Last month was the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a day which passed quietly in the U.S. for the most part. For the majority of newspapers, the anniversary was granted a footnote lost between the inner-pages, vying for the reader’s attention amidst a sea of advertisements and extraneous print. And when covered at any appreciable length, the War was generally framed along the lines of the presumptuous question “what went wrong?” posed as if a war in Iraq had ever been "our" right to wage in the first place.
The 10th anniversary of the invasion did not pass quietly in Iraq, however. On the eve of the anniversary dozens of people died in a series of car bomb attacks that swept across Baghdad, bathing the city in terror and plumes of acrid smoke. Contrary to dog-eared statements about building democracy, fighting terrorism, or saving the world from weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. had entered an Iraq whose society had been torn apart by decades of war and misrule, and left it in much the same state. In any case, no one could honestly claim “mission accomplished.”
In my essay “Into the Abyss” I attempted to understand the Iraq War from the angle of American torture. The torture of thousands of Iraqis by Americans was a definitive part of the War, functioning in many ways as an allegory for the War itself. It was on bad intelligence secured through torture that the U.S. government first obtained the material with which it manufactured the war’s pretext. Later, after official lies proved hollow, American forces were encouraged to torture Iraqis in a desperate move to crush a nascent insurgency – an insurgency which had for the most part been created as a direct result of American policy blunders and which was entirely misunderstood by officials.
Instead of acknowledging their mistakes the American occupiers clung to the fictions which had brought them into Iraq. Torture played an important role in validating this process of self-delusion and national murder. Almost invariably, the answer to whatever question was sought through torture was presupposed, a tendency which is, in fact, characteristic of the practice. After all, why would anyone torture somebody unless they assumed that person was guilty; and why would anyone stop torturing someone unless they liked the information told to them – that is to say, heard what they wanted to hear, what they already thought they knew.
Thus the thousands of Iraqis languishing in prisons, piles of contradictory reports and cumbersome intelligence apparatus signified not omniscience but great ignorance. The intelligence apparatus was huge precisely because the U.S. did not at all understand Iraq and, consequently, was grasping for intelligence any way it could. What existed was a spectacle of omnipotence, foresight and exceptionality in their absence; a bloated system of imprisonment and torture whose monstrous size was proportionate to the ignorance which sustained it. Under the shadow of occupation the fact that the CIA did not have a single trained corps of interrogators before 9/11 went unnoticed. Also unnoticed was the reality that under pressure for intelligence the military pushed soldiers through interrogation training camps, some of which lasted only a week or two.
And while American torture can be seen as a microcosm of the Iraq War, it may also be seen as merely the pinnacle of decades-long American policies in the Middle East, putting these policies into brutal, sharp relief. In the 1980s the U.S. smiled benignly on Saddam Hussein, bearing him gifts of logistical support, big guns and chemical weapons as he engaged in an eight-year bloodletting with Iran. After deliberately fanning the flames of the Iran-Iraq War – the longest conventional war of the 20th century – the U.S. attitude towards Iraq suddenly cooled. Next came the Second Gulf War when the U.S. drove Iraqis forces out of Kuwait, in the process sowing Iraq with depleted uranium shells. These seeds of death predictably caused cancer rates in Iraq to swell to ghastly levels.
Then came the U.S.-led sanctions of the 1990s which were imposed because of fears of WMD. These sanctions, which a former UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq called “genocide,” directly resulted in the preventable deaths of over 500,000 Iraqi children. Presumably these 500,000 children were in cahoots with the so-called “terrorists” and madmen whom the American government claimed to be combating.
In short, even before the U.S. decided to wage its latest war on the Iraqi people their country was in tatters, a withered shadow of its former self. Cancer rates were through the roof, children had no paper for school and the water-borne disease was endemic. Far from being a bastion of terrorism or WMD, the Iraq was an enfeebled and broken country, having been subjected to one of the most punitive sanctions regimes in the history of mankind.
Thus in many ways, torture was the completion of a slow but practiced process of national murder. With contemporary history as its backdrop, torture can be seen as a physical and direct enactment of what had been occurring in Iraq through less apparent means during the past decades.
Perhaps the most astounding truth of this experience, however, is the fact that these crimes against humanity were generally not committed by coldblooded individuals but people who are not all that different from you or me. To dismiss these atrocities as either the actions of a few “bad apples” or blame them wholly on top officials is to make the same error. In both cases the problem is blamed on a cloistered set of individuals who are deemed absolutely evil. The danger inherent in this line of thinking is several-fold.
First, it perpetuates the notion of "absolutely evil” individuals, buttressing the idea that the world can be cleanly demarcated between wholly just people who are on “crusade” against an “Axis of Evil.” This is, of course, precisely the same simplistic way of thinking which led to the American invasion of Iraq in the first place. So when some critics of the Bush administration paint Bush and his colleagues as wholly wicked people they ironically employ the same stale logic as the war salesmen in the White House.
And when images from Abu Ghraib are viewed from the comfort of a lazy boy sofa it is easy to divorce the crime from its environment. Deaths of comrades, sleepless nights and the corrupting influence of the power found in a gun are skillfully left out of the picture. Projecting blame on a small coterie of “bad apples” allows the beholder to take up the position of the righteous observer. The fact that atrocity is intrinsic to war and that the observer on the lazy boy may very well have endorsed the present war is left untouched. In other words, in heaping all the blame on a few people overseas the crime is reduced to an abstraction and one’s own guilt as a supporter of the war remains unacknowledged. For what could be a greater act of torture than the slow poisoning, starvation and occupation of an entire society?
In closing, I would like to emphasize that the past is not even the past yet. Obama came to office promising to shut down Guantanamo, yet the illegal human warehouse is still running. In a spectacular act of courage many prisoners are engaging in a peaceful hunger strike at the prisons. Their protests have been met with forced feedings, an excruciating procedure which is also a recognized act of torture. Unfortunately, power often does not comprehend the language of peaceful protest, it being too often accustomed to the language of violence. Lastly, the trend towards secrecy and use of illegal powers has increased considerably under Obama. With a touch of the button the government can prosecutes drone wars against the people of Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere.
And a trend towards the over-classification of documents, in violation of federal law, has continued. The prosecution of Bradley Manning for delivering documents to WikiLeaks is thus an interesting case, seeing as the information he gave to WikiLeaks was probably supposed to be in the public record in the first place. He may very well be jailed for releasing document which the government illegally classified.
History is generally inconvenient and all-too-quickly forgotten. War criminals of yesterday become the heroes of today, their faces benevolently smiling upon us from the pages of their ghostwritten memoirs. Some even found their own libraries.
But if we are to be more than disengaged, semi-sentient vegetables then we must remember. The very act of remembering is a form of resistance, an adamant refusal to yield to the sedate blandishments and hypnotic drivel spoon-fed to us on a daily basis. Above all, it is an act of solidarity with the victims: an affirmation of their existence, an existence which those in power would rather have us forget.