[Marxism] Abu Ghraib ‹ Systemic or Just an Aberration?

jacdon at earthlink.net jacdon at earthlink.net
Fri May 14 08:26:27 MDT 2004

By Jack A Smith 
There are many differences between the United States war in Iraq and the war
in Vietnam. But there are some obvious similarities. Both conflicts, for one
example, involved widespread brutality by the American armed forces toward
civilians and the torture of "suspected" enemies.
Thirty-five years ago, commenting on the American massacre in My Lai,
Vietnam, this author wrote an editorial in the Guardian weekly (US) that
contained the following paragraph: "This calculated slaughter of the
innocents is neither a mistake nor an aberration, neither a temporary moral
lapse on the part of weary GIs nor the debased sadism of a few perverts. The
murder of more than 500 civilian residents of My Lai - children in arms,
women and men - is the quintessential expression of American imperialism and
racism directed toward one hamlet in ravaged South Vietnam."
The murder, rape and torture of My Lai came to mind recently when President
George W Bush insisted that the shattering revelations of the use of torture
by the US military against inmates in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison were the
product of a "few people who have stained the honor of this country". He
argued, "that's not the way we do things in America".
The history of the US is nothing if not contradictory. Its extraordinarily
productive economy has transformed the US into the world's most powerful
state, and its society offers a certain degree of liberty, opportunity and
benefit to some - though hardly all - of its citizens. As such, those who
promote America depict the country as the apex of civilized development and
the beacon of freedom and democracy.
In this connection, of course, it must be noted that the history of the US
has been punctuated frequently by episodes of extreme barbarism, oppression
and torture toward largely non-European peoples since it was colonized
nearly 400 years ago. Our vast continental configuration is the product of a
long campaign of genocide and displacement of the indigenous population; our
economic growth was assisted until 1865 by over 200 years of slave labor
from kidnapped and brutalized Africans who were tortured at the whim of
their masters. 
Aside from the deplorable and violent conditions that exist in many American
prisons and the brutality and racism evident in some police departments,
torture in the conventional sense is not a routine practice within the US
proper, except for inhumane treatment in particular cases such as that of
Muslims rounded up in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the
Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
In our view, however, the events in Abu Ghraib prison constitute a metaphor
not only for the Bush administration's unjust war against Iraq, but for
Washington's frequent use of violence to extend and secure its economic and
political interests, in Latin America for over a century, and throughout the
globe after World War II. In a sense, the stunning new revelations were the
equivalent of Washington's swaggering deployment of overwhelming force to
subdue a virtually defenseless country - writ small in the grotesque "thumbs
up" jocularity that accompanied the enforced humiliation of terrorized
It may come as a surprise to some readers, but while a number of the
cruelties devised by the guards go beyond Bush administration guidelines,
many of their actions - once defined as "cruel and unusual" - are now
considered within bounds. The types of punishment approved by the present US
government include stripping detainees naked; the use of cameras to take
pictures of naked detainees; hooding for interrogation and for long periods
of time; requiring detainees to assume painful "stress" positions for long
periods of time; prolonged sleep deprivation; use of dogs to intimidate
prisoners during interrogation and elsewise; exposure to heat or cold or
cold water; sensory assault, including exposure to loud music and bright
lights; isolation longer than 30 days; and threatening prisoners with abuse.
The members of the US Military Police who joyfully perpetrated sadistic
outrages against Iraqi prisoners were undoubtedly under the impression,
albeit distorted, that they too were promoting America's interests. They may
have been poorly trained reservists resentful of prolonged service amid the
chaos and confusion of a bungled occupation, but they are also volunteers
who are continuously exposed to the full brunt of the Pentagon's "patriotic"
propaganda about Iraq constituting the very epicenter of a "war on
terrorism" that threatens to destroy their families and home towns. The Abu
Ghraib prisoners they tormented may well have been innocent civilians swept
up in mass arrests, but to the MPs they were possible terrorists who might
even be connected to September 11.
It is also likely that the seven prison guards (none of whom are officers)
soon to face trial on charges of brutalizing inmates believed it was their
responsibility to break the emotional and psychological will of their
victims in order ease the task of Military Intelligence interrogators
seeking information about the resistance forces. Their chosen means of
accomplishing this assignment was to contrive circumstances grossly
humiliating and disgraceful to Arab and Muslim men: public nakedness,
enforced masturbation and feigned homosexual acts in front of an audience
that included mocking young women soldiers. The photographs that so shocked
the world were taken to exacerbate this humiliation, but judging by the
smiles of several MPs posing in the background they were also intended to
function as mementos in later years when the former guards reminisce about
their wild and crazy year fighting for the freedom of Iraq and in defense of
the homeland. 
Obviously, the suggestion to force selected inmates to undergo sexual
humiliation came from the military and "contract" interrogators experienced
in techniques to expedite the acquisition of information from possibly
reluctant individuals. The willingness of these prison guards to comply with
such suggestions and to make sport of them as well bespeaks a deep-seated
racism toward Arabs and contempt for the religion of Muslims that found its
outlet in sexual degradation.
Fortunately, several of the Abu Ghraib guards disapproved of these
practices, which were widely known throughout the prison because the photos
had been circulated. One of the MPs, specialist Joseph M Darby, was
sufficiently upset enough to report the matter to the Army's Criminal
Investigation Division in January. Now back at their base in California,
three of the MPs who were also disgusted by the actions of their fellow
guards spoke to the press in early May. Said one: "They think that because
we're Americans you can do whatever you want." Another commented, "I went to
my superiors and said people were forgetting they're American soldiers," but
they did nothing about it. And another: "I don't understand why we had to be
so rude with these prisoners and beat the crap out of these guys."
Darby's revelation led to the late-February 53-page report on the situation
by Major General Antonio M Taguba, who detailed what he termed the
"sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses" at the prison. He also
implied that Military Intelligence, which had acquired control over the
prison section in question, sought to have the MPs participate in
pre-interrogation torments.
The report was immediately provided to top Pentagon brass, but it was not
intended to become public. The New Yorker magazine and author Seymour M
Hersh somehow "obtained" a copy and it became the subject of a two-part
article in early May. At around the same time, copies of several of the
incriminating photographs found their way to CBS News. General Richard
Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, personally requested that
the TV network delay showing the pictures, which it did for two weeks.
Interestingly, although Myers and his boss, Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld, possessed copies of the Taguba report for two months and had been
briefed about its contents, neither as of last week had actually read it.
Six of the MPs were charged with abuse of prisoners on March 20, but were it
not for the later leaked text of the report and especially the photos, it is
improbable that the full extent of these war crimes would have been publicly
revealed. Respected human rights agencies such as Amnesty International and
Human Rights Watch repeatedly charged the Pentagon with abuse and torture
since Iraq was invaded some 14 months ago, but their complaints were largely
ignored by the corporate mass media and the government until the photographs
made it impossible to suppress the extent of the abuse any longer.
The revelations have seriously compromised the Bush administration,
particularly abroad, but at home as well, coming at a time when US strategy
in Iraq has degenerated to a shambles due to the unanticipated resistance
movement and the ineptitude of the "coalition" occupation. Bush had been
expecting the impending trial of former president Saddam Hussein to help
pave the way for his reelection in November, based on his "liberation" of
Iraq from "Saddam's torture chambers". At this stage such a comparison would
be counterproductive, although by election day American voters may have
forgotten all about it. (A CNN poll not long ago resulted in 47 percent of
respondents agreeing that torture may be justified during interrogation.)
Bush's politically centrist Democratic rival, Senator John Kerry - who
supports the war but insists he can "manage" it better than the present
administration by attracting troops and money from presently aloof allies -
criticized the president for a failure of leadership that helped lead to the
prison abuses. On May 12 he specifically mentioned the administration's
demonstrated indifference to the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of
prisoners: "This is something that comes out of an attitude about the rights
of prisoners of war; it's an attitude that comes out of America's overall
arrogance in its policy that is alienating countries around the world."
Bush and Kerry agree, however, that it is in imperial Washington's interests
to depict the incidents at Abu Ghraib as the work of just a few US soldiers
and not an outgrowth of America's actions over the years. Kerry stated that
"what happened over there is not the behavior of 99.9 percent of our
troops". A few days earlier, Myers declared that that "just a handful" of
soldiers are guilty of mistreating Iraqi prisoners." On a surprise visit to
Abu Ghraib May 13, Rumsfeld pronounced the misdeeds to be an aberration.
Clearly, those who rule America are united in fighting the not unreasonable
notion that the use of torture by the US military is systemic.
The same attempts to reduce the scope of US misdeeds to the actions of a
"few bad apples" is another reminder of official attitudes when particularly
heinous war crimes were uncovered in Vietnam. A certain army major working
in Vietnam as a staff officer with the Americal Division (a unit of which
was responsible for the My Lai Massacre) wrote the following response to
allegations from an enlisted man that the division was engaging in the
murder and torture of Vietnamese civilians: "There may be isolated cases of
mistreatment of civilians and POWs," the major wrote on December 13, 1968,
nine months after My Lai but before the incident became public knowledge in
the US "[But] this by no means reflects the general attitude throughout the
division ... In direct refutation of this portrayal [from the
whistle-blowing GI] is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers and
the Vietnamese people are excellent." It took almost another year for the
truth about My Lai to become published. The major's attempted coverup did
him no harm, however. He was ultimately promoted to general and, in January
2001, Colin Powell became the US Secretary of State.
Actually, torture is not uncommon in terms of Washington's interaction with
many other countries and in the overall "war on terrorism". Let's look at a
few of Washington's experiences with torture in modern times.
After organizing the overthrow of the elected government of Iran in 1953 in
order to install a puppet monarchy in Teheran - a political catastrophe
resulting in the torture and deaths of thousands of defenders of democracy -
the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) created SAVIC, one of the most vicious
secret police agencies in the world. To protect its investment, the CIA
trained SAVIC in the most up-to-day varieties of torture, which it deployed
with abandon until the Shah of Iran was ousted a quarter-century later.
Starting in the mid-1960s, various US government agencies trained the
right-wing regime in Uruguay in the refinements of torture. In addition to
providing lessons, and taking part in the torture of dissidents and
suspected communists in Uruguay, the CIA offered two-month training courses
in the US. Over the years the same instructions were provided to the
governments of Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and
other Latin American regimes, leading to the mass use of torture in Latin
America and to the creation of the notorious death squads.
America's most well documented direct participation in mass torture took
place during the Vietnam War years when the CIA and US soldiers subjected
tens of thousands of poor peasants and "Viet Cong" suspects to the most
painful punishments devised since the Inquisition. My Lai was not unique.
Nearly 30 years after Vietnam was liberated, the hidden horrors perpetuated
by the US are still emerging. The Toledo (Ohio) Blade newspaper won a
Pulitzer Prize last month for exposing the atrocities and tortures conducted
by the so-called Tiger Force unit.
The US involvement with torture has increased measurably since the Bush
administration launched its "war on terrorism" in September 2001, but most
of it is conducted outside the country in various concentration camps
operated by the Pentagon in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay (Cuba); in
smaller secret facilities run by the CIA in unnamed locations in order to
interrogate alleged top al-Qaeda suspects; and in foreign countries within
Washington's orbit which engage in torture themselves.
This latter practice is known as "rendering," and it consists of turning
alleged "terror suspects" over to foreign intelligence services for torture,
usually with an agent of the US in attendance. According to the Washington
Post of May 11, "Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are well-known
destinations for suspected terrorists" identified by the American
government. The article revealed that "the Saudis currently are detaining
and interrogating [torturing] about 800 terrorism suspects, said a senior
Saudi official. Their fate is largely controlled by Saudi-based joint
intelligence tasks forces, whose members include officers form the CIA, FBI
[Federal Bureau of Investigation] and other US law enforcement agencies."
All told, over 43,000 Iraqis have been arrested by the US occupation army,
up to 90 percent of whom, according to a February report by the usually
reticent International Red Cross, had been "arrested by mistake". Many have
been subjected to brutality by American troops. Many have been injured or
tortured. Many were incarcerated for months without the knowledge of their
families. None had legal representation. Some were killed. Amnesty, Human
Rights Watch and the Red Cross have identified hundreds of such incidents
since the invasion began in March, 2003. The Red Cross concluded that US
arrest and detention policies in Iraq "are prohibited under international
humanitarian law". Even Washington's hand-picked and usually pliant Iraqi
Governing Council several months ago bitterly complained to the ruling
Coalition Provisional Authority about arrest and incarceration abuses, to no
So far, 34,000 of the apprehended Iraqis have been released without charges.
Most of the rest will be released in time - a process that has been
accelerated since the Abu Ghraib crimes became publicly known. Only 600 have
ever been charged with a crime, mostly of a civil nature. And nearly all of
those arrested, including opponents of Saddam, now despise the US for
portraying itself as a "liberator" while acting in the fashion of an
The Abu Ghraib episode is not a question of a few GIs "staining the honor of
their country". It's a matter of the Bush administration undermining what
remains of America's honor by engaging in brutal tactics against a civilian
population after killing 10,000 other non-combatants in an unjust and
illegal war. 
Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia
Times Online, http://www.atimes.com, and is republished with permission.

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