16 March 2008

Making Sense of the Unfathonable

There is a longish essay in The New Yorker this week by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris entitled "Exposure ~ The Woman Behind the Camera at Abu Ghraib." It offers, as the subtitle suggests, a glimpse at Sabrina Harman, the Army Reservist notorious for having taken and appeared in many of the "torture" photographs at the Iraqi prison. It places her behavior in some context, thereby helping me at least, to identify with her rather than distancing myself from her as a socio-path. Harman's actions and those of her comrades, remain dispicable. But they are hardly mad or inexplicable.

The essay is useful in several ways. First, it reiterates what is obvious, namely that only the foot soldiers like Harman were ever prosecuted for what went on at Abu Ghraib. Speaking of Manadel al-Jamadi, the man in the infamous image of the plastic enshrouded dead prisoner on ice, Gourevitch and Morris note:
"Jamadi’s C.I.A. interrogator has never been charged with a crime. But Sabrina Harman was. As a result of the pictures she took and appeared in at Abu Ghraib, she was convicted by court-martial, in May of 2005, of conspiracy to maltreat prisoners, dereliction of duty, and maltreatment, and sentenced to six months in prison, a reduction in rank, and a bad-conduct discharge. Megan Ambuhl, Javal Davis, Chip Frederick, Charles Graner, and Jeremy Sivits were among the handful of other soldiers who, on account of the photographs, were also sentenced to punishments ranging from a reduction in rank and a loss of pay to ten years in prison. The only person ranked above staff sergeant to face a court-martial was cleared of criminal wrongdoing."
Second, the essay reminds us where actual responsibility for what went on at Abu Ghraib (and other U.S. controlled facilities) actually resides. In so doing Gourevitch and Morris suggest how our failure to accurately identify that locus left those like Harman - however culpable they may in fact be - open to vituperation that is more properly directed elsewhere.

"Later, when the photographs of crimes committed against Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib were made public, the blame focused overwhelmingly on the Military Police officers who were assigned to guard duty in the Military Intelligence cellblock—Tiers 1A and 1B—of the hard site. The low-ranking reservist soldiers who took and appeared in the infamous images were singled out for opprobrium and punishment; they were represented, in government reports, in the press, and before courts-martial, as rogues who acted out of depravity. Yet the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was de facto United States policy. The authorization of torture and the decriminalization of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of captives in wartime have been among the defining legacies of the current Administration; and the rules of interrogation that produced the abuses documented on the M.I. block in the fall of 2003 were the direct expression of the hostility toward international law and military doctrine that was found in the White House, the Vice-President’s office, and at the highest levels of the Justice and Defense Departments.

The Abu Ghraib rules, promulgated by Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of ground forces in Iraq, elaborated on the interrogation rules for Guantánamo Bay, which had been issued by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; they were designed to create far more license than restriction for interrogators who sought to break prisoners. The M.P.s at Abu Ghraib were enlisted as enforcers of such practices as sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, sensory disorientation, and the imposition of physical and psychological pain. They never received a standard operating procedure to define what was required and what was allowed, but were repeatedly instructed simply to follow the guidance of Military Intelligence officers. An orthodox standard operating procedure leaves nothing to the imagination, and as Megan Ambuhl settled into her job it occurred to her that the absence of a code was the code at Abu Ghraib. “They couldn’t say that we broke the rules because there were no rules,” she said. And by taking pictures of the prisoners on the M.I. block the M.P.s demonstrated two things: that they never fully accepted what was happening as normal, and that they assumed they had nothing to hide."

While Gourevitch and Morris in no way aim to exonerate Harman and the others at Abu Ghraib, they do afford some real context for understanding why they were busy snapping pictures - often to document practices and events that seemed unworldly but over which the enlisted men and women had no control. The Abu Ghraib images are not, from this perspective, just prurient trophies. They are in part an effort (flawed, misdirected, complicit) on the part of military personnel to impose some plausible interpretation on practices of dehumanization in which they participated but that amounted to policy among military and intelligence agencies.

Finally, the essay poses the question of why, given all the available gruesome images of torture and humiliation, this picture of the hooded man (who, having been judged innocent, became a 'favorite' prisoner, nicknamed 'Gilligan') has become an iconic image [*] of the Iraq war. Why not, for instance, the photograph of Jamali? This was an outcome that Sabrina Harman found it hard to understand.

Under the circumstances, Harman was baffled that the figure of Gilligan—hooded, caped, and wired on his box—had eventually become the icon of Abu Ghraib and possibly the most recognized emblem of the war on terror after the World Trade towers. The image had proliferated around the globe in uncountable reproductions and representations—in the press, but also on murals and placards, T-shirts and billboards, on mosque walls and in art galleries. Harman had even acquired a Gilligan tattoo on one arm, but she considered that a private souvenir. It was the public’s fascination with the photograph of Gilligan—of all the images from Abu Ghraib—that she couldn’t fathom. “There’s so many worse photos out there. I mean, nothing negative happened to him, really,” she said. “I think they thought he was being tortured, which he wasn’t.”

Harman was right: there were worse pictures than Gilligan. But, leaving aside that photographs of death and nudity, however newsworthy, don’t get much play in the press, the power of an image does not necessarily lie in what it depicts. A photograph of a mangled cadaver, or of a naked man trussed in torment, can shock and outrage, provoke protest and investigation, but it leaves little to the imagination. It may be rich in practical information, while being devoid of any broader meaning. To the extent that it represents any circumstances or conditions beyond itself, it does so generically. Such photographs are repellent, in large part because they have a terrible, reductive sameness. Except from a forensic point of view, they are unambiguous, and have the quality of pornography. They are what they show, nothing more. They communicate no vision and, shorn of context, they offer little, if anything, to think about, no occasion for wonder. They have no value as symbols.

Of course, the dominant symbol of Western civilization is the figure of a nearly naked man, tortured to death—or, more simply, the torture implement itself, the cross. But our pictures of the savage death of Jesus are the product of religious imagination and idealization. In reality, he must have been ghastly to behold. Had there been cameras at Calvary, would twenty centuries of believers have been moved to hang photographs of the scene on their altarpieces and in their homes?

The image of Gilligan achieves its power from the fact that it does not show the human form laid bare and reduced to raw matter but creates instead an original image of inhumanity that admits no immediately self-evident reading. Its fascination resides, in large part, in its mystery and inscrutability—in all that is concealed by all that it reveals. It is an image of carnival weirdness: this upright body shrouded from head to foot; those wires; that pose; and the peaked hood that carries so many vague and ghoulish associations. The pose is obviously contrived and theatrical, a deliberate invention that appears to belong to some dark ritual, a primal scene of martyrdom. The picture transfixes us because it looks like the truth, but, looking at it, we can only imagine what that truth is: torture, execution, a scene staged for the camera? So we seize on the figure of Gilligan as a symbol that stands for all that we know was wrong at Abu Ghraib and all that we cannot—or do not want to—understand about how it came to this."
On the account that Gourevitch and Morris offer we Americans all, to different degrees, confront the same problem in coming to terms with the torture carried out at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. Like Sabrina Harman and other military personnel, if less directly, we are charged with making sense of the unfathomable cruelty of American policy.
P.S.: It turns out that this essay is an exerpt from a forthcoming book that Gurevitch and Morris have written: Standard Operating Procedure (Penguin), due out mid-May.

Labels: ,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, that's very interesting how we all have a similar method of trying to come to terms with that unfathomable cruelty.

16 March, 2008 18:26  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Altough I have been systematically eliminating comments from one anonymous contributor, I have had second thoughts on this matter. Here is what he says:


Get over it Jimbo - shit like this happens all the time.

That fact undermines your childish so-called politics, holding on to this incident like a badge of self righteousness.


The reason I decided to reply to this fellow on this is that he seems to embrace a position that many folks do. That just goes to show that ideological blindness is widespread.

Here is the point: the torture that American intelligence and military officers carried out at Abu Ghraib was not an "incident." It was policy, endorsed at the highest levels, and implemented in a systematic way not just at Abu Ghriab but at Bagram and Guantanamo and many other places.

Our commentator and I agree on one thing - "shit like this happens all the time." He is just inconsistent in then dismissing what Sabrina Harman (and others) revealed with her photos as an "incident." And since it is a matter of policy that contravenes domestic and international law, as well as established U.S. military procedures, those responsible for the policy ought to be put on trial. Seems simple to me but not, I guess, to our simple-minded anonymous commentor.

16 March, 2008 18:55  
Blogger Noni said...

Abu Ghraib is one of the major scars on earth like Holocaust, can be located from different galexy.

17 March, 2008 01:35  
Blogger Tom White said...

This comment by Harman is telling for me: 'I mean, nothing negative happened to him, really,” she said. “I think they thought he was being tortured, which he wasn’t.”'
Well, in my opinion if I was made to pose like this I would personally be terrified of want was happening and might happen to me. That is a definition of torture. You don't have to pull someone's fingernails out with pliers to be doing something 'negative' to them. That one sentence by Harman reveals her insensitivity to the reality of the situation and the inhumainity of the treatment of these men. Shameful.

17 March, 2008 06:50  

Post a Comment

<< Home