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Inconvenient Evidence: The Effects of Abu Ghraib

The following talk, illustrated with 40 sets of slides, was given at The Great Hall at Cooper Union in Manhattan on November 9, 2004 to begin a conversation with Seymour Hersh, Luc Sante, and David Levi Strauss, moderated by Brian Wallis. This symposium, “Inconvenient Evidence: Iraqi Prison Photographs from Abu Ghraib,” was organized by the International Center of Photography in conjunction with the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School and Cooper Union. A longer version of this piece will be published in Abu Ghraib: The Politics of Torture, forthcoming from North Atlantic Books.

I’ve been looking at and thinking about these images from Abu Ghraib for over six months now, since Seymour Hersh first made it possible for us to see them, and I still don’t fully understand how they work. But I know a little bit more now than when I started. They’re actually very complicated images, and the effects they’ve had and the responses to them are also complicated.

When I saw the show of the images that Brian Wallis put together at ICP, I hung out in that room for long enough that the guard assigned to the room began to get very worried about me. While I was there, I listened to what viewers in groups were saying about the images, and over time it became clear that people were really divided in the way they saw these images, along party lines. If they believed in the war and supported Bush, they couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. They saw corny images made by soldiers “letting off steam.” And besides, as one viewer (an ex-military guy) said, “If you have to be humiliated to save one of my soldiers, fuck you. Initiation is part of our ceremony and our heritage. It brings men together and makes them stronger. Nowadays they call that ‘hazing.’ In the first Gulf War, we complied with the Geneva Conventions and it cost us lives. After we finish violating their lives, they’ll still be better off than they were before we came.”

Viewers who don’t believe in the war saw the images differently. They saw them as an abomination and as a searing indictment of the policies of Bush & Co.—a visual representation of this administration’s duplicity.

The first person I talked with about the Abu Ghraib images was the painter Leon Golub, and we talked about them a lot right up until he died in August. Golub immediately recognized these as torture images, and said that the techniques pictured—hooding, forced nakedness, sexual humiliation, stress positions, dogs, etc.—were all common torture techniques, right out of the book. “Walling up” with hoods or blindfolds increases the sense of isolation and defenselessness. Essential to torture is the sense that your interrogators control everything: food, clothing, dignity, light, even life itself. Everything is designed to make it clear that you are at the mercy of those whose job it is not to have any mercy.

Hooding victims dehumanizes them, making them anonymous and thing-like. They become just bodies. You can do anything you want to them.

One of the things that really drove home what Leon was telling me was a report that appeared in the New York Times soon after the Abu Ghraib images appeared on 60 Minutes II and in the New Yorker (see Nina Bernstein, “Once Tortured, Now Tormented by Photos,” The New York Times, May 15, 2004). The article reported on the immediate effects of these images on some of the 400,000 survivors of torture who have sought asylum in the U.S. More than 100,000 of them live in the New York area. When they saw the Abu Ghraib images, it was like flipping a switch. It awoke all the old traumas and also ignited a new fear for their own safety in America. These are people who came to the U.S. for refuge from torture, so to see the American government engaged in torture shook them to the core.

None of this was new to Leon Golub. He had been looking at, thinking about, and transforming this kind of material in his paintings for many years. Between 1979 and 1985, Golub represented the use of torture by repressive Central and South American regimes backed by the U.S. government, and by mercenaries helping them to interrogate subjects. Over the years, Leon assembled an extensive archive of images of interrogations and torture from around the world.

A number of the images I’m going to show you tonight were taken from Leon’s files. When we went through these files together, a certain taxonomy emerged. Leon had his own system of classification of these images based on their use to him in painting, but there was another taxonomy as well, of gesture and arrangement. One thing we didn’t find in these files was that particular look on the faces of the American MPs at Abu Ghraib.

The looks on the faces of those reservists, and their easy, hamming body postures, were intended to show that they, unlike the Iraqis, were not subject to the depredations of Abu Ghraib; that they were actually not there at all, but back home, mugging for the camera. The anonymous, hooded Iraqis (guilty or innocent, it hardly mattered) were demonstrably there, and were ridiculous for being there. Stripped and hooded, they’d become impotent and weak. Let’s stack them up like cheerleaders. Let’s make them jack off in front of American women and make it look like they’re giving each other head.   

The most striking thing about the images from Abu Ghraib is that peculiar mixture of cold-blooded brutality and adolescent frivolity; of hazing or fooling around, and actual deadly torture—reality and fantasy conjoined. So you have Graner and England and Harman mugging and posing and grinning for the camera as if they’re frolicking at Disneyland, and in the same picture you have the corpse of a prisoner who’s been tortured to death. Most Americans didn’t know what they were looking at when they first saw the images, because they’d never seen torture images before, and the incongruity of the actions of the U.S. soldiers was confusing. The MPs in the pictures wanted to show their friends and families back home that they were not affected by the ghastly acts they performed in Iraq; that they were not above these actions, but below them, just like their Cheerleader-in-Chief, whose aw-shucks obliviousness to the grave consequences of his policy decisions is reassuring to some Americans.

Specialist Charles Graner with the body of Manadel Al-Jamadi, and Iraqi detainee killed during interrogation on November 4, 2003, and packed in ice to escape detection.
Specialist Charles Graner with the body of Manadel Al-Jamadi, and Iraqi detainee killed during interrogation on November 4, 2003, and packed in ice to escape detection.

What we don’t know can’t hurt us. We’re not responsible. They just hate us because we’re free. Shit happens. And besides, it’s God’s will.

For an administration that manipulated and controlled public images so skillfully during the first year of the war—from Saving Private Lynch to the Falling Saddam to the Top Gun speech to Saddam’s capture—President Bush’s closest advisors were blindsided by the effects of the Abu Ghraib images. Principal Bush political strategist Karl Rove suggested that the consequences of these images were so great that it would take decades for the U.S. to recover from them.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s frustration was palpable as he testified before Congress: “We’re functioning with peacetime constraints, with legal requirements, in a wartime situation in the Information Age, where people are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise.” That is, we don’t have a problem with how we are prosecuting the war, we have a problem with controlling images of the war.

Paul Virilio’s Big Optics (if you can see the entire battlefield, you’ve already won the battle) has gone public, and that creates a tremendous problem for the Pentagon. With the ubiquity of small, cheap digital cameras, this problem is probably now insoluble. What was once a tremendous military advantage has now become a political catastrophe. Conservative commentator David Brooks asked “How are we going to wage war anymore, with everyone watching?” Could this be the apotheosis of Total Surveillance, the saving grace of the Pandaemonium?

The Abu Ghraib images seemed to have welled up from the American public image unconscious. But why did these images have such an immediate and profound effect? Why were they so immediately legible?

Like the earlier images of the Falling Saddam, these images draw on old image rhetorics, striking similar chords. But unlike those planned images, the Abu Ghraib images were unconsciously made, and this gave them a special power to operate in the world of phantasms.

The iconography of the hooded-figure-on-a-box image is especially, rampantly polysemous. It was legible to us because we immediately, unconsciously, recognized its symbolism. (This is based on a classic torture method used by the Gestapo and also by Stalin called “the Crucifixion.” The threat of electrocution if you fall off is apparently an innovation from the Brazilian police.)

The pointed hat or hood carries the sense of derision and ridicule, as in the dunce cap, and also of judgment and punishment—the interrogators of the Spanish Inquisition wore pointed hats, as do KKK knights. The dunce cap was invented (by John Duns Scotus) as a device to aid cogitation, to “focus the mind,” and the actions at Abu Ghraib were ostensibly designed to extract intelligence. So, both intelligence (or the lack thereof) and the menace of agency are evoked here. The pointed hood or hat is an ancient symbol and shamanic trope eliciting fear and respect.

On another level, to hood or shroud the head is a feminizing or emasculating gesture for Muslim men, and for Americans, the gesture of the hands held out in weakness and supplication in the Abu Ghraib figure echoes an earlier image of the victims of war: Nick Ut’s image of the naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack, with arms held out from her body like wings.

This one image of the hooded-figure-on-a-box has already become an icon, the emblem of the American Occupation of Iraq. There is certainly an element of initiation or hazing here. But what are these Iraqis being initiated into? Hazing is a devolution of initiation rituals, and both hazing and torture are endemic to illegitimate power. Torture occurs when power is uncertain and illegitimate, when a regime is unstable and weak. Here is one possible narrative for this emblem of the Occupation:

Poster by San Francisco
Poster by San Francisco

The Iraqi people are the exotic, mysterious Other, but also ridiculous figures of fun. We came to liberate them from their primitive state, to modernize and electrify them. But they don’t understand, so we must keep them in the dark until the process is complete. We’ve put them up on a pedestal (the same pedestal we pulled Saddam off of), but this pedestal is made of cardboard, and if they fall off and get modernized (electrified) too soon, they will be killed. They just don’t understand. Can’t they see that we’ve occupied them in order to make them free, and that we may have to destroy them in order to save them?

As Seymour Hersh details in his book Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, the abuses at Abu Ghraib happened not because (as Bush said) “a few American troops…dishonored our country and disregarded our values,” but because techniques and procedures for “high-value terrorist targets” (in Afghanistan & Guantanamo) ended up being used on innocent civilians—“cab drivers, brothers-in-law, and people pulled off the streets”—in Iraq. Top military officials now say that the interrogations at Abu Ghraib yielded almost no new intelligence, and that most of the prisoners tortured by the Americans at Abu Ghraib were not linked to the insurgency. Another report said 70–80% of the Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib were innocents swept up in raids.

Usually, when corporate thugs like Bush & Co. do something heinous, they make sure there are no witnesses. In this case, the instruments became witnesses—the “poor kids at the end of the food chain” made a visual record and we got to see it. This was a tremendous breach.

At the end of his book, Hersh writes: “We have a President who can stand aside as the dogs of war are turned loose on prisoners and then declare, as he did in June 2004, that ‘America stands against and will not tolerate torture. We will investigate and prosecute all acts of torture and undertake to prevent other cruel and unusual punishment in all territory under our jurisdiction’ and that ‘freedom from torture is an inalienable human right.’ There are many who believe George Bush is a liar, a president who knowingly and deliberately twists facts for political gain. But lying would indicate an understanding of what is desired, what is possible, and how best to get there. A more plausible explanation is that words have no meaning for this President beyond the immediate moment, and so he believes that his mere utterance of the phrases makes them real. It is a terrifying possibility.”

It is harder, in some ways, to spin images. Them, you just have to make go away.


David Levi Strauss

DAVID LEVI STRAUSS is the author of Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014), From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture 2003, and in a new edition, 2012), and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia 1999, and a new edition, 2010). He is Chair of the graduate program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and he is on the faculty of the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.


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