On Abu Ghraib

A few thoughts, in no particular order:

Those photos are shocking. The hooded prisoner standing on a box with wires in his hands, in particular, lingers in my mind. It’s by no means the most graphic or the cruellest, but it’s the one that will beome iconic. The combination of the hood with the outstretched arms creates an unsettling collision of symbolism: part crucifixion and part Klan lynching. There is also something about the photo stock—perhaps the yellowish tinge or the graininess—that reminds me of the Subserviant Chicken, another creepy addition to the mix.

I’m also waiting for the media—and later, academe—to process the sexualization of the situation in all its complexity. Consider: * Military culture itself has strange sexual undercurrents, in particular a combined fascination with and repulsion from homosexuality. All of the simulated-sex poses and forced masturbation strike me as form of working out that tension, by deflecting the actual sexuality onto the prisoners. * If it was someone’s idea to use this sexual degradation as a way of breaking Arab prisoners by undermining their dignity, well, that was sure a great idea. Now hard-core porn is being circulated by Arab media outlets with captions claiming it to be photos from Abu Ghraib. Nice going, shit-for-brains: by blurring the usually clear prison/porn line, you’ve made this form of propaganda plausible. * That said, the prison/porn line isn’t actually so clear, at least in the fertile American imagination, obsessed as it is with homosexual prison rape, and the occasional sexploitation flick about women behind bars. * If the photos look like some suburbanite’s basement S&M play gone horribly awry, what might the distinction be? Is it that everything is for real, instead of just being a game played by consenting adults? Is it the crudeness of the soldiers with cigarettes dangling from their lips, the banality of their imaginations? Is it that this sex play seems so completely unsexual for the soldiers? * And what about the presence of those grinning women? This is something more than just being “one of the boys;” the horror of those photos is larger than just gender. There’s something darker and more universal about power, sex, and violence taking going on there.

One meme I’ve spotted here and there over the last few days is that the soldiers torturing prisoners are “traitors” to the United States and should be treated as such. As tempting as such language may be, it’s an act of linguistic abuse not unlike referring to all terrorists as “cowards.” Not all negative terms apply to bad people; not all positive terms apply to good people. What happened in Abu Ghraib was bad enough without calling it “treason.”

Another recent meme has been debate over whether Rumsfeld should resign. Now, while I don’t think his apology cuts it, I also don’t think he needs to quit. It would be okay with me if he borrowed a catchphrase from another Donald. Someone needs to be fired; it doesn’t necessarily need to be Rummy.Actually, at least two sets of people need to go.

One set needs to be sacked for the horrible failure of leadership that gave us the abuses documented in the Taguba report. The military is not inherently incapable of running prisons; soldiers are not uniformly monsters in uniform. Something went specifically wrong with a specific part of the occupation, and those responsible need to be sacked. That means BG Karpinski; that means the commanders of the intelligence units pushing for harsher measures; that means those above them in the hierarchy who should have known what was going on and put a stop to it. Courts-martial up and down the line: imprisonment for the torturers and those who sanctioned torture; dishonorable discharge for everyone else.

Second, if we’re to take Bush and Rumsfeld and Congress at their word that they were in the dark on the torture, then that means that someone, quite likely multiple someones, improperly sat on this information for months. Perhaps these are the same people as in the first group, though I suspect the overlap is not complete. In any event, these people have proven that their loyalty and judgment are both so deficient as to make them unfit for duty.

As a matter of image, unless heads roll, the United States military will have no credibility with the rest of the world. We’re already far past the point at which what happened in Abu Ghraib can be dismissed as a few bad enlisted apples. It’s either bad leadership or bad culture—and if the world decides it’s bad culture, then we are so deeply and profoundly boned that I tremble in fear. Bad leaders can be replaced, and replacing them sends the right signal: that those at the very top are committed to doing right, and will not tolerate anything less from their subordinates.

It’s probably best for our image if it’s an underling, rather than Rummy, who falls on that sword: it makes the claim that the problem was a few bad leaders more plausible. They just have to be high enough up that the entire mess can be laid at their feet. One might call it scapegoating, except that in the military, you are responsible for what happens on your watch, and pleading in your defense that your subordinates didn’t follow your orders just exposes you as an even worse leader. If Rumsfeld isn’t willing to hold the military to its own standards, then he should resign. Anything less would be the soft bigotry of low expectations, as they say.