"Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud, hatch
- Robert Graves, I, Claudius, 1934
AUSTIN, Texas - It is radioactive. It is a PR Pearl Harbor. But most of all,
the Abu Ghraib scandal is an American tragedy.
The Bush administration's key talking point - repeated ad infinitum for days by
everybody from Condoleezza Rice to a gallery of generals - is that the "abuse"
was an aberration by a group of rogue
soldiers. It should fall into the Donald Rumsfeld-coined theory of "known
knowns, unknown knowns".
General Richard Myers insists life as a scary porno movie in Abu Ghraib "was
not a systemic pattern": it was the fault of a few individuals. Not true.
Trespassing on the rigid International Committee of the Red Cross code of
silence, Pierre Krahenbuhl, its director of operations, confirmed in Geneva the
veracity of a leaked Red Cross report characterizing the prison abuse as part
of "a model, and a general system". Red Cross spokeswoman Antonella Notari
emphasized to Asia Times Online that the report details "serious violations" of
the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war. In the context of
humanitarian international law, "serious violations" mean nothing other than
Officially, shame is spread all over the United States, a whole nation
humiliated. It may be a little more complicated than that.
Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist at Stanford University, confesses how he can
still be amazed at US innocence and naivete, a whole nation still not able to
deal with human nature's darker side, especially as revealed not by insidious
foreigners but by fellow Americans.
Asia Times Online was faced with the new American tragedy deep in the heart of
Texas. Even the road signs seemed not to believe it: Shall it be Highway 87
south to Eden or Highway 277 south to Eldorado?
In Brady, self-described "in the heart of Texas", a pickup heaven populated
with "Don't Mess with Texas" T-shirts and flag-decorated burrito stands
remembering September 11, 2001, radio preachers call, in anguish: "Deliver us
from evil!" while the rest of the dial is occupied by satanic rock, from Alice
Cooper to George Thorogood. From Midland to Austin, from families at the local
McDonald's to Harley fanatics kissing the joy of the open road, everybody we
talk to converges to a few key points. Rumsfeld is "a champion", "a volcano",
"the linchpin in the war on terra". He simply "should not resign". The whole
thing is part of a "partisan, crass, politically motivated campaign against
Republicans". Some say they "can't wait for the anti-Democratic backlash".
There's a justification that "more people were killed in Waco than in this [Abu
Ghraib] prison, and nobody made a fuss". Vietnam veterans say that "some
things" done by the interrogators were wrong, but the rest was
There's a solid esprit de corps: for the brave folks in the heart of Texas,
every official in the administration of President George W Bush who volunteers
any criticism is considered a Judas itching to get a book contract. Every
intervention by a top Bush administration official is lauded as
"statesmanlike". The media are basically "out of control, full of communists".
None of America's allies - European, Asian, whatever - has the right to
criticize US policies. If there was any mistake committed in Iraq, it pales
compared to the fact that Saddam Hussein "used weapons of mass destruction
against his own people" and kept a close, intimate relationship with Osama bin
Laden. There's an almost religious belief on an equation that could be resumed
this way: September 11 equals radical Islam equals Patriot Act equals Saddam
equals war equals orange alert forever.
This may be as faithful a survey as any of what middle America - not those
corrupt Gomorras New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston - think about the
whole "war on terra". Compare it to what popular talk-show host Rush Limbaugh
said on the air late last week: "It could well be that the whole purpose here,
which has been said, was to humiliate these prisoners. And there's no better
way of doing it than what was done. These are Arab males - what better way to
humiliate them than to have a woman have authority over them? What's the
purpose here? What's the objective of this? The objective is to soften them up
for interrogation later, later on. As I said, there was no horror, there was no
terror, there was no death, there was no injuries, nothing."
Democrats and Bush critics say Abu Ghraib is something like the perfect storm:
repulsive methods employed in a secret universe run amok by a bunch of
amateurs, detainees treated not as human beings, everything fully orchestrated
and choreographed, and the whole matter treated with supreme indifference in
The endless debate by the chattering classes, live and over the media, and
full-time network noise may leave the impression that the porcelain may not be
broken. But few admit in the talk shows that the whole chain of command is in
question - not to mention the whole strategy of neo-con Washington. It's
impossible to believe the official White House-Pentagon story, according to
which Rumsfeld did not brief Bush on Abu Ghraib while at the same time General
Myers, for two long weeks, was frantically stonewalling the release of the
S&M material with CBS's Dan Rather. As late as early last week, Myers,
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had not read the report he had been
trying to censor for more than two weeks. In case the official version was
true, this would mean that the president of the United States is kept fully
oblivious of crucial matters of his own "war on terra" by the neo-cons'
In terms of the big picture, or big tragedy, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld - the
architect of both Bush wars - resigning or not, along with his warrior minion
Paul Wolfowitz, is a peripheral issue. Rumsfeld's obsession with secrecy - such
as his admission in front of congressmen that "the real issue is that a secret
report was given to the press" - would probably be transferred to the next
Pentagon head. But the situation is unraveling very fast. Even Major-General
Charles Swannack, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, has admitted
that the United States is strategically losing the war in Iraq. The Washington
Post reports that "a profound anger is building within the army at Rumsfeld and
those around him".
Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz, from the summit of their
ideological infallibility, always worked for "their" Pentagon to run Iraq. The
idea of a huge private army of unaccountable commandos engaged in all sorts of
operations in Iraq comes from Rumsfeld (there are at least 20,000, many more
than British soldiers in the coalition). The patronage of convicted fraud,
zero-credibility, Ahmad "our Saddam" Chalabi comes from Rumsfeld. The
heavy-handed military approach and the absolute disregard of civilian
casualties are trademark Rumsfeld. The Pentagon controlling the US$18 billion
in Iraqi reconstruction funds is a Rumsfeld-enforced policy.
Hubris was inevitable. Without any counter-power to refrain the
Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz machine, once again the logic of war - this creepy,
out-of-control monster - has engulfed its practitioners. Finished by the end of
February, the report by Major-General Antonio Taguba detailing abuses in Abu
Ghraib had not even been opened by Myers by early May. Repeated Red Cross
warnings were dismissed. Bush was oblivious of everything. And Congress was
kept in the dark.
Help won't be forthcoming. Because of initial overwhelming opposition to the
war, the mess in Fallujah and Najaf, and now the Abu Ghraib scandal, European
public opinion is now even more against Bush's policies than a year ago. Asia
Times Online has confirmed with European diplomats: the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) won't go to Iraq after the June 30 "handover". The
Europeans will wait until the result of this November's US presidential
election. No wonder some are dubbing the whole US operation in Iraq "Dead Men
Specialist Sabrina D Harman, a military police officer already charged with
prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and now the world's most infamous dominatrix, was
in essence under command of US Army military intelligence officers, Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives, and private civilian contractors
specializing in conducting Ariel Sharon-sanctioned, Israeli-style
interrogations. An average soldier such as Harman is not culturally equipped to
assess how degrading nakedness and sexual humiliation may be to a follower of
Islam. Rosemary Gartner of the American Sociological Association offers a clue
of why that happened: "US rhetoric very effectively dehumanized Saddam Hussein,
his regime and what remained of his supporters. This was a powerful subliminal
message for all soldiers."
Abu Ghraib is the son of Guantanamo in terms of prison abuse. In April 2003 the
Pentagon approved the use of hardcore interrogation techniques in Guantanamo.
General Geoffrey Miller, the previous head of Guantanamo, is now the head of
Abu Ghraib. In sublimely convoluted military jargon, he had recommended last
August and September that US military police in Abu Ghraib should become
"actively engaged in setting the conditions for successful exploitation of
internees". Two months later some of the guards began to humiliate prisoners
systematically. Army intelligence officers who apparently oversaw
interrogations at Abu Ghraib are now saying that commanders were insatiable for
any kind of intelligence. Even Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez, the top
ground commander in Iraq, always wanted more, no matter how.
The system of inducing human degradation generally used by Special Forces in
the United States and the United Kingdom has become a routine practice among
rank-and-file soldiers and contractors. The British call these techniques R2I -
resistance to interrogation. When unsophisticated US troops still thinking that
Iraqis were directly connected to September 11 apply it, the result is what
happened in Abu Ghraib.
Another crucial example is what happened to Jamal al-Harith, 37, a British
citizen from Manchester released from Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo. In an exclusive
interview to London's Daily Mirror on March 12, he said he was beaten with
fists, feet and batons after refusing a mystery injection. He said detainees
were shackled for up to 15 hours straight in hand and leg cuffs with metal
links cutting into their skin. He described their "cells" as wire cages with
concrete floors with no privacy or protection from rats, snakes and scorpions.
The prisoners were regularly beaten by a certain Extreme Reaction Force, always
dressed in full riot gear. He revealed how (US) prostitutes were brought to
degrade the most religiously devout Muslims, forced to watch as they touched
their own naked bodies or smeared menstrual blood across their faces. There was
psychological torture aplenty to force prisoners to confess to something they
may never have done.
Techniques adopted from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's finest in
Palestine include barring access to the Red Cross; not charging the prisoners
with any crimes, but keeping them in prison anyway; arresting hundreds of Iraqi
women, not allowing them to see their families, always without charges and
under appalling sanitary conditions; and keeping prisoners hooded, as in the
Abu Ghraib photos, beaten, threatened and sometimes sexually abused.
Transforming Abu Ghraib into a Guantanamo-style intelligence factory was the
job of General Miller until these inconvenient S&M photos intervened. The
entire system - Guantanamo in Cuba, Bagram and Kandahar prisons in Afghanistan
- is part of what the New York Times politely referred to as "the military
archipelago" and is in fact a gulag archipelago. As far as Abu Ghraib is
concerned, the Pentagon strategy was to let the military investigations run
their long, secret course, and meanwhile let the March 9 Taguba report sleep in
the deep recesses of military bureaucracy. As late as his performance last
Friday, Rumsfeld had not read the Taguba report, which mentions, among other
things, "pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom
handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape ... sodomizing a
detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broomstick". There's ample
speculation that an exasperated General Taguba himself may have leaked his
report to Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker - the same Hersh who revealed to the
world the My Lai massacre in November 1969.
Rumsfeld in the next few days - or hours - may become the new John Mitchell of
Watergate infamy, the fall guy if the Abu Ghraib scandal can't be stopped in
Baghdad. Anyway, the scandal has already taken Washington by storm. When
Rumsfeld says "it will get worse", this may even function as an instigation for
some US soldiers with high moral standards to slip to the media more S&M,
this time coming from Guantanamo or Bagram.
Almost everything one needs to know about America's military archipelago is
contained in one of the most devastating books published in recent years, all
the most striking when read on the road in Texas in the middle of the Abu
Ghraib scandal: Chalmers Johnson's The Sorrows of Empire - Militarism, Secrecy
and the End of the Republic (Metropolitan Books, New York. More on
Johnson and his book later in this series).
Johnson, the author of the best-selling Blowback and professor
emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, says that "crime and
racism are ubiquitous in the military. Although the military invariably tries
to portray all reported criminal or radical incidents as unique events,
perpetrated by an infinitesimally small number of 'bad apples' and with
officers taking determined remedial action, a different reality is apparent at
military bases around the globe." The thrust of Johnson's book is an analysis
of the more than 725 military bases that configure the empire, "permanent naval
bases, military airfields, army garrisons, espionage listening posts, and
strategic enclaves on every continent of the globe". He makes the case that the
United States is "a military empire, a consumerist Sparta, a warrior culture
that flaunts the air-conditioned housing, movie theaters, supermarkets, golf
courses, and swimming pools of its legionnaires".
Johnson could be talking about Abu Ghraib, although he wrote it months if not
years in advance, when he says that "the military's extreme fetish for secrecy
and disinformation makes a farce of congressional oversight". He also proves
how "America's real business is covert activities, not intelligence collecting
Why do people join the military? According to Johnson, "they often enlist
because of a lack of good jobs in the civilian economy and thus take refuge in
the military's long-established system of state socialism - steady paychecks,
decent housing, medical and dental benefits, job training, and the promise of a
college education". He could be talking about trailer-park trash dominatrix
Harman. "The Americans with whom foreigners come into contact most frequently
tend to be late adolescents or 20-year-old youths, almost totally ignorant of
foreign cultures and languages but indoctrinated to think that they represent a
nation that President George W Bush has called 'the greatest force for good in
history'." This totally fits the profile of US soldiers this correspondent met
in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
It's extremely painful for average, law-abiding Americans to admit they live in
a hyperpower that establishes, owns and operates its own gulag archipelago -
instead of hiring contractors (Rumsfeld-style) in the form of good old friendly
dictators Suharto, Augusto Pinochet, Manuel Noriega and company, always willing
to take care of the dirty work.
The American gulag - from Guantanamo to Bagram and to countless "secret" CIA
prisons around the world - includes at least 10,000 prisoners in Iraq, 1,000 in
Afghanistan and almost 700 in Guantanamo. Nobody has the exact numbers for the
rest of the world. Guantanamo prisoners were defined by the Bush administration
as "enemy combatants". Rumsfeld then amplified the designation to everybody
else, totally snubbing the Geneva Conventions. Human Rights Watch calls it "a
legal black hole".
By a process we might call "arrogance of virtue", to defend the rule of law
against terrorism the neo-cons created a system beyond any law. This was
justified, in their minds, because the United States by definition - or by a
law of nature - is the supreme arbiter of freedom. So the law then only exists
against "evildoers". But the Abu Ghraib scandal is now sedimenting an even
deeper polarization across the US. This correspondent's travels in the US for
the past three weeks have led to the conclusion there is now a tremendous
conflict in the soul of many Americans about two conceptions of democracy.
Shall we have a democracy that respects and evaluates shades of gray, and
recognizes paradox and debate? Or shall we have a democracy ruled by
omniscience, a Messiah-donated instrument that requires no checks and balances
because it's pure by definition ("you're either with us or without us") and so
cannot but treat any accountability with contempt?
Reality is a cruel pill to swallow. But Republicans will have to take it, no
matter how. It's not reasonable - but nothing is reasonable in such an
emotional case as the whole Iraq tragedy - and it may not even be fair, but
anybody who knows the Arab and Islamic world is aware that no apologies, no
prosecution, no court martial, no firing at the highest level will appease the
anger composed by the perception that the United States somehow approves of the
torture and sexual humiliation of Muslims.
Abu Ghraib has elevated the presidential election to a much-larger-than-life
proposition. It now concerns nothing less than whether the United States will
recover any moral standing or moral authority to lecture the rest of the world
on its Higher Manifest Destiny. Some of the brave folks in the heart of Texas
and people in daily communion with Fox News may be able to manage the cognitive
dissonance between them and the rest of the world, but it's doubtful billions
in the rest of the world will.
This dovetails with the devastating conclusions of Johnson's book. They're
worth quoting at length:
Roman imperial sorrows mounted up over hundreds of years. Ours are
likely to arrive with the speed of FedEx. If present trends continue, four
sorrows, it seems to me, are certain to be visited on the United States. Their
cumulative impact guarantees that the United States will cease to bear any
resemblance to the country once outlined in our constitution. First, there will
be a state of perpetual war, leading to more terrorism against Americans
wherever they may be and a growing reliance on weapons of mass destruction
among smaller nations as they try to ward off the imperial juggernaut. Second,
there will be a loss of democracy and constitutional rights as the presidency
fully eclipses Congress and is itself transformed from an "executive branch" of
government into something more like a Pentagonized presidency. Third, an
already well-shredded principle of truthfulness will increasingly be replaced
by a system of propaganda, disinformation and glorification of war, power and
the military legions. Lastly, there will be bankruptcy, as we pour our economic
resources into ever more grandiose military projects and short-change the
education, health and safety of our fellow citizens.
Some 260 million Arabs and 1.5 billion followers of Islam are still asking why
the US kept using - and even spruced up - Saddam Hussein's main chamber of
torture while it allowed the Iraqi Museum and Baghdad's National Library - with
priceless records of Mesopotamia's 6,000-year-old history - to be looted and
burned. The war in Iraq is a war of images and perception. The Abu Ghraib
scandal may be the endgame of US defeat, or "may be the point at which the
United States lost Iraq", as University of Michigan professor and Iraq expert
Juan Cole puts it. There could not be a more incendiary affront to Iraq and the
Islamic world. Compared with Osama's gold offerings, this is really Radical
Islam's Holy Grail. Anyone who loves the best of America cannot but be appalled
at how so much imperial arrogance and incompetence has produced such an
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