Ugly Americans: Abu Ghraib shakes U.S. complacency

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When news broke in late April about American soldiers torturing and humiliating Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison, the U.S. public reacted with revulsion and dismay. The photographs and accounts of brutality, murder and gleeful sexual sadism were a jarring contradiction to the U.S. self-image as a people committed to fair play, decency, and democracy.

In interviews conducted with area residents, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer spoke to a Mexican immigrant who no longer wanted to become a U.S. citizen, a jazz singer who felt ashamed to be an American, and a high school art teacher who noted an increase in macabre images in students’ work.

On Memorial Day in May, veterans who had been prisoners of war spoke out against the abuses. “That cruelty should never have happened,” said Richard Francies, who spent most of WWII in a Japanese prison camp. Bernard Sterno, captured by the Germans, recalled how a guard who liked to kick prisoners was strongly rebuked by an officer. Everett Alvarez, who was tortured during his nine years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, said, “We’re not that kind of nation. It’s something I never thought we would do.” His comments reflect a typical disconnect between people’s idealized view of the U.S. and the reality of torture and massacres it has committed in Vietnam and elsewhere.

Letters to the editor roundly condemned “the atrocities committed by U.S. personnel in the Abu Ghraib prison,” to quote a Dallas-Fort Worth writer. An editorial in the Philadelphia Enquirer declared that the country must “begin showing by deeds that it grasps just how despicable and damaging these prison abuses were. It must hold accountable the powerful men whose policies led to these outrages.”

Artist Deborah Lawrence put the response of many into words in a powerful collage done on a metal tray, her “Apology-Shame-Sympathy Tray” (shown above). Within the outline of the hooded, shrouded prisoner who was told he would be electrocuted if he stepped off a small box, Lawrence writes, “Today, May 13, 2004, I apologize for the humiliation and torture of Iraqi civilians, and I apologize for the deaths, maiming and wounding of thousands of Iraqi people since the beginning of this atrocity.”

If only the U.S. government felt the same way.

The lies that failed. In dealing with the scandal, the Bush administration has attempted to ignore it, downplay it, blame it on poorly trained contractors, and treat it as a case of just a few bad apples. But hardly anyone is buying this. The government’s determination to remain unbound by treaties prohibiting torture and to be immune from prosecution for war crimes is too telling. It is increasingly acknowledged that similar abuse has been the practice in Afghanistan and Guantánamo, and in domestic prisons as well. The involvement of the CIA and Defense Department at the highest levels has been widely reported. The use of private contractors as interrogators is seen as a transparent attempt to operate with complete impunity.

In the opinion of Army Times, a weekly journal for the military: “This was a failure that ran straight to the top. Accountability here is essential — even if that means relieving top leaders from duty in a time of war.”

Journalist Seymour Hersh, who broke the original story, reports that “the notion that Arabs are particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation became a talking point among pro-war Washington conservatives” several months prior to the invasion of Iraq. Their sourcebook was a 1973 book called The Arab Mind, by Raphael Patai, which portrayed sex in general and homosexuality in particular as shameful and private to Arabs. The neo-conservatives drew two lessons from the book, “one, that Arabs only understand force and, two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation.”

Unable to deny the facts, the right wing is flailing around for excuses. Nationally syndicated radio shock-jock Rush Limbaugh argued that it was wrong to “hamper our military effort” and “ruin people’s lives because they had a good time,” referring to photos of happy soldiers tormenting Iraqi prisoners. “You know, these people are being fired at every day,” Limbaugh said. “You heard of the need to blow some steam off?” It’s hard to imagine many people bought his line.

A defensive, pro-U.S. posture was more likely to have been triggered by the retaliatory beheading of American Nick Berg by Iraqi insurgents. The grisly act was shown over and over on TV broadcasts and on the front page of every newspaper. This did not produce the desired effect, however, because of the Berg family’s brave insistence that it was the U.S. government that betrayed their son.

A deafening silence. If people in the U.S. are so horrified by the atrocities committed by “their own,” where is the response? Why have there been no giant protests and massive expressions of solidarity with the Iraqi people? It seems that public outrage has been deflated by political and movement leaders totally preoccupied with the upcoming presidential election. With the exception of the radical Left, the anti-war movement has shackled itself to the “anybody-but-Bush” bandwagon. But presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry is tiptoeing around Abu Ghraib because he is terrified to lose pro-war votes by saying anything critical of the troops.

Kerry has called for more troops and more money for the war effort. He says Defense Secretary Rumsfeld should resign, but only because the war has been “ineptly prosecuted.” He calls for delaying the court-martials of the Americans charged with atrocities. “I think it’s sort of a panicked move to try to display to the Arab world and others that we are going to, you know, do things immediately,” he said in an interview published in the May 13 Washington Post. “I think you have to think of morale of the military and the chain of command.”

Does khaki become her? People are struggling with the role of women at Abu Ghraib. Though polls show that women are less likely to support war than men, three of the seven soldiers charged with abuses are female, as is the now-suspended prison system commander, General Janis Karpinski. Specialist Sabrina Harman was the grinning woman giving the thumbs-up from behind a pile of naked, hooded Iraqi men. Private First Class Lynndie England was photographed with a naked Iraqi man on a leash and, in another shot, pointing playfully at the genitals of a man being forced to masturbate in front of other naked detainees. The first soldier to be prosecuted, Jeremy Sivits, testified that he saw England and Sergeant Javal Davis, an African American, stomping on prisoners’ feet and hands.

Opponents of women’s participation in combat, both on the Right and the Left, see Abu Ghraib as evidence for excluding women from the dirty business of war. “Feminists have done women no favor at all by insisting they be part of it,” wrote a conservative letter-writer to the Los Angeles Times. Noting how some male prisoners were forced to wear women’s underwear, Linda Burnham, the executive director of Women of Color Resource Center, wrote in the anti-war newspaper War Times, “Those who battled for women’s equal right to serve should take heed.”

But it’s too simple to hope that discriminatorily barring women (or people of color or queers) from the military will somehow protect their supposed moral superiority. In fact, the scandal has surely put to rest the female-chauvinist view that war is merely the product of rampant testosterone and that women just need to take the “toys” from the “boys.”

In addition, the idea that the end-goal of feminism is female power and authority within the current status quo must be rejected once and for all. As author Barbara Ehrenreich writes, “We need a tough new kind of feminism…We need a kind of feminism that aims not just to assimilate into the institutions that men have created over the centuries, but to infiltrate and subvert them.”

Feminists need to ask the question: if war isn’t caused by “male ego” or “male violence,” what is its source? The women’s movement needs to move beyond the biology-is-destiny analysis and understand that capitalism and its international incarnation, imperialism, are the driving forces behind war, poverty, racism, sexism and other horrors. Freedom for the second sex requires the liberation of every layer of humanity, and this, in turn, requires a radical, multi-issue, workingclass struggle that unites with oppressed people globally to put an end to the daily atrocities committed in the name of profits.

All sectors of the women’s movement must drop their single-issue focuses and take the responsibility to be actively anti-war and anti-capitalist. In speaking out against crimes by U.S. servicewomen, feminists must simultaneously denounce the widespread sexual assault within the military, and the nearly ignored issue of the ongoing rape and brutalization of Iraqi women by U.S. soldiers.

It’s time to get riled up! The U.S. anti-war movement must have the courage and principle to show the world its condemnation of Abu Ghraib and to let John Kerry fall where he may.

Activists must call for an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq and to the dehumanizing military training that turns workingclass youth into sadistic killers; for release of all prisoners at Guantánamo and return of the territory to Cuba; for jobs and education to create opportunities for young people now forced by poverty into the armed services; for defunding the military-industrial complex and throwing out Rumsfeld, Condaleezza Rice, and all the rest of the warmongers. Voices by the million must demand that the U.S. government apologize to the people of Iraq, get out of the Middle East, and pay reparations for its war crimes.

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