A wretched new picture of America

Among the corrosive lies a nation at war tells itself is that the glory — the lofty goals announced beforehand, the victories, the liberation of the oppressed — belongs to the country as a whole; but the failure — the accidents, the uncounted civilian dead, the crimes and atrocities — is always exceptional. Noble goals flow naturally from a noble people; the occasional act of barbarity is always the work of individuals, unaccountable, confusing and indigestible to the national conscience.

This kind of thinking was widely in evidence among military and political leaders after the emergence of pictures documenting American abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison. These photographs do not capture the soul of America, they argued. They are aberrant.

This belief, that the photographs are distortions, despite their authenticity, is indistinguishable from propaganda. Tyrants censor; democracies self-censor. Tyrants concoct propaganda in ministries of information; democracies produce it through habits of thought so ingrained that a basic lie of war — only the good is our doing — becomes self-propagating.

But now we have photos that have gone to the ends of the Earth, and painted brilliantly and indelibly, an image of America that could remain with us for years, perhaps decades. An Army investigative report reveals that we have stripped young men (whom we purported to liberate) of their clothing and their dignity; we have forced them to make pyramids of flesh, as if they were children; we have made them masturbate in front of their captors and cameras; forced them to simulate sexual acts; threatened prisoners with rape and sodomized at least one; beaten them; and turned dogs upon them.

There are now images of men in the Muslim world looking at these images. On the streets of Cairo, men pore over a newspaper. An icon appears on the front page: a hooded man, in a rug-like poncho, standing with his arms out like Christ, wires attached to the hands. He is faceless. This is now the image of the war. In this country, perhaps it will have some competition from the statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled. Everywhere else, everywhere America is hated (and that’s a very large part of this globe), the hooded, wired, faceless man of Abu Ghraib is this war’s new mascot.

The American leaders’ response is a mixture of public disgust, and a good deal of resentment that they have, through these images, lost control of the ultimate image of the war. All the right people have pronounced themselves, sickened, outraged, speechless. But listen more closely. “And it’s really a shame that just a handful can besmirch maybe the reputations of hundreds of thousands of our soldiers and sailors, airmen and Marines. . . . “ said Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Sunday.

Reputation, image, perception. The problem, it seems, isn’t so much the abuse of the prisoners, because we will get to the bottom of that and, of course, we’re not really like that. The problem is our reputation. Our soldiers’ reputations. Our national self-image. These photos, we insist, are not us.

But these photos are us. Yes, they are the acts of individuals (though the scandal widens, as scandals almost inevitably do, and the military’s own internal report calls the abuse “systemic”). But armies are made of individuals. Nations are made up of individuals. Great national crimes begin with the acts of misguided individuals; and no matter how many people are held directly accountable for these crimes, we are, collectively, responsible for what these individuals have done. We live in a democracy. Every errant smart bomb, every dead civilian, every sodomized prisoner, is ours.

And more. Perhaps this is just a little cancer that crept into the culture of the people running Abu Ghraib prison. But stand back. Look at the history. Open up to the hard facts of human nature, the lessons of the past, the warning signs of future abuses.

These photos show us what we may become, as occupation continues, anger and resentment grows and costs spiral. There’s nothing surprising in this. These pictures are pictures of colonial behavior, the demeaning of occupied people, the insult to local tradition, the humiliation of the vanquished. They are unexceptional. In different forms, they could be pictures of the Dutch brutalizing the Indonesians; the French brutalizing the Algerians; the Belgians brutalizing the people of the Congo.

Look at these images closely and you realize that they can’t just be the random accidents of war, or the strange, inexplicable perversity of a few bad seeds. First of all, they exist. Soldiers who allow themselves to be photographed humiliating prisoners clearly don’t believe this behavior is unpalatable. Second, the soldiers didn’t just reach into a grab bag of things they thought would humiliate young Iraqi men. They chose sexual humiliation, which may recall to outsiders the rape scandal at the Air Force Academy, Tailhook and past killings of gay sailors and soldiers.

Is it an accident that these images feel so very much like the kind of home made porn that is traded every day on the Internet? That they capture exactly the quality and feel of the casual sexual decadence that so much of the world deplores in us?

Is it an accident that the man in the hood, arms held out as if on a cross, looks so uncannily like something out of the Spanish Inquisition? That they have the feel of history in them, a long, buried, ugly history of religious aggression and discrimination?

Perhaps both are accidents, meaningless accidents of photographs that should never have seen the light of day. But they will not be perceived as such elsewhere in the world.

World editorial reaction is vehement. We are under the suspicion of the International Red Cross and Amnesty International. “US military power will be seen for what it is, a behemoth with the response speed of a muscle-bound ox and the limited understanding of a mouse,” said Saudi Arabia’s English language Arab News.

We reduce Iraqis to hapless victims of a cheap porn flick; they reduce our cherished, respected military to a hybrid beast, big, stupid, senseless.

Last year, Joel Turnipseed published “Baghdad Express,” a memoir of the first Gulf War. In it, he remembers an encounter with Iraqi prisoners. A staff sergeant is explaining to the men the rules of the Geneva Convention.

“ . . . What that means, in plain English, is ‘Don’t feed the animals’ and ‘Don’t put your hand in the cage.’ “

And then, the author explains, the soldiers proceed to break the rules. The ox thinks like a mouse.

“My vanquished were now vanquishing me,” wrote Turnipseed, heartsick.

Not quite 50 years ago, Aime Cesaire, a poet and writer from Martinique, wrote in his “Discourse on Colonialism”: “First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism.”

Are we decivilized yet? Are we brutes yet? Of course not, say our leaders.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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