The Abu Ghraib prison was a symbol of Saddam’s horrific tyranny: electrodes hanging out of the walls, floors stained with the blood of god-knows-how-many victims, bodies dangling from meat-hooks, like in some cheap Grade-B horror flick. So when the Americans came and “liberated” the place, the long-suffering Iraqi people were supposed to be grateful. After all, the sadistic torturers of the Ba’athist regime were gone, and it was a new day or was it?
Well, not all that new, according to a shocking report broadcast by CBS the other night. 60 Minutes II showed photos taken of American soldiers guarding the prison torturing their charges. The images show the American “liberators” liberating their own perverted libidos, posed next to naked prisoners who were being forced into simulating sex with each other. In one macabre shot, a hooded prisoner stands precariously perched on a pedestal, with electrodes attached to his arms: he is reportedly told that if he falls, he’ll be electrocuted. There are several photos in which naked prisoners are stacked in a pyramid, and one with a slur written on his skin in English. Photos in the possession of the military authorities show a prisoner whose genitals are attached to wires. In one, a dog is shown attacking an Iraqi prisoner. The authorities are investigating the account of an Iraqi who alleges that a translator, hired by the Americans to work at Abu Ghraib, raped a male juvenile prisoner:
“They covered all the doors with sheets. I heard the screaming. …and the female soldier was taking pictures.”
Included in this photo-montage of Operation Iraqi Freedom is a picture of a badly beaten corpse.
“In most of the pictures,” Dan Rather reports, “the Americans are laughing, posing, pointing, or giving the camera a thumbs-up.”
This is how we’re “liberating” Iraq.
Last month, 17 American soldiers, including the brigadier general in charge of all detention facilities in occupied Iraq, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, were relieved of their duties: 6 face charges. The sickening details were kept secret, by journalists as well as the U.S. military, until the photos began to circulate independently of both. When CBS finally stopped sitting on this story, they spun it so that it was framed in terms of an apologia, as articulated by Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy director of coalition operations in Iraq, who avers:
“So what would I tell the people of Iraq? This is wrong. This is reprehensible. But this is not representative of the 150,000 soldiers that are over here. I’d say the same thing to the American people… Don’t judge your army based on the actions of a few.”
We’re supposed to believe that these are just a few rotten apples, that the overwhelming majority of U.S. occupation troops are regular Boy Scouts, busy building schools and helping little old ladies cross streets. To which one can only reply: Baloney!
Two competing narratives about the American occupiers are now vying for attention. One the one hand, we have Pat Tillman, the football hero who enlisted shortly after 9/11, with his square clean visage, almost a caricature of idealized American manhood, a selfless martyr who gave his all for a righteous cause. And on the other hand we have the grinning leering perverts of Abu Ghraib. Which is the real face of the American occupiers: John Wayne in “Flying Leathernecks” or John Holmes in “Freaky Leatherboys”?
Just ask the Iraqis, who, according to the latest Gallup poll, see their American occupiers as “uncaring, dangerous and lacking in respect for the country’s people, religion and traditions.” USA Today reports:
“Only a third of the Iraqi people now believe that the American-led occupation of their country is doing more good than harm, and a solid majority support an immediate military pullout even though they fear that could put them in greater danger, according to a new USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll.”
And that was before the Abu Ghraib outrage .
The CBS News piece is in many ways almost as outrageous as the events it describes. To begin with, the entire story is framed by General Kimmitt’s apologia: it also gives a lot of time to the craven excuses of one of the accused soldiers, who blames his disgusting behavior on a lack of “training.” Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Chip Frederick is so typically contemporary American in his whining refusal to take responsibility that it would be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic:
“We had no support, no training whatsoever. And I kept asking my chain of command for certain things…like rules and regulations. And it just wasn’t happening.”
We’ll have to take Frederick at his word that he required “training” in order to be restrained from acting like a mad dog. What a surprise that, in “real” life, he’s a prison guard in Virginia, described by his boss as “one of the best.” One supposes that’s why he needs “rules and regulations” to prevent him from literally f*cking over his charges.
As contemptible as he is, Frederick is performing a great service in exposing the responsibility of his superiors, and demonstrating that this wasn’t the exception that proves the rule of American beneficence. Frederick’s testimony shows that his actions amounted to the implementation of an informal policy:
“Frederick says Americans came into the prison: ‘We had military intelligence, we had all kinds of other government agencies, FBI, CIA … All those that I didn’t even know or recognize.’ Frederick’s letters and email messages home also offer clues to problems at the prison. He wrote that he was helping the interrogators:
“‘Military intelligence has encouraged and told us ‘Great job.’ They usually don’t allow others to watch them interrogate. But since they like the way I run the prison, they have made an exception. We help getting them to talk with the way we handle them. … We’ve had a very high rate with our style of getting them to break. They usually end up breaking within hours.'”
The CBS report adds:
“The Army found that interrogators asked reservists working in the prison to prepare the Iraqi detainees, physically and mentally, for questioning. “
Will any of these interrogators, who are civilians and supposedly not subject to military authority, face charges? Gen. Kimmitt says he hopes so, but that remains to be seen. However, whatever action is taken, or not taken, the conclusion that we are dealing here with the results of a deliberate policy, and not an exceptional case, is inescapable.
The role played by CBS in all this is far from admirable. True, they exposed it, and broadcast a very few of the horrific photos. They also covered it up for at least a month, and might have done so indefinitely if not for the fact that the story was beginning to leak out:
“Two weeks ago, 60 Minutes II received an appeal from the Defense Department, and eventually from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, to delay this broadcast given the danger and tension on the ground in Iraq.”
One wonders if the “danger and tension on the ground in Iraq” was the Defense Department’s main concern: after all, the Iraqis surely know what is happening to them. Abused detainees have families, and friends, and word travels fast. More likely it is the “danger and tension” on the ground in this country, the growing outcry on the home front against a futile and increasingly ugly war, that worries not only the Pentagon bureaucrats but their bosses in the White House. If they succeed in riding out the storm, it will be with the invaluable help of the American media:
“60 Minutes II decided to honor that request, while pressing for the Defense Department to add its perspective to the incidents at Abu Ghraib prison. This week, with the photos beginning to circulate elsewhere, and with other journalists about to publish their versions of the story, the Defense Department agreed to cooperate in our report.”
If the truth was going to come out anyway, then better it should be as seen through the prism of the American commander, a whiney spineless automaton who needs “rules and regulations” to tell him how to act like a human being, and Frederick’s lawyer, one Gary Myers, who declares:
“The elixir of power, the elixir of believing that you’re helping the CIA, for God’s sake, when you’re from a small town in Virginia, that’s intoxicating. And so, good guys sometimes do things believing that they are being of assistance and helping a just cause. … And helping people they view as important.”
Okay, let’s see if I get this straight: the inhabitants of small towns in Virginia are entirely bereft of any moral sensibility. Rural life, we are supposed to believe, leads to a blatant disregard for human dignity and decency. Such rubes as Sgt. Frederick are so easily intoxicated by power, or proximity to it, that they cannot contain their inherent animality, and cannot be held responsible for their actions any more than a cougar can be accused of murder for hunting its prey.
Them city slicker lawyers, what’ll they think of next? It’s an interesting theory, not because it’s clever but because it is profoundly and offensively stupid. I doubt it will hold up in a court of law especially not an Iraqi one. You can bet your bottom dollar, however, that the Iraqis will never be allowed to sit in judgement of Sgt. Frederick and his fellow sadists. Not even when they are handed back their “sovereignty” on June 30.
Mr. Myers has a point about “the elixir of power,” however, although not in the way he intended. This poisonous brew is what we have quaffed in Iraq, a potent mixture of high-sounding hubris and militant megalomania. Is it any wonder that its effects are to inspire a kind of madness?
Our policy of perpetual war is not so much a foreign policy as a form of collective insanity.
We went in to “liberate” the people of Iraq, and wound up torturing them. If supporters of this disastrous war have some kind of explanation for that, I’d love to hear it. Meanwhile, a note to the “mainstream” media: let’s start interviewing the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of these heinous acts, to get some idea of what really happened. It is also necessary to start naming names. Unless we want to encourage more such incidents in the future, public shaming can act as a deterrent.