Abu Ghraib

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

If you can't manage the people, manage the information. If you can't do either, apologize and tear down the building.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the brilliant pulp novelist Philip K. Dick described a test used to distinguish androids from humans. The test was based on the general rule that humans would have reactions of horror or disgust to images that wouldn't bother androids.

Abu Ghraib is such a test. It can be said to puncture the routine history of its times--the running narrative of battles, troop movements, presidential statements, political regroupings and suicide attacks which is the history of the second Iraq war. Abu Ghraib stands above and behind this history, shattering the unexamined assumptions made by the people who recount history and those who listen to it.

That Abu Ghraib happened tells a lot about us. How you read Abu Ghraib tells me a lot about you.

How Abu Ghraib came about is actually the less interesting part. In one sense, Abu Ghraib always happens. Abu Ghraib is the norm; the interesting thing is that we think it is the exception.

When I was a teenager, the uncle of a friend was a Korean war veteran. He told me after My Lai that he had witnessed a similar massacre there, and he described it to me in some detail. I chose not to believe him. To me, naive as it sounds, Korea, like World War II, was a good war, and Vietnam the first evil American war. Years later, I read accounts of the No Gun Ri massacre of South Korean civilians by American troops.

In Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers, the account of one American paratroop unit from D-day through the conquest of Germany, Ambrose recounts (without any editorializing) the story of three U.S. soldiers sent by their commander to assassinate a Nazi hiding on a nearby farm. Germany has already surrendered, and the man, when they find him, is unarmed and offers no resistance. When he understands he is about to be killed, he begins to run. One of the soldiers is unable to shoot, but the other two do, killing the target.

I know a number for the German women raped by Soviet troops after the fall of Berlin--one million-- but I have no idea of the number raped by Americans, as no-one had an interest in keeping track, any more than we do of the amount of Iraqi civilian casualties today. In Catch-22, Joseph Heller wrote of a soldier who raped and murdered an Italian woman and faced no consequences. Based solely on fifty years of reading the newspaper and observing human nature, it is easy to believe that American soldiers, like those of any other nation, occasionally abused prisoners, raped women, and killed civilians, purposefully or carelessly, in every war, including the good ones; it is also easy to believe that commanding officers, even those who did not do such things themselves, would turn a blind eye through laziness, or fear of being held responsible, or even from a misguided compassion for the perpetrators. If you cannot manage the people, manage the information. This isn't hard to do. In Vietnam, every dead civilian was designated a Viet Cong. In Iraq, as in Afghanistan or Israel, every bombed and strafed wedding party is a mujahedeen encampment.

Rape and murder are "the trilling wire in the blood", and continue wherever there are humans. It is a baseline, and you can have a little less or a lot more of it, depending on your management of people. Abu Ghraib is not Auschwitz, but they are on distant parts of the same spectrum. If you have a murderous leader, you will have a lot of murder. Iraq was such a state under Saddam. If you have a careless and lawless leader, you will have more murder than you counted on. That is our situation under President Bush.

I wrote last month that the President has no concept of responsibility. I might have added that having no concept is, of course, itself a concept. A denial of causation itself is a cause. The president, or rather his handlers, set the conditions on the ground, in much the same way as Henry II rhetorically asking if no-one would rid him of the troublesome Thomas Becket.

The administration has since September 11 treated the Geneva Conventions--the only international law we have on the treatment of enemy prisoners--with extreme contempt, pugnaciously advancing specious arguments as to the reasons why the conventions don't apply to battlefield prisoners in Afghanistan and detainees at Guantanamo. In the New York Times for May 21, an article entitled "Justice Memos Explained How to Skip Prisoner Rights" details the comprehensive legal work done by eager young Justice Department attorneys to build a "legal framework for United States officials to avoid complying with international laws and treaties for handling prisoners..." These included designating them as "illegal combatants" (a category unknown under the Geneva conventions), terrorists, or fighters on behalf of a "failed state" incapable of adhering to the conventions. Another dodge recommended in these memos (and which appears to have been well-exploited by our side in dealing with Al Qaeda captives) is to deny that they were ever in American custody. If held by people who believe in and practice torture, it is not our responsbility, even if a CIA officer was in the room.

Abu Ghraib is what you get when you deny applicability of the Geneva Conventions. The president sounds like Claude Rains stating that he is "shocked, shocked" that there is torture in this establishment. Truth outbids fiction when the president speaks repeatedly of ending the rape and torture rooms in Iraq.... and then Abu Ghraib emerges like some horned pre-Columbian god rearing its head from the sea. "The beggars change places, but the lash goes on."

If you cannot manage the people, manage the information. Another interesting approach has been to deny that many of the things we do--keeping prisoners awake for days at a time while making them stand in the nude, or immersing their heads repeatedly in water--are torture. Admittedly, we are not coursing electricity through their gonads or flaying their skin off, but its still torture. Anyway, regardless of what you call it, it wouldn't be permitted in a Newark police station, and its forbidden under the Geneva Conventions.

As always, the president has powerful and influential voices arguing in his behalf in the American media. The usual right wing radio commentators are saying that the behavior at Abu Ghraib is only a sort of a fraternity prank. A caller to the Rush Limbaugh show made this assertion and Limbaugh replied, "Exactly. Exactly my point! This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation and we're going to ruin people's lives over it and we're going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time."(http://www.salon.com/politics/war_room/2004/05/06/limbaugh/) I could devote an entire essay to deconstructing this statement. The pledges allowing themselves to be stripped naked and piled in heaps in the putative Theta Beta Iota are doing so because they hope to join the frat, with its fringe benefits of beer and women. The Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib are lying in heaps or masturbating themselves because they expect to be murdered if they don't comply. Come again, Mr. Limbaugh?

It should be a danger signal to most rational people when we are forced to start engaging in factual relativistic arguments, especially because these are so rapidly exploded by events. "We're not murdering anybody." Well, oops, sir, actually we have these several unexplained violent deaths in Afghanistan and at Abu Ghraib, like the Iraqi general with his head in a sack who slumped over during interrogation....Reinforced by these awful photographs of bruised corpses on ice...."Well, we're not murdering nearly as many people as the other side would." These kinds of downwardly spiraling arguments inevitably end in, "We're Americans," which is an unanswerable argument based on an irrational American exceptionalism akin to fanatical faith. Since the Al Qaeda types believe they can kill women and children because they are doing so for God, it ends in our irrational faith against theirs. Since arguments for moral superiority are much stronger when based on actual principles such as "we will observe the Geneva Conventions no matter how terrible the provocation from the other side," I feel that President Bush and his handlers have left us rather thin on the ground.

Some of the other arguments which you usually hear are nonstarters in Abu Ghraib. Many of the detainees seem to have been civilans there by accident (this is what happens when you are not required to offer detainees the presumption of innocence or any legal process). They had no information to offer but in some cases, undoubtedly made some up, illustrating the general inefficiency of torture, where the interrogator can end up more confused than when he started. (Not only a crime, as Talleyrand said when Napoleon assassinated the Duc D'Enghien, but also a mistake.) So it couldn't be said that the detainees were evil-doers who " had it coming", which is the most commonly felt, though less often stated, justification for rule-breaking by soldiers and police. Nor can we invoke the ticking bomb theory ("if I didn't torture this suspect, hundreds would have died"). In fact, most of the shocking treatment portrayed in the Abu Ghraib photos doesn't seem to be for any objective other than the sadistic enjoyment of Specialist Graner, Private England and their friends.

Another lesson of Abu Ghraib is the relative normality of the people who piled detainees in heaps and jumped on them. Graner looks a little wired, England looks tough but rather sympathetic. Another woman photographed with tormented detainees has a wide, friendly smile and gentler face than Lynndie England. These are not mutant-Nazi-robots-bred-in-special-underground-factories. They are us or at least the people around us. The ultimate lesson of Abu Ghraib, like that of Auschwitz, is that when everyone is torturing and killing, most of us will go with the flow. We are herd animals, complacent and very oriented to the behavior of the most powerful members of the herd.

We might never know about Abu Ghraib if not for the near-universality of cell phone cameras (since forbidden by the Army). So the role of technology is an interesting one--the ease with which pictures are taken and transmitted over the Internet without any need for film or chemical development. But more interesting still is the environment in which these soldiers thought it amusing to take these pictures and pass them around, without any fear of consequences.

It was widely understood on the Internet and in media outside the U.S. that Iraqi women had also been raped at Abu Ghraib. People who know about porn analyzed many of the photos circulating and said they were fake: the people and poses were too obvious, the uniforms and weapons inaccurate. There was one photo, of a frightened woman in Arabic dress with a soldier's genitals in her face, which everyone agreed was probably authentic. I have not yet seen any mention of this in the United States media, even though we were promised "much worse" revelations. I continue to believe that all American media has made a deal with the administration not to disclose certain unpleasant information. This deal is however unraveling, or at least continuously being revised. Until a few weeks ago, the papers never showed the coffins of dead soldiers or their funerals, or discussed the lives or families of the deceased. In today's New York Times, there is an article about a soldier who died on patrol, with a picture of his wife and mother hugging and crying at his funeral. I am an optimist and would like to believe that this is progress, however small and incremental, toward truth.

What do we do about Abu Ghraib? On an immediate level, it has already had its effects--Presidential maneuvering and backpedaling, courtmartials and rules against cameras, commentary by the chattering class, and maybe at least a brief popular revulsion and heart-felt migration towards Geneva. On the half-dreaming level on which we legislate the things of the heart, or rather on which the tidal movements take place whose ripples are that legislation, it will be forgotten, as My Lai was. What better people we would be if we could put Abu Ghraib in our pocket, and be reminded of it at least once a day, whenever we have our wallets out.