The S&M War

The pictures just keep coming at us: the latest batch of Iraqi humiliation photos appeared this [Thursday] morning in the Washington Post, along with a story revealing that the newspaper has come into possession of “more than 1,000” images, a mix of ordinary “travelogue” shots and depictions of Iraqis in various states of naked prostration. Iraqi prisoners squirm on the prison floor in the buff, clotted together like worms on a wet sidewalk, while burly American guards loom over them, poking and prodding; a female soldier holds a leash at the other end of which is an Iraqi neck. These images, avers the Post, are “further visual evidence of the chaos and unprofessionalism at the prison,” and one is initially inclined to concur.

But a question inevitably arises: Why?

Why did these miscreants – mostly lower-level grunts – take pictures of their own misconduct? This is behavior that makes absolutely no sense. Surely they knew the pictures would get out, and get them in major trouble. The Post offers a few clues:

“The new pictures appear to show American soldiers abusing prisoners, many of whom wear ID bands, but The Post could not eliminate the possibility that some of them were staged.”

Staged – for whose benefit?

Are these sickening photos the products of a Vast Antiwar Conspiracy, designed to discredit an already discredited war? Or is something else going on here?

Let us leave this question aside until last, however, and take up another issue raised in the Post piece, which informs us that “it is unclear who took the photographs, or why.” Yet not everyone involved seeks refuge in agnosticism. The families of the accused, and their lawyers, are quite certain about who authored this outrage:

“Lawyers representing two of the accused soldiers, and some soldiers’ relatives, have said the pictures were ordered up by military intelligence officials who were trying to humiliate the detainees and coerce other prisoners into cooperating.

“‘It is clear that the intelligence community dictated that these photographs be taken,’ said Guy L. Womack, a Houston lawyer representing Spec. Charles A. Graner Jr., 35, one of the soldiers charged.

“The father of another soldier facing charges, Spec. Jeremy C. Sivits of Hyndman, Pa., also said his son was following orders. ‘He was asked to take pictures, and he did what he was told,’ Daniel Sivits said in a telephone interview last week.”

This is hardly evidence of “chaos” and “unprofessionalism.” Quite the contrary, it indicates that this whole bizarre business was carried out intentionally and quite professionally – it was, in short, a policy endorsed by higher-ups.

The reality of occupied Iraq – that it is really one big prison presided over by its American overlords – is readily apparent to anyone who has been paying attention. Regular readers of won’t have missed a series of reports from Iraq filed by Kathy Kelly, of Voices in the Wilderness, and Mike Ferner, with the Christian Peacemakers Team, who went there shortly after the “liberation” and documented widespread abuses. People have been treated in Iraq’s prisons pretty much as they’ve been treated outside of the prisons: like dirt.

Last year, Kelly interviewed two Palestinian students resident in Iraq who has been arrested and held without charges for two months. Their crime, as Kelly related, was being Palestinian:

“‘It was inhuman, the way they treated us,’ said Fadi. ‘For the first seven days we were given no food or water.’ On the first day, they were handcuffed and taken to the Hasan Al Bakr Palace where they stayed overnight on wet ground, outdoors. ‘We tried to bury ourselves in the sand to keep warmer,’ Fadi recalled. ‘All the time they were pointing their guns at us. They made us feel that we are going to die now, they gonna kill us now.’ The next day they were taken to Saddam Airport where they were again held outside, in the cold, without food. ‘They were laughing while they were searching us and throwing us on the ground. They took pictures of us which they said they would send back to their families in the U.S. .'”

One wonders if they ever sent those photos back home – or if they were taken for other purposes. In any case, the mistreatment of prisoners, and the American penchant for recording their own brutality on film, is nothing new. Nor is the element of sexual perversion.

The Taguba report lists rape and abuse of imprisoned children among the other crimes committed by the MPs and their enablers, but this is old news. Child abuse as a key aspect of the “liberation” was revealed by Kelly on back in December:

“‘There were 13 year old kids in with us,’ Fadi said. ‘Sometimes they would throw candies from their humvees, shouting ‘Bark like a dog, and I’ll throw you the candy’..Some of the small children were crying in the night, asking to go home to their families. We were trying to get them quiet.’

“‘Some of the prisoners were criminals, thieves. They put the children with them. Some of them tried to abuse children. We told the guards, they started laughing. One prisoner tried to rape a kid and he refused, so they made a cut on his face.”

A piece by Mike Ferner, who traveled to Iraq with the Christian Peacemakers, documented the ubiquitous brutality of the American occupation in heartbreakingly matter-of-fact prose published here in February:

“We return to the cars and drive a short distance to our next stop, a slightly larger farmhouse on the edge of the village. It is the home of Yasseen Taha, a 33 year-old farmer who attended evening classes at the University of Baghdad’s Islamic Studies program.

“On October 17, Yasseen’s brother, Aziz, and his wife, Majida, were shot and killed by troops from Lt. Col. Sassaman’s base, according to Yasseen’s uncle, Muhnna Azazzal, who spoke with us. On that day at about 4:00 p.m., U.S. troops and tanks stationed at the former Iraqi airfield three kilometers south of the Taha home, came from that direction toward the village, ‘firing randomly,’ said Azazzal.

“Yasseen’s younger brother, Aziz, a fourth-year student in the University of Baghdad’s English Studies department, was struck by one of the bullets and mortally wounded. Yasseen’s wife, Majida, knelt to help her brother-in-law and was hit by a bullet and killed instantly. She left three children, the youngest 15 days old. Aziz died within two hours, but in the meantime, Azazzal said, U.S. soldiers surrounded the scene, telling neighbors to keep back and denying Aziz any first-aid. Aziz’s sister, Asmaa, said that she witnessed the carnage that day. Seeing her brother shot and bleeding to death, she began to cry hysterically. An American soldier responded by firing his rifle into the ground near Aziz’ dying body ‘to mock my grief,’ she said.”

Ten days after these horrific murders, Yasseen was arrested by U.S. troops. It seems that the “liberators” had been recently attacked in the vicinity – gee, who would thought? – and Yasseen was a prime suspect, “having lost two family members to Army shootings.” As of February, Yasseen was still rotting in Abu Ghraib prison. He is not allowed any visitors, and, although no formal charges have been filed, his uncle says he heard from released detainees that Yasseen stands accused of “terrorist acts.”

One needn’t make any overt move to resist the terroristic sadism of the occupiers to be labeled a “terrorist.” The potential is sufficient. This is a “preemptive war” – with a vengeance.

Another piece by Ferner documents the razing of Abou Siffa, a village 30 miles north of Baghdad, in a campaign that resembles nothing so much as a Nazi pogrom. I have been skeptical of allusions to the Third Reich in describing acts carried out by U.S. soldiers in this war, just as I have long thought comparisons of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Adolph Hitler are over the top, But what, I ask you, does the following account, rendered by one Mohammed Al Taai, remind you of?:

“‘On December 16, at 2:00 am, on a rainy night, all the houses in this village, about two dozen, were surrounded by U.S. troops in tanks and humvees. They surrounded the fields of the farmers by tanks and they destroyed the fences of the fields,’ Mohammed tells the six people from Christian Peacemaker Teams who have come to document detainees’ stories.

“‘They destroyed the doors of the houses and of the rooms. At night usually the doors of the bedrooms are locked, so they kicked the doors in and destroyed them by their weapons. After that they gathered the men, beating them severely. One was an old man and they smashed his glasses, and for that old man they had to guide him.'”

It is a reenactment of scene that might first have been played out in Central Europe during World War II:

“Rounded up in the raid were two attorneys, 15 schoolteachers, men in their 80’s, a blind man, an elderly man so frail he had to be carried by the soldiers – virtually all the men of Abou Siffa. They even apprehended police officers and three children.”

Every dinar and dime was stolen from the detainees, and all were transported to the Abu Ghraib prison, where, as of early February, most remained.

The pretext for the initial raid was to capture a top Ba’athist official who had taken refuge in the village, but after Kais Hattam was taken into custody, on December 16, the Americans returned twice – on December 31 and January 2 – to level more buildings, and deliver a message to the remaining inhabitants:

“In the December 31 and January 2 terror strikes on Abou Siffa no men were apprehended – there were none left. ‘There was no resistance during the raids,’ Mohammed said, making the violence and fury with which they were executed the more mysterious. Then one of the villagers added, ‘The soldiers warned the people that they will make this area ‘just like the land of the moon…it will not be good to plant…it will be like the desert.'”

Like the Romans who ploughed salt into the soil of Carthage, so that nothing would ever grow there again. That is the strategy the crazed “liberators” of the Iraqi people have unleashed on their bewildered charges – to grind Iraqi faces into the dust and celebrate their abasement before American power. This is true sadism – when the aggressor gets a kick, almost a sexual thrill, out of inflicting physical pain and suffering on others. It is sick – and it is our policy in Iraq.

The real mystery here is why anybody is surprised at the photos coming out of Abu Ghraib. They merely illustrate, in particularly graphic form, the impulses and motivations behind our entire war policy in the Middle East. Humiliation before the invincible hegemon is the central strategic conception behind the War Party’s imperial project – and the seemingly endless flow of bizarre S&M porn now appearing on the front pages of newspapers worldwide only makes sense in this context.

We are supposed to believe that this was the military equivalent of a frat house “prank,” as Rush Limbaugh put it, a bunch of out-of-control kids thoughtlessly damaging U.S. relations with the Arab world without supervision or sanction from their superior officers. That is a load of malarkey. No one could possibly believe that the 1,000-plus photos in the Post‘s possession, and whatever others are out there, could remain secret for long.

What is undoubtedly a black mark on the reputation of the American military, and on this administration’s ability to know and control what’s occurring on the ground in Iraq, looks to me very much like a black propaganda campaign designed to demoralize not only Iraqis but the entire Arab world. One major neoconservative talking point in the run-up to war was that the Arabs only understand the language of power: you can’t negotiate or reason with them, you have to conquer them – and, once conquered, they have to be kept down. This is precisely the methodology used by the Israelis on their Palestinian helots, and in my last column I detailed some evidence that the torturers of Abu Ghraib may had training and other help from Israeli “advisors.”

The conception of shame as a key element of Arab warfare was explored in a paper on “the Arab mind,” by David Leo Gutmann, emeritus professor of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University Medical School, in Chicago, purporting to describe “Arab psychology” – just as a Nazi theoretician might explore “Jewish psychology.” Writes Gutmann:

“The traditional Bedouin created a nearly pure ”Shame” culture, whose goal was to avoid humiliation, and to acquire sharraf – honor. Thus, the goal of the Bedouin raid is not to finally win a war, for such inter-tribal conflict is part of the honorable way of life, and should never really end. The essential goals of the raid are to take wealth – not only in goods, but also in honor – and to impose shame on the enemy. Any opponent worth fighting is by definition honorable, and pieces of his honor can be ripped from him in a successful raid, to be replaced by figments of the attacker’s shame. The successful attacker has ‘exported’ some personal shame to the enemy, and the enemy’s lost honor has been added to the raider’s store.”

A “calculus of shame” and sharraf seems to be at work in this business of the photos: by projecting these shameful images of powerless, feminized Arab men, the balance of sharraf tips in favor of the counterinsurgency. As Gutmann theorizes:

“This calculus of shame and sharraf is an important element in all Arab warfare, whether waged by Saddam Hussein, Yasir Arafat, or a Bedouin sheik. In particular, that same dynamic drives the Arab preference for irregular over conventional war. Irregular tactics – spiced with Terror – have on occasion defeated regular armies; but win, lose, or draw in the military sense, terror tactics can be a far more efficient means of meeting psychological goals – i.e., shedding shame and capturing honor – than all-out war.”

So the way to crush such an insurgency is to make humiliation unavoidable, and so load the Arabs down with shame that they will be rendered pacific psychologically. If you think this is too far out to be taken seriously, the authors of this study, published last year by the American military, don’t seem to think so, since they cite Gutmann’s calculus of shame as a key element in their analysis.

In describing the tactics of “the enemy,” the following passage from Gutmann’s piece weirdly prefigured the appearance of the porno-photos:

“The terrorist’s actions have the effect of imposing shame on the same enemy whose people he kills. A major aim of terrorist operations is to bring about the symbolic emasculation of the enemy’s military and civilian populations. Thus, as the enemy non-combatants give in to their fear of terror attacks and huddle passively at home, they become vulnerable to the terrorist’s boast, recently broadcast by Hamas: ‘We will win, because the Jews love life too much, while we love death.” At this point, the terrorist has succeeded in multiple ways: Insult has been added to injury, and his enemies have been psychologically castrated, symbolically re-gendered into women.”

If those photos represent anything, symbolic emasculation certainly fits the bill. Forced to wear women’s clothing, simulate homosexual acts, and undergo other forms of degradation, it looks like the calculus of shame is being turned back on the Iraqis. Is someone utilizing Gutmann’s theories to turn the terrorist equation on its head? By using "the leverage of the Arab shame dynamic," as Gutmann puts it, against the insurgents – and the pool of possible recruits, i.e. the entire Iraqi population – the Coalition can psychologically castrate and “re-gender” them into women, thus effectively pacifying the country (and, eventually, the entire region).

I fully realize that this sounds more than a bit farfetched – but, then again, this whole matter is so completely bonkers that no other explanation makes much sense. It is all too imaginable that some in positions of power latched on to Gutmann’s cockamamie theory, or a reasonable facsimile, and ran with it – all the way to the lower rungs of Hell. It’s just the kind of “scientific” lunacy that naturally enthralls the bureaucratic-military mind, and, with all Gutmann’s talk of “genetic” and “hardwired” tendencies in the Arab mentality, has enormous appeal for the neocons. As the investigation proceeds, and the legal cogs begin to turn, I won’t be at all surprised to learn that, far from representing random acts by troubled individuals, what the Abu Ghraib photos document is a sickness that runs deeper, and reaches higher, than any now imagine.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].