Those Iraqi PoW Photos

PTI | By, New Delhi
May 10, 2004 07:39 PM IST

What is it about the pictures of American soldiers abusing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners of war that has so shocked and horrified the world?

What is it about the pictures of American soldiers abusing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners of war (POWs) that has so shocked and horrified the world? It isn't, as we might be tempted to assume, the evidence of torture. Judging by the pictures that have been published, there wasn't really that much torture.

HT Image
HT Image

Take the single most famous image to appear over the last fortnight. It shows an Iraqi soldier, his face covered by a black cowl, with wires attached to his genitals. The photo is horrifying but as far as I can see, the wires were never plugged into an electric plug point. The idea was not to fry his testicles but to scare him into believing that this might happen.

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But why scare the soldier? Why  make him feel that his genitals might be burned off? Nobody has suggested that this was part of an interrogation so the motive was not to extract information  from him. From what the media has learned, the interrogations are conducted in another ‘secure' area, often by private contractors, and no photographs of these have appeared.

None of us approves of torture. And yet at some deep, subliminal, typically Third World level, we all accept that interrogators often use unsavoury methods to extract information, (Just as the cops at your local thana beat up all suspects on principle). The worrying thing about the abuse and humiliation depicted in these photographs is the sheer pointlessness of the cruelty. The American soldiers were not abusing the Iraqis to get information out of them.

They were abusing them because they could.

It was not about interrogation and tactics. It was about power.

Last week, the Washington Post secured a thousand new images, in addition to the ones already broadcast by CBS. And in nearly every picture that has been published, the story is the same: the Iraqis are being humiliated only for the pleasure of the Americans.

In some pictures, the Iraqi soldiers are being forced to perform (or simulate) oral sex on each other. In some, they are stripped of their clothes and made to form a naked, human pyramid. In another, a female US soldier drags an Iraqi prisoner around on a leash, like a dog. In another, she poses with a cigarette, grinning at the camera as naked Iraqis cower in fear.

The overall impression is not — as some of the more hysterical commentators have suggested — one of a torture chamber. Instead, it is of sadistic ragging at some primitive hostel from hell. The Americans know that they are the bosses. They know that they can do what they like. And they know that there is nothing that the Iraqis can do to defend themselves.

Like all sadistic ragging — it is pointless, has a strong sexual component and is finally, nothing more than an expression of power.

What is worrying about the pictures is that they seem to have been taken by the soldiers themselves. Many of the tableaux (the naked human pyramid, for instance) seem to have been specially staged so that the perpetrators can take a few pictures to show the folks back home. In many of the pictures, the US soldiers are laughing and grinning, quite happy to be identified in a photographic record of their cruelty.

There is no sense, among the soldiers, that they are doing anything wrong. There is no fear of being found out. There is no desire to conceal their identities. Instead, they are so drunk on the power they possess over the  Iraqis that all other considerations and cautions have been forgotten.

Worse still are the justifications that have been offered once the pictures have reached the media and shocked the world. The mother of the female soldier in the picture says that her daughter has done nothing wrong. Some commentators have pointed out that she is, in that picturesque American phrase, merely ‘trailer trash', and that therefore nothing better can be expected from her. Other soldiers, involved in the incidents have said that in their experience, force is the only language that Iraqis understand.

Even the more serious excuses  have been appalling. The woman general in charge of the prison where the pictures were taken has accepted that she has a responsibility for what happened  but claims that her superiors were aware of what was going on. Other soldiers have argued that they were not given copies of the Geneva Convention and so, did not know how PoWs should be treated — as though you need to read the rule book to realise that it is wrong to put a dog collar on a prisoner's neck and drag him by a leash.

Most damaging is the message that these pictures send out to the rest of the world. When America went into Iraq, George W Bush  told us that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and that America would liberate the Iraqis from Saddam's tyranny. When the WMDs did not turn up, Bush argued that this was still a just war because America went into Iraq to restore dignity to a populace brutalised by years of Saddam's brutality. America would give the Iraqis democracy and respect, he said.

As we all know, Iraq is in a bigger mess than anyone could have  expected. But what these pictures suggest is that it will remain a mess. Even if we accept (which I, personally, do not) that Bush was sincere and that the war was about dignity and democracy and not oil and power, these photos tell us that the men he has sent into Iraq to do the job for America have no respect for Iraqi dignity. As far as they are concerned, the Iraqis are sub-humans, to be humiliated, to be stripped naked, to be brutalised and to be photographed performing sexually demeaning acts while American soldiers grin and giggle. If this is the mentality of US forces in Iraq, then what hope is there of America ever succeeding in  restoring dignity (let alone liberal democracy) to the Iraqis?

The pictures are frightening also because they tend to strengthen many stereotypes of American power. Despite Bush's speeches about democracy, many of America's global critics say that Americans are a racist, uncaring people, so full of their own power that they feel that they can invade any country they like and violate any individual they choose.

As somebody who is sympathetic to the values that the US has traditionally represented. I know that this is not true. But try telling that to anybody who has seen these pictures. Each one of them confirms the worst caricature of the Ugly American: a bully who delights in humiliating the Third World for nothing more than a sense of fun.

But the shocking nature of these pictures blinds us to other realties that reflect much more favourably on America. It was after all a US TV network that first broadcast the pictures. Any Indian TV channel that tried to show evidence of brutality by Indian soldiers (and let's not kid ourselves; there are enough human rights abuses by Indian troops)  would be accused of being anti-national or unpatriotic. We would be told that we were harming India's interests and that it was our job to suppress the evidence.

I have no doubt that similar arguments were used to discredit the CBS exposé. I'm sure it required enormous guts for the Washington Post to find more evidence of brutality and abuses. But the great strength of America's democracy is that even when Americans do the wrong thing, it is their own media that exposes them, no matter what the consequences are for American foreign policy.

Sadly, I doubt if anyone is thinking about that now. Such is  the power of those pictures, and so obscene is the joy on the faces of the US soldiers photographed humiliating the Iraqis, that few people will recognise that the exposé itself is a tribute to the American tradition of a free press.

But if these pictures do change minds within America; if they do make Americans realise why so many people around the world despise their country; and if they do make the American people question the mad foreign policy that President Bush and his lunatic neo-con advisors have forced on the world's only remaining super power, then perhaps some good will come of this exposé. Perhaps the shock will open the eyes of the American people.

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