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Torture; Simply the Spoils of Victory? the French in Algeria, the British in Northern Ireland: Soldiers Have Long Resorted to Abusing and Humiliating Their Captive Enemy. So Why Are We So Shocked by the Photos from Iraq?

By Toolis, Kevin | New Statesman (1996), May 10, 2004 | Go to article overview

Torture; Simply the Spoils of Victory? the French in Algeria, the British in Northern Ireland: Soldiers Have Long Resorted to Abusing and Humiliating Their Captive Enemy. So Why Are We So Shocked by the Photos from Iraq?


Toolis, Kevin, New Statesman (1996)


It's all there in the cheesy grin of the US army's Specialist Charles Graner and Private Lynddie England as they beam triumphantly for the camera over the Iraqi captives lying in a tangle on the floor in front of them--the sheer joy of torture. In image after image, the weaponless American soldiers can be seen ritually dominating their terrorised prisoners in the same way a hunter poses with his dead prey. Tellingly, the hooded and naked Iraqis have no identity; they are lumps of human meat to be ordered around at will by their captors.

Less funny ha ha is the picture of an unnamed prisoner, packed in ice, who somehow got beaten to death by his American interrogators in Abu Ghraib prison before his battered body was gleefully snapped as another war souvenir.

More than any other images, the US army's 372nd Military Police Company's souvenir pics from Abu Ghraib reveal the failure of America's mission in Iraq. Within months the liberators have turned torturers, just as the liberated have become a despised subhuman enemy. The war in Iraq is not going well.

No western democracy fights on a single front; there is always the media war and the real war. From Bosnia to Afghanistan, our war against the enemy is always a righteous struggle against the evil forces of terrorism or oppression. Western soldiers fight with honour and do not rape, torture or indiscriminately murder prisoners. War reporters embedded with the troops do pieces to camera as tanks manoeuvre in the desert dunes behind them. And in general, from either patriotism or an inability to report from the battle zone independently, most western media outlets follow their government's line.

Despite the recent controversy over alleged abuse pictures printed in the Daily Mirror, the British army's role in Basra is still largely being depicted as a glorified nanny service helping out with Iraqi nation-building.

Perhaps we need to believe that. But real wars are never like the script. The American war against the Taliban in Afghanistan has become an alliance of convenience with a series of murderous warlords and heroin traders whose human rights record is among the worst in the world. In the course of saving Iraq from Saddam Hussein, western soldiers have killed 16,000 Iraqis using all of the huge firepower under their command against a largely defence-less population.

Nor is every western soldier an extra from Saving Private Ryan. The same qualities of aggression, submission to authority and group solidarity that make good military material also make soldiers easy to manipulate into fighting a "dirty war". A good intelligence officer and a good torturer can wear the same uniform. Or, as we have just shockingly learned from Abu Ghraib, our governments can, in the new era of privatisation, just hire in the torturing talent from the vast array of private defence firms that offer to service every need of the Pentagon.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

As part of the media script, we like to believe that there is still some kind of democratic scrutiny of the wars that are being fought in our name. Such naivety is a fallacy. Until this month, the role of private security firms such as CACI International, whose operatives helped run the brutal interrogations at Abu Ghraib, was totally unknown. The real war is only rarely glimpsed.

Torture by western soldiers is not new. In 1957, France's General Jacques Massu ordered the systematic brutalisation of thousands of Algerian FLN suspects in the notorious Battle of Algiers. Captured guerrillas were routinely beaten and half-drowned, their genitals electrocuted. Many died under interrogation by French paratroopers.

In Vietnam in the 1960s, a CIA paramilitary rural assassination campaign known as Operation Phoenix resulted in the deaths of more than 20,000 suspected Vietcong guerrillas after prolonged torture sessions.

And even in Ulster, in historic terms the British armed forces' most restricted operational zone, republican terrorist suspects were tortured, in the early 1970s, on the direct orders of senior army commanders.

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