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April 30, 2004

American Torture

Posted by Phil on April 30, 2004 12:04 PM

You've probably seen or heard about this by now; I had, but I hadn't seen the pictures. I'm sure there are more, but I haven't dug around. The link is to the Sydney Morning Herald (via Billmon).

The lead photo is almost theatrically chilling, a bizarre juxtaposition of high art and low crime. It looks like a scene from the Cabaret Voltaire or the stylized staging of some parable rather than a stark photo record. It's unbelievable, and almost overwhelming.

The whole story is disturbing on many levels, probably the least of which is the physical harm inflicted on the prisoners. We all know that human bodies are damaged and destroyed by war. But this is sick, twisted; evidence of dark, bestial impulses that shouldn't even arise, let alone be played out by uniformed representatives of one country upon citizens of another.

Americans should not be blind to the way this sort of psycho-sexual frat-house hooliganism flows logically from the dehumanizing aspects of war, and neither should we expect that those whom we wish to make allies will be blinded to it by our bright-lit rhetoric. This is vile behavior, made infinitely worse by the fact that this war has been undertaken for no other reason than to promote our Enlightened Way. There is literally nothing, now, to give this war legitimacy in the eyes of suspicious Iraqis and doubtful Americans other than the idea that we, in our great and decent desire that others should live as we do and by our example, are administering the strong medicine of democracy to heal the Iraqi people. And so this is who we are:

forcing Iraqis to conduct simulated sexual acts

naked Iraq prisoners stand in a human pyramid, one with a slur written on his skin in English

male prisoners positioned to simulate sex with each other

a detainee with wires attached to his genitals

a dog attacking a prisoner

an Iraqi man who appears to be dead and badly beaten

Americans, men and women, in military uniforms, posing with naked Iraqi prisoners

the Americans are laughing, posing, pointing or giving the camera a thumbs-up

My point isn't to demonize these or any U.S. soldiers. My point is that this is what humans can be reduced to when they start to play at war, which is why, it seems to need saying, war isn't something to be played at. You have to have solid reasons, clear goals, and sound plans, because war turns loose all sorts of counterproductive demons: good people become depraved, innocent people become dead, sympathetic people become enemies. Even a controlled burn can become an all-consuming firestorm, an element unto itself.

I don't know how to address the geopolitical goals of our leaders, their venal arrogance or their rank incompetence, but I do know that American citizens have to be disabused of the fantasy of our exceptionalism, our national infallibility, our inherent Goodness, which, ever since September 11, has metastasized into this martyred-saint hysteria.

Like a laboratory plague set free by the terrorists, our glorious rage is bringing about precisely the conditions they wanted, as we have swept into one war and then another, convinced that merely by the goodness of our nature whatever we touch will be made golden--and if it is not, then it is because we have not stood firm enough, showed resolve enough, or supported the troops enough. It is never because we have chosen an unwise course, lazily following leaders whose flattery of our character and indulgence of our lifestyle absolve us of any need for awareness, responsibility, or sacrifice.

In this we have let ourselves become as blindly chauvinistic as our enemies--and as easily led to brute violence, albeit by proxy. Americans are no more Good than any other brand of human. What ills befall us are not uniquely evil, and what good we do is not uniquely divine.

It's ironic that the "good" we thought we were undertaking in Iraq really had nothing to do with the evil we suffered on 9/11, until it did. It wasn't part of the War on Terror, until it was. And now it is. So I'll say this about Bush and America's War on Terror: America has to choose whether we want to cower in a closed society locked in a self-perpetuating death-struggle with the terrorists--and with those whom we have driven to join them--or whether we want to keep our country free and open, and conduct our business and political affairs in a just and fair manner so as to ensure that we're on the right side of history and human nature.

To do this, it seems to need saying, we have to first recognize that what we do isn't automatically on the right side just because it's we who are doing it.

Terrorism will exist, in some form, at some level, either way. But one path just might, over time, reduce it. The other will certainly only perpetuate it, and degrade our soldiers, our citizens, and our society in the bargain. This shameful episode is proof enough of that.


Michael, really well said. I like you lots to begin with... But reading this statement makes me feel profoundly proud of you, honored to know you. Just had to take a step back from friendship for a moment, to try to convey gratitude. Noble is an old-fashioned word -- but damn, you've earned it.

Posted by: Sven Bonnichsen at April 30, 2004 4:25 PM

I'm just the man standing next to the man, Sven. Phil wrote this one.

Posted by: mph at April 30, 2004 10:34 PM

(Sven, I've made that gaff a few times now...)

Phil - Ya, wow - that was some pretty wonderful writing. Thanks, man.

Posted by: Michael Burton at May 3, 2004 9:32 AM

I looked at the photos. At work. Those soldiers are sick. Demented. Pathetic. And I thank them for the further hatred that will fester for Americans as we travel through the world we humans all share.

I almost wish someone would torture the perps.

Posted by: al at May 3, 2004 4:51 PM

well said PK.

Posted by: thp at May 4, 2004 8:39 AM