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Politics

Iconography

8 May 2004

Iconography

By Gwynne Dyer

The defining image of the Vietnam war was the naked little girl running down the road crying, her clothes burned off by napalm. The defining image of the Iraq war will probably be Private Lynndie England in a corridor in Abu Ghraib prison, holding a leash attached to a naked Iraqi man lying on the floor. It is the picture that best conveys the contempt that ordinary American soldiers (and the government that sent them) feel for Arabs.

Maybe I’m wrong. US Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld told the Senate armed services committee last week that “the worst is yet to come. There are a lot more pictures and many investigations underway….I looked at them last night, and they’re hard to believe….It’s not a pretty picture.” But the symbolism of this one will be hard to beat.

Iraqis “must understand that what took place in that prison does not represent the America that I know,” said President Bush, and he was right. Americans do not generally do this to other Americans. But it did happen in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and things very like it have probably happened in American prisons in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo, too. Private England and her friends may have been enjoying it too much, but the systematic humiliation of prisoners is probably policy.

‘R2I’ is short for ‘resistance to interrogation.’ It’s a course that most military people whose jobs put them at risk of being captured — pilots, special forces, etc. — have to take. They are exposed to the full battery of techniques that enemy interrogators might use against them (keeping them naked, sexual humiliation, anything that will ‘prolong the shock of capture’ and weaken their will), but only in small and manageable doses. It’s a kind of immunisation against ‘torture lite’ interrogation techniques.

But US and British interrogators also know these techniques, and so do the thousands of ex-special forces people who now work in Iraq. (One result of Rumsfeld’s obsession with keeping US troop numbers down in Iraq, in order to prove that the US can invade countries like Iraq without incurring a big political cost at home, is the 20,000 ‘contractors’ doing paramilitary jobs in the country.)

Do they employ these techniques in Iraq and elsewhere? Pierre Kraehenbuehl, director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said in Switzerland: “We are dealing here with a broad pattern, not individual acts. There was a pattern and a system.” The ICRC has been warning the US of mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq for over a year.

Amnesty International concurs. “Our extensive research in Iraq suggests that this is not an isolated incident….(We have ) received frequent reports of torture or other ill-treatment by coalition forces during the past year. Detainees have reported being routinely subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment during arrest or detention…Virtually none of the allegations of torture or ill-treatment has been adequately investigated by the authorities.”

General Janis Karpinski, who commanded Abu Ghraib prison when those pictures were taken, is being set up to take the fall for all this. She was a reservist, reluctant to challenge regulars, so she didn’t protest when military intelligence officers at Abu Ghraib discouraged her from visiting the cell block where they interrogated prisoners, or went to great lengths to keep the Red Cross from visiting their wing of the prison.

When General Geoffrey Miller, then the commandant at Guantanamo, flew into Iraq last September to offer “suggestions on how to make interrogations more efficient and effective,” she didn’t ask exactly what he meant — even when he talked of making the prison an “enabler for interrogation” and said that the guards should “set the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees.” Now she has been relieved of her command — and replaced by the very same General Miller. This is a system, not an individual’s aberrant behaviour.

It was all for naught, though, because most of the people detained at Abu Ghraib, at Bagram in Afghanistan, at Guantanamo and in the rest of the gulag are just innocent bystanders. “A unit goes out on a raid and…the target is not available; they just grab anybody because that was their job,” Torin Nelson, a former military intelligence officer at Guantanamo who worked as a contractor at Abu Ghraib, told the ‘Guardian.’ “They’re not cultural experts….I’ve read reports from capturing units where the capturing unit wrote, ‘the target was not at home. The neighbour came out to see what was going on and we grabbed him.”‘ And then somebody else tortured him.

The American troops in Iraq are not cultural, political or historical experts. They are frightened and far from home, and a hundred Hollywood movies have taught them that Arabs are dirty, sly, cruel enemies of all that is good. The deliberately misleading propaganda of their own government has persuaded most of them that they are in Iraq as part of a ‘war on terror.’ (Even at home, according to a University of Maryland study, 57 percent of Americans “believe that before the war Iraq was providing substantial support to al-Qaida,” and 65 percent believe that “experts” found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.) So many US soldiers see Iraqis as inferior and hostile, and all the rest follows.

The pictures that have shocked the Arab and the wider Muslim world are not just about isolated instances of abuse. They are evidence of something bigger and uglier: a wilful ignorance and patronising contempt that disfigures the entire US intervention in the Middle East. We will all be paying for this for many years.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“Amnesty…authorities”; and “it was…him”)