"It is a mean, nasty, dangerous, dirty business out there, and we have to operate in that arena."
"They shall at all times be treated humanely, and shall be protected especially against acts of violence or threats thereof and against insults and public curiosity."
--Fourth Geneva Convention
Abu Ghraib. Just what do those two words convey? The infamous photos of what occurred there surely say it all. We'd never know what the U.S. military police and military intelligence officials did at Abu Ghraib Prison if those involved hadn't taken those photos of what they inflicted upon the Iraqi "detainees"—that all-encompassing term for anyone—the guilty as well as the innocent--caught by the U.S. Forces in Iraq during their sweeps. And what did those in authority at Abu Ghraib inflict? By the accounts of those who were there, both captors and captives--torture, sodomy, and homicide.
But if the photographs tell the entire story, then why would one of the more important books on Abu Ghraib, Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris's Standard Operating Procedure, not include a single photo? Why would the authors say, ". . . but they [the photos] are not the story . . . ."
From a letter by an MP at Abu Ghraib during the time of the detainee abuse:
Okay, I don't like that anymore. At first it was funny but these people are going too far. I ended your letter last night because it was time to wake the MI prisoners and "mess with them" but it went too far even I can't handle whats going on. I cant get it out of my head. I walk down stairs after blowing the whistle and beating on the cells with an asp to find "the taxicab driver" handcuffed backwards to his window naked with his underwear over his head and face. He looked like Jesus Christ. At first I had to laugh so I went on and grabbed the camera and took a picture. One of the guys took my asp and started "poking" at his dick. Again I thought, okay that's funny then it hit me, that's a form of molestation. You can't do that. I took more pictures now to "record" what is going on . . . . Not many people know this shit goes on. The only reason I want to be there is to get the pictures and prove that the U.S. is not what they think. But I don't know if I can take it mentally. What if that was me in their shoes. The people will be our future terrorist. Kelly, its awful and you know how fucked I am in the head. Both sides of me think its wrong. I thought I could handle anything. I was wrong.
Not all speak with the clarity of the MP, above, who was herself involved in the incidents. Here is a voice from the homefront:
You know if you look at—if you, really, if you look at these pictures, I mean, I don't know if it's just me, but it looks just like anything you'd see Madonna, or Britney Spears do on stage. Maybe I'm—yeah. And get an NEA grant for something like this. I mean, this is something that you can see on stage at Lincoln Center from an NEA grant, maybe on Sex in the City—the movie. I mean, I don't—it's just me.
--Rush Limbaugh, Rush Limbaugh Show, May 4, 2004
Limbaugh's insistence on innocence reminds me of a line in Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American when the narrator, a jaded journalist, comments on the American democracy-preaching CIA-agent: "Innocence is a kind of insanity."
Even though Gourevitch and Morris keep the photos of Abu Ghraib from their book, they cannot avoid them. In this excerpt, the authors describe one of the more infamous Abu Ghraib photos, where MP Lynndie England holds a leash with a detainee they called Gus on the other end:
His body, bare except for an ID bracelet that England might have made and snapped on him, is streaked with filth. He lies with his right arm outstretched on the concrete, and his left arm crooked over his throat with the hand bearing the weight of his stiffly elevated head. His legs are splayed in an awkward sort of frog-kick position. He looks like a man writhing in pain.
Yet not all see the same thing. While some might see sexual humiliation here, others see nothing out of the ordinary. At least that's true of Lynndie England. Here's her response to it: "That's standard operating procedure."
This much Terese Svoboda knows—her Uncle Don served as a military policeman in postwar Japan, guarding American soldiers, most of them African American. Nearly eighty-years-old, her uncle listens to news of Abu Ghraib and sees the photos. It triggers a deep depression he cannot recover from. He takes his life. But why? What happened in Japan while he was serving as an MP? Svoboda's memoir Black Glasses Like Clark Kent: A GI's Secret from Postwar Japan documents her attempt to answer that question.
Svoboda's quest takes her to the National Archives and to Japan. She interviews elderly Japanese who might have interacted with MPs or GIs who escaped the prison during those postwar years. She examines historical documents, WWII histories, movies, plays, even Madame Butterfly. She interviews fellow MPs who served with her uncle, or at the same time and place. She learns much about governmental secrecy and the covering-up of unpleasant truths—but all she ends up with is smoke:
Smoke, that's what I'm in pursuit of: Tokyo in ruins just after the war, the Japanese valleys smoky with spray from the crooked rivers, the smoky taste of summer sake clear as water, all that cigarette smoke from the GI bars, the smoky sex from the Japanese panpan girls with their long red fingernails, my uncle's smoking thievery, the smoke of the 1973 fire in the National Archives, which burned all the records of so many military men and their mistakes, the smoke of cremation, how bodies disappear when they can't be buried, and the smoke of silence, of words unsaid. (173)
Smoke from accidents and the passing of time? Or smoke created by those wishing to hide the past? Perhaps the tapes her uncle recorded of his days at the stockade will reveal the truth.
The tapes seem to hint at horrible events, yet offer no specifics. After her uncle's death, the author receives the last tape her uncle recorded. However, "there's nothing on it. Curiously, on the back side there's a bit of a news report on Abu Ghraib." No one knows how it got there.
Did her uncle die before recording the searing memory that Abu Ghraib triggered? Did one particular photo taken by US MPs in Abu Ghraib echo an act he saw in the Eighth Army stockade in 1946? Did he erase the tape by mistake? Did someone else erase it? Did he take his life, unable to put the crime—which he witnessed or took part in—on tape? No answers. Svoboda seems eager to close the book on her uncle's death, and by the end, you can't blame her. She's touched on miseries almost too much to endure, and only worse can emerge if she continues to dig. But this small memoir, written in a fractured style, about a man broken by the weight of memory, never directly approaches the horrors of Abu Ghraib, which only attests to its uncharted depths.
"Like something from a Mad Max movie." That's how Sergeant Javal Davis, of the 372nd MPs, describes Abu Ghraib in early October, 2003. "We went through the wall, and it's nothing but rubble, blown-up buildings, dogs running all over the place, rabid dogs, burnt remains. The stench was unbearable—urine, feces, body rot," he continues. The lot of the prisoners? "The encampment they were in when we saw if at first looked like one of those Hitler things almost," Davis states. "Whatever the worst thing that comes to your mind, that was it—the place you would never, ever, ever send your worst enemy," he concludes. Davis, surprising in his outspokenness, says of his Abu Ghraib service: "The place turned me into a monster." How easy it is to assume that those who afflict torture do not suffer from it as well.
Seeing a man after he was hanged is not a pretty sight . . . I dream of seeing things I wish I hadn't seen . . . As a guard there are things I can't tell you.
--from a letter by Frank S., to Terese Svoboda,
who had been a guard in postwar Japan,
Black Glasses Like Clark Kent.
The guard had a phosphoric light,
Next to the man's ass he held it,
And he stuck it into his ass,
So the man screamed for help to us;
There was another guard helping him,
And a female soldier had come,
Taking pictures of this activity;
The man is still there, you can verify.
--from "Mustafa," in The Song of the Captives
". . . if you fight terror with terror, how can you tell which is which?"
--Standard Operating Procedure.
Regardless of what you think of the poems in The Song of the Captives, made from testimony of the detainees held at Abu Ghraib Prison, you have to admire Jabez Van Cleef. The lines above—describing an act reported by more than one detainee--are taken from the testimony of a captive named "Mustafa," but after you've read a number of these poems, each named for the detainee who gave the testimony, you start to think that these are poems written by the detainees themselves (like Poems from Guatanamo: The Detainees Speak). Unfortunately they are not.
I say unfortunately because I expect more from a poet, someone who crafts language in the safety and comfort of his home. The poems in The Song of the Captives often feel heavy-handed and crude. They often employ forced rhymes: "One of them said, You have a wife? / I said Yes, and I fear for her life." Another problem with the poems is the mangled English: "Some they pissed on after they beat" and "Calling us all abusive things / And other humiliating." Is it the original translation that makes this sound so stilted? Or Van Cleef's wrenching efforts to create rhyme? Or is he perhaps trying to create voices that reflect hours of torture? Or is it simply poorly proofread? Whatever the answer, his poems achieve a kind of raw power, despite (and perhaps because of?) Van Cleef's efforts to poetize the language.
Here's one example, from "Mustafa":
Here I would like to make a point
Which to my mind is important:
There were three guards who did these things.
The other guards were very good
And with them I could hold up my head.
The captives like them and respect them,
And were happy when they would come.
The others gave a good image
And do not treat us like garbage;
They show there is a big difference
Between your country and our former rulers.
his stanza stands out from the usual litany of horror. Who could imagine such behavior: "They called the doctor in to stitch it, / And he sewed it while they all watched, / Then after the doctor was done, / They started beating him again"? Not only does Mustafa's praise of the "good" guards seem out of place, but it lends credibility to the detainee, the poem, and the book. Such is the nature of this strange book.
To add to the strangeness: in the back of the book, Van Cleef informs the reader that "The texts in this book may be set to tunes and sung." He even includes some music, which he informs us is "four-part Anglican chant (tunes are in the public domain)." I must admit, I would go to the church, mosque, temple, or coffeehouse that would perform these poems. Not only would it be surreal, but it might be a way for Americans to begin to come to grips with what happened at Abu Ghraib.
There is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation and we're going to ruin people's lives over it and we're going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being fired at every day. I'm talking about people have a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of need to blow steam off?
--Rush Limbaugh, Rush Limbaugh Show,
May 4, 2004
Perhaps Limbaugh is thinking of fraternity and sorority hazing rituals? I'm not sure those being initiated would call it a "good time." But regardless of whether the initiates enjoy the abuse, it's worth noting that colleges rule hazing against the law and prosecute those who haze.
Article 5. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
--The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Why are Errol Morris and Philip Gourevitch so disenchanted with the photographs of Abu Ghraib? Why do they insist that the photos don't tell the entire story? This passage from Standard Operating Procedure says it rather well:
But no soldier above the rank of sergeant ever served jail time. No civilian interrogators ever faced legal proceedings. Nobody was ever charged with torture, or war crimes, or any violations of the Geneva Conventions. Nobody ever faced charges for keeping prisoners naked, or shackled. Nobody ever faced charges for holding prisoners as hostages. Nobody ever faced charges for incarcerating children who were accused of no crime and pose no known security threat. Nobody ever faced charges for holding thousands of prisoners in a combat zone in constant danger of their lives. Nobody ever faced charges for arresting thousands of civilians without direct cause and holding them indefinitely, incommunicado, in concentration camp conditions. Nobody ever faced charges for shooting and killing prisoners who were confined behind concertina wire. And nobody has ever been held to account for murdering al-Jamadi in the Tier 1B shower . . . .
Al-Jamadi is the name of the detainee who was brutalized by his American questioners, who claimed that he died of a "heart attack." The MPs who handled the body reported bleeding from his nose and numerous bruises on the body, leaving no doubt that he was beaten to death by his captors.
Were one to cast an ironic eye at human endeavor, one might conclude, like Wislawa Szymborska in "Tortures," that
Nothing has changed.
The body still trembles as it trembled
before Rome was founded and after,
in the twentieth century before and after Christ.
Tortures are just what they were, only the earth has shrunk
and whatever goes on sounds as if it's just a room away.
. . .
Nothing has changed.
Except perhaps the manners, ceremonies, dances.
The gesture of the hands shielding the head
has nonetheless remained the same.
The body writhes, jerks, and tugs
falls to the ground when shoved, pulls up its knees,
bruises, swells, drools, and bleeds.
Though Joshua Casteel, a military interrogator, came to Abu Ghraib after the revelation of prisoner abuse, the situation there quickly led him to become a conscientious objector, which he recounts in Letters from Abu Ghraib. His letters deal with the ethical and moral dilemmas posed by the role of interrogation:
To the legalist-extremist Muslim, evil is something that can be eliminated by eliminating the "evil-doer." If a woman is perceived as indecent, kill her. If a man commits apostasy, kill him. I fear the West has also adopted this view in certain of its policies to attempt to "rid the world of terror." Evil cannot be destroyed by the destruction of things or persons. Evil has no existence of itself, it is simply the consequence of an amnesiac and bereft people. Goodness forgotten is goodness perverted.
He goes on to state that "[i]f we approach the war on terrorism with the fervor of a Christian jihad against Islam, our battle is already lost, for we have become what we opposed . . . ." It's heartening to see a flower of wisdom blossom from Abu Ghraib.
A footnote on some of the "bad guys" held and tortured at Abu Ghraib:
* Gus, the "terrorist" on the leash secured to his neck and held by MP England? We later find out that, in the words of one MP, "'[Gus] was just a normal guy who got drunk and beat someone up."'
* Those three Iraqi men accused of raping a boy in prison and who were photographed being handcuffed nude "in a messy tangle"? It was later found out that the men were not guilty of raping anyone. Two of the accused were rewarded by being allowed to become janitors for the tier. The third was killed by a roadside bomb while in transport.
* The hooded prisoner on the box with the wires attached to his fingers? Gilligan, as he was called by the MPs, turns out not to be a terrorist. In fact, one MP calls him a "good guy." His reward, like others found to be innocent—janitor for the tier.
* The dead man in the photo with the smiling MP giving us the thumbs up? That's al-Jamadi, who was tortured to death by unknown persons (identified as CIA agents by the MPs present). The military, in its infinite wisdom, decided to charge the MP in the photo for "tampering with evidence." She had lifted a bandage off the corpse's eye for the photo, and then placed it back. All charges were later dropped by the military out of fear, she speculates, that her "crime" would draw attention to the homicide and lead to questions as to who murdered al-Jamadi. The only detainee murdered at Abu Ghraib—that we know of—was exposed as a result of a photo, and those who took and posed in the photo are to blame, says our government, not those who committed murder.
What will become of Abu Ghraib Prison? It's about to be turned into a museum, according to a recent story ("Iraq to Reopen Abu Ghraib Prison, Include Museum"). Not used as a prison since 2006, Abu Ghraib will document the horrors of Saddam Hussein's regime, says the Iraqi Cabinet. Near the end of the story, a curious line appears: "It was also unclear whether the museum would also document prisoner abuse by U.S. forces." One can only hope that once the American forces leave—surely that day will come—the Iraqis, feeling a surge of confidence and independence, will proudly install the American contribution to the museum of torture.
Happy are those who died without ever having had to ask themselves: "If they tear out my fingernails, will I talk?" But even happier are others, barely out of their childhood, who have not had to ask themselves that other question: "If my friends, fellow soldiers, and leaders tear out an enemy's fingernails in my presence, what will I do?"
"I click the cassette player on and off, hearing Abu, Abu, on that otherwise blank side."
--Terese Svoboda, Black Glasses Like Clark Kent
". . . if you fight terror with terror, how can you tell which is which?"
--Standard Operating Procedure.