Racism, Empire and Torture, Pt.2

In this second installment about racism, empire and torture I continue my analysis of this cultural moment by using the lens Errol Morris’ documentary about torture, “Standard Operating Procedure,” (and the companion book), one of the most popular representations of torture.  I contend that we are neither post torture nor post empire nor post racial.

By way of moral contrast, let me begin with some altogether different narratives about Iraq. In March of 2008, hundreds of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan gathered in Maryland to give their eyewitness accounts of the occupations of both countries. The veterans modeled their testimony after the Winter soldier hearings organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1971. As Amy Goodman reported on Democracy Now:

“the war veterans spoke of free-fire zones, the shootings and beatings of innocent civilians, racism at the highest levels of the military, and the torturing of prisoners.”

Most major news outlets did not cover the Winter Soldier event. Goodman broadcast the hearings in which soldiers tearfully described in detail (often illustrating with pictures of themselves) the acts of violence they perpetrated upon Iraqi and Afghani people. In one such account, Jon Michael Turner stripped his medals and ribbons from his chest and ended his testimony as follows:

“I just want to say that I am sorry for the hate and destruction I have inflicted on innocent people, and I’m sorry for the hate and destruction that others have inflicted on innocent people…I am sorry for the things I did. I am no longer the monster that I once was.”

Carl Rippberger, commenting on a slide of himself in Iraq, said:

“I am extremely shameful of it. I’m showing it in hopes that none of you people that have never been involved ever let this happen to you. Don’t ever let your government do this to you. Its me. I’m holding a dead body,  smiling. Everyone is our platoon took two bodies, put them on the back ramp, drove them through a village for show, and dumped them off at the edge the village.”

As these excerpts reveal, the Winter Soldiers acknowledge personal responsibility for their actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as they believe that they were a part of a violence orchestrated from the top.

Their stories confirm that a pattern of terror begins with individual soldiers who are asked to, and who do, unspeakable things. Some find the courage to say no on the spot; most do not. But in the case of the Winter soldiers, all now believe that what they were asked to do, and what they did, was wrong. Their testimony is intended to rectify these wrongs by taking personal responsibility and by speaking out against practices of torture and terror, and against war and occupation. Along the same lines, a blog quoting former interrogators reports that some interrogators, when asked “If you had been ordered to waterboard someone or engage in other cruel/inhumane/degrading mistreatment (e.g. hypothermia, long time standing), what would you have done?” offer the following answer: “Refused the order.  That would probably have resulted in my getting fired or re-assigned but so be it.  In addition, I would have documented the incident and reported it to the Army’s (assuming that’s the environment I would have been working in) Criminal Investigation Division, or otherwise appropriate authorities.”  This response is not one that occurred to the majority of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib and it is not one that Morris or Gourevitch ever consider possible.

In “Standard Operating Procedure” Morris intersperses vivid reenactments of torture, the Abu Ghraib photographs, and interviews with the soldiers, the latter often shot close up so that their faces fill the entire screen. The viewer has a sense of being face-to-face with torture and literally present with both torturer and tortured.  The tortured, of course, do not speak; their bodies are meant only to contrast to the calm and reasonable voices of the soldiers who give us their accounts of what they did in Abu Ghraib prison. There remains a voyeuristic gaze throughout as we are invited to consume pyramids of naked prisoners. As Lasreg writes, today for the French, as the former colonial power in Algeria,  the:

“cumulative effect of this speaking and writing about the war [of Independence in Algeria] has resulted in a trivialization of the significance of torture as glossy pictures turn war into an orgiastic intellectual entertainment.”

Similarly, documentaries such as “Standard Operating Procedure” offer avid descriptions and images of torture. The documentary begins by informing us that American soldiers were so depressed and so low when they got to Abu Ghraib that they felt “already dead.”

In the book, Gourevitch and Morris ensure that we, their readers, understand that Abu Ghraib was an intolerable place that was constantly under mortar fire (although in 2003, no American soldier was killed from this). A combat unit, the 372nd regiment of reservists finds out that instead of going home they will be posted to guard duty at Abu Ghraib, something for which they are not trained.  Untrained, alienated, stressed, frustrated, and overcome by the climate, we are coached to understand that normal, wholesome American soldiers, each with their own dreams, soon fall apart in the hell that was Abu Ghraib.  The film and the book each begin with this equivalent to Marlow’s journey into the heart of Africa.

As I have shown elsewhere in the case of the violence of Western peacekeepers towards the populations they supposedly came to help, the savagery of the racial Other, and the savagery of the place of the racial Other become the reason why violence is authorized against them. As Hugh Ridley memorably put it recalling the themes of  colonial novels and the mind set of the masculine subjects who inhabit these fictional colonials worlds, “In Africa, who can be a saint.” The civilized man “loses” it in Africa on account of the dust and heat, as Canada concluded in its inquiry of the violence of Canadian peacekeepers towards Somalis.  In Africa, the soldier feels compelled to engage in violence anticipating the savagery of the racial Other. It is this narrative line, a combination of “Rumsfeld made me do it” and “in Iraq who could be a saint” that runs through the accounts of the Abu Ghraib soldiers, an account very much fostered by Morris and carefully installed  in the film and book. Continue reading…