Abu Ghraib and the Pornography of Power

by , May 15, 2004

When lawmakers emerged from their private viewing of the Abu Ghraib photos – a screening arranged under conditions of high security on Capitol Hill – they were at great pains to come up with synonyms for “Ewwwwwwwww!”

“Appalling,” said Senate majority leader Bill Frist.

“Disgusting,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.).

“Horrible,” exclaimed Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-RI).

“Hard on the stomach lining,” averred Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

“I saw things that made me sick,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA). Which is why we aren’t allowed to see any of these images – because it will make us sick, too. Sick of this rotten war, and the gang that voted for it – which is almost each and every one of them.

Why only our Washington solons are allowed to see the truth about the kind of war we are waging in Iraq is something that only a mendacious hypocrite on the scale of Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) could even attempt to rationalize:

“When I walked into the room my view was they ought to be made public; I always lean toward full disclosure. But when the military explained to us that to release them would violate their privacy and the Geneva accord, I agreed with their assessment.”

Having systematically undermined the rule of international law at every turn – from invading Iraq in the first place, to running what turns out to be an Iraqi Gulag – our leaders are now invoking the Geneva Convention (and the right to privacy!) in order to cover up their misdeeds. You have to hand it to these guys: they are not lacking in the nerve department.

Senator John Warner (R-VA), sought to temper public declarations of disgust by warning his fellow senators that they mustn’t “incite in any way anger against our forces or others working in the cause of freedom.” In other words: don’t get too descriptive, lest anyone discover the new, post-9/11 American definition of “freedom” – a world where the U.S. government is free to invade, degrade, and preemptively annihilate anyone, anywhere, anytime.

In Senator Warner’s moral universe – which is somewhere to the right of the “Twilight Zone” – responsibility for “inciting” violence against U.S. soldiers is not to be borne by the perpetrators of these heinous acts, but by anyone who adds to our knowledge of what went on at Abu Ghraib prison. The real problem isn’t the acts themselves, but the evidence of them – over 1600 photos and some videos – which only the esteemed Senator and his colleagues have the wisdom and gravitas to view.

With that many photographs floating around, however, it is only a matter of time before they are made public, and probably not very much time at that – rendering Warner’s Bizarro World sanctimony irrelevant. When the full photographic record of what happened at Abu Ghraib is revealed, in graphic and clearly visible detail, including videos, it will, I suspect, completely blow apart the “few bad apples” theory being pushed by the War Party, and confirm the tentative suspicions expressed by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC):

“Some of it is clearly individuals acting in a rogue manner. Some of it has an elaborate nature to it that makes me very suspicious of whether or not others were directing or encouraging.”

Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) agreed with Graham’s thesis that the photos point to a more complex scenario, flatly declaring:

“It is impossible that this could have been carried out without the knowledge of higher-ups.”

How high up?

The question enthralls Democrats, eager to take partisan advantage of the rapidly metastasizing scandal, but, as Bob Novak reports, Republicans are getting rather restive about all this, too. Not only that, but they are also beginning to question the whole rationale for continuing the war: the idea that we can or should try to “democratize” the Middle East.

The War Party is losing heart: Andrew Sullivan has suddenly decided that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all, and at one point laptop bombardier Glenn Reynolds took to his bed. The Weekly Standard is uncharacteristically silent on the subject of Abu Ghraib, and, representing what might be called the “See No Evil” faction of the conservative movement, Jonah Goldberg’s contribution to the discussion has been to declare that there should be no discussion, since the photos should never have been released in the first place.

But the divide is not strictly partisan. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) averred that the public had seen “enough” to get the general idea, while Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-NY) seemed to be concurring with the Lindsey Graham thesis that these new photos go far in explaining the dark secret of the Abu Ghraib house of horrors:

“No one can convince me, knowing the situation as I do, that this is all about seven reservists from Maryland,’ referring to the U.S. soldiers charged so far in the abuse scandal. ‘It’s about more than that.'”

Well, then, what is this all about? There are two theories fighting for the honor of becoming the conventional wisdom.

The idea that this is only about seven reservists from Maryland might be called the Dionysian theory, because it goes something like this: those seven soldiers, sent far from home and subjected to high stress situations, lost control of their appetites and cracked under the strain, giving their lower (Dionysian) natures the upper hand. A general breakdown of authority, combined with a lack of training, allowed them to unleash their inner demons on the hapless prisoners without restraint or fear of retribution. The Abu Ghraib controversy has allowed legions of psychiatrists, psychologists, and other “experts” to pontificate at length about “the banality of evil,” pointing to the Stanford experiments in which ordinary Americans were turned into monsters in a simulation of the prison environment. We’ll soon enough be reduced to intoning that we’re all basically inhuman monsters whose worst appetites are always lurking just beneath the surface, kept in check only due to the overweening presence of social and especially governmental authority.

If we take Rep. Boehlert and Senator Graham seriously, however, this theory is undermined by the unreleased photos, which, like some of those we have seen, seem too elaborately staged to be random pranks. Since when do lowly reservists have access to all the props used to stage this living tableaux of psycho-sexual nightmares. The leash, the women’s satiny underwear, the hooded masks – can you really go right out and buy those things in postwar Iraq in the middle of nowhere? The photos, in short, show intention – a plan – in their exhaustive depiction of Arab subjugation.

The basis of what might be called the Apollonian explanation for what went on at Abu Ghraib is that, far from being a random explosion of Appalachian animality, some real thought went into the obscene antics of the S&M Seven. But whose thoughts? Surely not Lynndie England‘s….

The Abu Ghraib photo gallery of S&M imagery, far from being a prank, is art. Monstrously perverted, even vile, yet the sheer horror of it, calculated to elicit an emotional reaction, qualifies it as such, at least technically, as much as the work of Robert Mapplethorpe. What we are talking about, in this case, is the art of propaganda, or, at least, the nexus where pornography and propaganda meet.

The two forms have much in common. Both are inherently crude, and share a certain hectoring, relentless style calculated to bypass the brain and go directly to the lower cortex with their messages, respectively:

  • All women are whores (heterosexual),

  • All men are whores (gay male),

  • All Arabs are whores (U.S. Department of Defense).

The will to domination permeates the propaganda of the flesh, including the rather specialized variety exemplified by the Abu Ghraib photo-montage of Arabic degradation. Cruelty and role-playing, creating and reinforcing stereotypes of dominance and submission, are key elements of what can only be called pornoganda.

According to this theory of the meaning of Abu Ghraib, the whole point of the S&M show is to underscore the utter powerlessness of the Arab world before American military might. There is no other meaning we can ascribe to images of Arab men who wear women’s clothes and glory in their unmanly abasement, and Iraqi women who lift their skirts and squeal as they’re raped by their invincible American conquerors.

It all fits in with a similar idea embodied in this infamous photo of Lance Cpl. Ted J. Boudreaux, of Thibodaux, Louisiana, posing with Iraqi children, who are grinning happily as they hold up a sign that says:

“Lcpl Boudreaux killed my dad. Then he knocked up my sister!”

Boudreaux claims the photo has been altered, and a great controversy swirls around that image, as the Marines have launched an extensive investigation and no one, at least in this case, seems able to tell truth from fiction. But in the case of the Abu Ghraib outrages, the investigation – or, rather, investigations, since at least five are now in progress – will get to the bottom of it sooner rather than later.

General Taguba’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the leaking of his report detailing the investigation so far, has kept the issue front and center. But Taguba’s inquiry was strictly limited to assessing how flaws in the command structure created a vacuum of authority in which violations of law and official policy were allowed to occur. Great emphasis was put in the initial hearings on the friction between Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the camp commander, and Lt. Col. Thomas M. Pappas, the origin and interpretation of an order giving the latter de facto control over Abu Ghraib, and who must take what degree of responsibility.

On November 19, 2003, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez handed “tactical control” of the prison over to Pappas, commander of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade. The Defense Department’s position, as expressed by Stephen Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, is to blame Karpinski: Taguba, on the other hand, while not excusing Karpinski’s lack of oversight, assigns the primary blame to Pappas and two civilian contractors, Steven Stefanowicz and the enigmatic John Israel, for “directly or indirectly” encouraging the seven reservists from Maryland to act as they did. Cambone made quite a show of disagreeing with Taguba, and this point of contention was explored by Senator Birch Bayh in the following interchange with Cambone:

SEN. BAYH: “As I understand it, [Taguba] believes that the military intelligence individuals did exert practical tactical control. And it’s your opinion that they did not. As I understand your position, the intelligence authorities were given control over the facility but not control over the individuals running the facility. What exactly does that mean? How do you have control over a facility but not the people who are running it?”

MR. CAMBONE: “The same way that – “

SEN. BAYH: “Were they in charge of the plumbing or the –”

MR. CAMBONE: “No, sir – well, in the same way that you have a building supervisor who doesn’t tell the tenants how to do their business. In other words, you do require someone who is senior in command to be able to be responsible for the facility; that is, for its security from outside activity, internal security, the care and feeding of folks, all of those administrative and logistics tasks that go with running a large facility. Then there are, within that facility, a number of operations and activities that take place which are under the command of other individuals. And those individuals are responsible for the exercise of command over those activities.”

The battle lines are being drawn for what promises to be an extended investigation, one that threatens to consume the full attention of the White House, and, indeed, all of us.

If the Dionysian interpretation of what happened at Abu Ghraib is correct, then the focus and the blame must fall on Karpinski, since she – through her laxness, her inability to discover the problem and fix it – allowed her authority to break down to the point where seven reservists from Maryland were allowed to act out their darkest impulses. Bring in the psychiatrists, put the S&M Seven on Oprah, and raise up a chorus of caterwauling about how we’re all just a little bit evil, we’re all guilty, and it’s just human nature to want to inflict unspeakable degradation on your enemies. It was just “a few bad apples,” seven to be exact, nothing systemic or inherent in the psychology of our new post-9/11 world-conquering ethos. There’s nothing to see here, so move along, please….

If, however, the Apollonian theory has any basis in fact – if it was all quite deliberate, if it turns out that the photos were carefully staged, a kind of anti-Arabic Black Mass infused with political as well as psycho-sexual meaning – then it’s a whole different ballgame. In that case, Lt. Col. Pappas and his intelligence operation are to blame, including those civilian contractors named in the Taguba report, and quite possibly others: the attention and blame is not focused on Karpinski, and the seven reservists, but is apportioned out to a much wider circle that interacted with the S&M Seven and, in effect, coordinated and directed their activities.

If, in short, Abu Ghraib was meant as a kind of living theater – a perverted yet genuine work of art – then the artists will sooner or later be forced from behind the curtain of anonymity and into the spotlight.

This scandal is just beginning to unfold in all its wretched ugliness. The Taguba report triggered what is called a “procedure 15” investigation, which is being conducted by a two-star Army general, and which reportedly won’t be finished until the end of this month. In the meantime, the unreleased photos hang over our heads, a nightmare waiting to be born, and the administration does its best to obstruct, obscure, and deny.

Read more by Justin Raimondo