May
28th 2009
No more photos from Abu Ghraib because of rape scenes?

Posted under: American history, book reviews, captivity, Gender, unhappy endings, women's history

UPDATED BELOW

That’s what the Daily Telegraph says that Major General Antonio Taguba told them!  (Hat tip The Daily Beast.)  How utterly predictable!

At least one picture shows an American soldier apparently raping a female prisoner while another is said to show a male translator raping a male detainee.

Further photographs are said to depict sexual assaults on prisoners with objects including a truncheon, wire and a phosphorescent tube.

Another apparently shows a female prisoner having her clothing forcibly removed to expose her breasts.

 What–you thought that invasion and occupation were going to be easy? 

Detail of the content emerged from Major General Antonio Taguba, the former army officer who conducted an inquiry into the Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq.

Allegations of rape and abuse were included in his 2004 report but the fact there were photographs was never revealed. He has now confirmed their existence in an interview with the Daily Telegraph.

The graphic nature of some of the images may explain the US President’s attempts to block the release of an estimated 2,000 photographs from prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan despite an earlier promise to allow them to be published.

I thought it was politically foolish for President Obama to block the release of the photos earlier this month.  Even if the court order to release the photos is reversed, they’ll come out one way or the other.  Because ours is an age of infinite digital photo transmission and duplication, the photos (or more just like them) are bound to surface one of these days, and better they come out when Obama is the new guy so that he’s not blamed for what was done on his predecessor’s watch.  I understand the argument about jeopardizing the standing of the U.S. in the world, but if the U.S. really cared about its standing in the world, it should put all of the photos out there ASAP in the name of transparency and try to bring the offenders to justice.  That’s how the rule of law works.  Remember the rule of law?  Oh, for the days when a tacky fling was grounds for impeachment!

But–all of that is just politics.  What I care about much more is the fact that women and men were raped and sexually humiliated, and that those practices were all a part of the terror apparatus of running Abu Ghraib under the U.S. flag.  We shouldn’t be surprised at this–after all, rape and sexual abuse travel with armies wherever they go in the modern world.  Let’s be honest about what it takes to invade and occupy a country indefinitely, and let’s have the photos, too. 

I was invited to a university to give a talk about Abraham in Arms when it was first published, and a woman in the audience (herself a women’s historian) commented, “this is all so true–we know that women and children are involved in wars and that they’re hurt and killed in them, and yet we have to learn this anew with every war.  Why is that?  Why do we always forget?”  Great questions!  There is in fact a concerted ideological attempt to distort the history of every war:  we erase the women and remember only those men who conducted themselves honorably and bravely.  In the modern world, war is the one realm of achievement left (largely) to men, where women have not yet made a place for themselves.  We seem to want to cling desperately to that notion of male citizenship and patriotism being built around service in war precisely because women are largely excluded from what we like to imagine is a struggle among men without “collateral damage.” 

How sad that the Obama administration is more like the Bush administration in this respect.

UPDATE, 5/28/09, this afternoon:  Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman says that the Daily Telegraph “has completely mischaracterized the images,” and that “[n]one of the photos in question depict the images that are described in that article.”  Uhhh, Pentagon?  I think you need to take it up with Major General Taguba, not with the Daily Telegraph, since he is their source on the record for the “characterization” of the photos.  I have a little question:  if there are no photos of rape or sexual torture, why can’t we see them?  The only way to prove your point is to release the photos.  So, spare us the posturing about “characterizations,” and prove it.

I guess Bryan Whitman and his Pentagon bosses were absent that day in school when they taught that lesson about how the coverup is worse than the original crime.  This is starting to remind me of when someone published naked photos of Dr. Laura on the world wide non-peer reviewed internets, and her attorneys argued that 1) she wasn’t the naked lady in the photos, but 2) she nevertheless sued for copyright infringement.  Good luck, Pentagon–you’re going to need it.

16 Comments »

16 Responses to “No more photos from Abu Ghraib because of rape scenes?”

  1. Erica on 28 May 2009 at 9:26 am #

    I’d being overjoyed to never have to see those pictures — but only if they are used to identify and appropriately punish the perpetrators. It’s pretty well accepted that rapists are psychopaths… but how depraved do you have to be to stand there and calmly photograph somebody raping a prisoner? Nobody should drag their feet on prosecuting this mess.

  2. Emma on 28 May 2009 at 9:33 am #

    “We shouldn’t be surprised at this–after all, rape and sexual abuse travel with armies wherever they go in the modern world.”

    Rape and sexual abuse are weapons of war, as was shown in Rawanda, Darfur, and Serbia. There were UN war crime tribunals in Rawanda and Serbia. Shouldn’t there be UN war crime tribunals for Iraq/Abu Ghraib?

    We seem to want to cling desperately to that notion of male citizenship and patriotism being built around service in war

    This reminds me of the movie Glory where the point of the Black troops finally getting into combat was that it would make them men and, therefore, actual citizens. The emancipation proclamation, being in the army, no longer being enslaved was not enough. They needed combat to regain the manhood taken from them by slavery and only having achieved that manhood could they then achieve citizenship.

    I would argue that “male” and “citizenship” are coextensive and that war is the way one becomes both a man and a citizen. Women are allowed only partial citizenship and de jure exclusion of women from combat is central to this usually unremarked upon state of affairs.

  3. Emma on 28 May 2009 at 9:35 am #

    Also, it explains why everybody knows Lynndie England’s name but not Charles Graner’s name. Woman transgressing!! Woman transgressing!! It’s like that back-up beep that trucks have: something’s happening! Be aware!

    When, in fact, Graner, as a non-commissioned officer in charge of his unit, was more responsible for what was done than England.

  4. Historiann on 28 May 2009 at 9:59 am #

    Emma writes: “Women are allowed only partial citizenship and de jure exclusion of women from combat is central to this usually unremarked upon state of affairs.”

    Yes–exactly. You said it much more elegantly than I, but that’s what I was going for. As for England and Graner: at the time those photos were taken she was having an affair with Graner, so the intertwining of sexuality, violence, and dominance is complex indeed. (I think she gave birth to a child by him–as I recall, she was pregnant at her trial.)

    Erica, I don’t myself really want to see it either–but speaking of citizenship, we all have to be adult citizens now, not the infantilized subjects that Bush preferred. And, I think Americans owe it to the world to confront the ugly reality of our empire.

  5. Profane on 28 May 2009 at 10:42 am #

    Emma and Historiann – check out Robert Heinlein’s novel _Starship Troopers_ (if that is not what you were already thinking of!)

  6. John S. on 28 May 2009 at 10:48 am #

    I have one nagging doubt about releasing the remaining photos. Releasing photos of detainees is, as far as I understand it, a violation of the Geneva convention. I think the idea behind it is that releasing photos of prisoners would represent a further humiliation on top of their being taken prisoner.

    Now–this is an amazing catch-22. Because we know that sooo many of the prisoners we have taken have been abused–physically, emotionally, mentally, what have you. And releasing the photos of these abuses is one of the best ways to get the problem out into the open. But there is the part of me that still feels like there is something exploitative about it, and that there’s a good reason why there have been conventions against it.

    (My nagging doubts about this have been exacerbated, I think, but the ridiculous attempts cable news outlets have made to “anonymize” the photos–the tiny black bar over the eyes does very little, I think. It just feels like war porn to me, I don’t know.)

    9 times out of 10 I am angry that the photos are being withheld and that we aren’t being more transparent about what happened. 100% of the time I am angry that we haven’t sent more people to jail and tried those really responsible for this. (I mean you, Dick Cheney.) But that 10th time, I wonder.

  7. Emma on 28 May 2009 at 10:50 am #

    Profane –

    I was thinking Starship Troopers but, alas, the movie and not the book. :)

  8. Emma on 28 May 2009 at 11:25 am #

    Hi John S.,

    The government already made the Geneva Conventions argument, which was rejected by the 2nd Circuit when it ordered the photos released. From the ACLU website:

    What is not surprising is the 2nd Circuit’s rejection of the government’s attempt to seek refuge in the Geneva Conventions. The Geneva Conventions were designed to prevent the abuse of prisoners, not to derail efforts to hold the government accountable for those abuses. In fact, as the court recognized, the government’s argument based upon the Geneva Conventions—that releasing photos of abuse violates the Geneva Conventions even when identifying features are redacted—is quite novel. Previous administrations have taken the opposite view. Most notably, after World War II, it was the U.S. government that widely released photos of prisoners in Japanese and German prison and concentration camps. Those pictures showed emaciated prisoners, subjugated detainees, and even corpses. But the United States championed the use of the photos as a means of holding the perpetrators accountable.

    Link to the ACLU page: http://blog.aclu.org/2008/09/23/court-orders-release-of-detainee-abuse-photos/

  9. Historiann on 28 May 2009 at 11:34 am #

    Emma, thanks for your fact-filled reply on the Geneva Conventions argument. John S., I think the government can obscure or blur the faces of the victims–it would seem inhumane not to. (You’re right that the black bar over the eyes doesn’t quite do it, but they can digitally pixelate faces, etc.)

  10. ej on 28 May 2009 at 2:41 pm #

    I realize that this is a tricky situation politically (and obviously a horrible situation in terms of humanity generally), but it does seem to me like the current administration is going out of their way to cover up the misdeeds of the previous one, and I’m not really sure why. As awful as it all is, I do think transparency should be the goal. Maybe that just means admitting that the photos are horrible and it would endanger American soldiers if they were released, but even that level of honesty does seem to be lacking in their current approach.

  11. Digger on 28 May 2009 at 4:07 pm #

    Sady posted today on Tiger Beatdown about the same issue.
    http://tigerbeatdown.blogspot.com/2009/05/oh-no.html

    I do not Not NOT want to see those pictures. I don’t want to see people being tortured, raped, humiliated, dying. I don’t want others looking at them for entertainment. I don’t want to see them on what passes for news, where they will be presented as “solemn witness to history” but will really be “OMG Look At The Torturez!” sensationalism. Followed by commentary that “Eh, that’s not so bad.” I find it dehumanizing and depressing.

    But, I do have to agree that a)someone has to face the music for the fact that it happened and b) if the government doesn’t release them, they’ll get leaked.

    Yeah, so I’m left with, WTF is wrong with people?

  12. Historiann on 28 May 2009 at 4:08 pm #

    Yes, ej–the pessimists among us might be tempted to wonder if the Obama administration is reluctant to expose the Bush admin because they plan to be up to the same old tricks.

    I don’t get what they think their interest is in sweeping it under the rug.

  13. Z on 29 May 2009 at 10:49 am #

    What their interest is — same as the interest in covering it up was in other torture states, was my first thought. Then I thought no, we aren’t there yet. The war isn’t over yet, the people who designed this are still in the government.

    I hate to think they are planning to continue but one insight I had from starting to write this comment is that they still want to torture US. Because having torture go on and having the public half know about it, half not know, is a way of scaring/horrifying, yet keeping in doubt/ keeping in control that way. It’s weakening the way torture is.

    I know a lot of tortured people because of knowing all these South Americans and being old enough to remember the 70s and 80s and so on. I’ve heard of the torturers taking victims out ON BREAK to dinner at fancy restaurants — without making a huge effort to hide the situation of these victims — so that people catch a glimpse of them.

    There’s something like that happening here. Now it’s happening, now it’s not, now it’s defined as torture, now it’s not, this much happens, no it doesn’t … etc. … and I haven’t figured it out but it feels like some sort of authoritarian power move.

    *******

    I appreciate the porn analogy, largely because of the vogue in the U.S. for testimonial novels about the 1980s horrors in Central America and elsewhere, which sometimes looked like a taste for porn masquerading as a defense of human rights.

    And these photos are in a porn like situation now, being forbidden, getting leaked out, and so on.

    But for it not to be a porn like situation EVERYTHING HAS TO COME OUT and not be a secret.

    I also agree with Historiann’s comment above, we’re adults now. When I was very small my mother was very careful about leaving Life Magazine and Newsweek around because they were full of pictures of war wounded, gruesome accidents, things like this which she thought would give us nightmares. You may decide what you want to see or not when you are in junior high! said she. In the meantime, I am deciding, and I prefer to err on the side of caution!

    I am sure she was right, and I appreciate it, but I am definitely out of elementary school now.

  14. susurro on 30 May 2009 at 4:33 pm #

    one of the things I pointed out when I wrote on this topic last week is that the photos have been in circulation since 2004 as have internal and external Human Rights agencies’ reports on the issue of sexual assault in Abu Ghraib. These images are still archived on the internet from the 2004 blog swarm on the issue. While there are supposedly some 6,000 photos and video, and what is available on the internet is only about 4-5 pictures, the bottom line is everyone (including the “Arab world”) has already seen them. So why the controversy now? Why the suppression as if those 4-5 photos are not damning enough? And why aren’t we discussing why everyone knows and recognizes the images of torture of male prisoners but the images of torture of female prisoners, and the homophobic stories that go along with some of the male prison photos we have all seen, were suppressed or erased even then?

  15. shaz on 01 Jun 2009 at 10:35 pm #

    Ok, here’s a totally sideways thought: why would pictures of rape (perhaps especially rape of men?) be so much worse than other forms of torture? Not to say that all of this doesn’t turn my stomach, and not that I don’t get the symbolic humiliation of sexual assault in these situations, but I do ponder why — if news reports are accurate (and they may not be, further reporting suggests) — rape would be the reason not to release the pictures. What is underlying our sexual belief system that sexual assault is so much more horrific than attacking dogs, electrocution, and all the other utterly horrifying tortures sanctioned by the U.S. government? Why does rape, which we’re happy to implicitly allow in daily life, push so many buttons in this scenario?

  16. Historiann on 01 Jun 2009 at 10:42 pm #

    Shaz, I don’t think it’s so much that rape pushes buttons, it’s that as in the rest of everyday life in the U.S., we work really, really hard to keep it invisible and to ignore it or define it out of existence when it becomes visible. Rendering rape and sexual torture invisible is part of what makes them such powerful tools for humiliating and controlling people, whether those people are 18th C slaves, 19th C free women, 20th C college students, or 21st century wrongly detained prisoners of war. I re-read Trevor Burnard’s 2004 book Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire recently, and this is an idea that this book really drove home.

    This is not to suggest that rape and sexual abuse are the same across time and space–but rather to suggest continuities across our culture in its treatment of rape and sexual assault.