadence that
so much of the world deplores in us?
it an accident that the man in the hood, arms held
out as if on a cross, looks so uncannily like something
out of the Spanish Inquisition? That they have the
feel of history in them, a long, buried, ugly history
of religious aggression and discrimination?
both are accidents, meaningless accidents of photographs
that should never have seen the light of day. But
they will not be perceived as such elsewhere in the
editorial reaction is vehement. We are under the suspicion
of the International Red Cross and Amnesty International.
"US military power will be seen for what it is,
a behemoth with the response speed of a muscle-bound
ox and the limited understanding of a mouse,"
said Saudi Arabia's English language Arab News.
reduce Iraqis to hapless victims of a cheap porn flick;
they reduce our cherished, respected military to a
hybrid beast, big, stupid, senseless.
year, Joel Turnipseed published "Baghdad Express,"
a memoir of the first Gulf War. In it, he remembers
an encounter with Iraqi prisoners. A staff sergeant
is explaining to the men the rules of the Geneva Convention.
. . . What that means, in plain English, is 'Don't
feed the animals' and 'Don't put your hand in the
then, the author explains, the soldiers proceed to
break the rules. The ox thinks like a mouse.
vanquished were now vanquishing me," wrote Turnipseed,
quite 50 years ago, Aime Cesaire, a poet and writer
from Martinique, wrote in his "Discourse on Colonialism":
"First we must study how colonization works to
decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the
true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken
him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence,
race hatred, and moral relativism."
we decivilized yet? Are we brutes yet? Of course not,
say our leaders.
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Different things to different people, by Greg Tingle