Abu Ghraib: A Global Family Portrait

City of God, The Camera’s Violence, Images from Abu Ghraib, Bin Laden’s Picture Language, Terrorism and Advertising, Freud, A Leering Rictus, Porn Formulae, Rosie the Riveter, American Ingenuity, The Asexual White House, Seventeen Photos Exhibited at the International Center of Photography

Abu Ghraib: A Global Family Portrait

Jana Prikryl
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Better send a begging letter to the big investigation:

Who put these fingerprints on my imagination?

—Elvis Costello, “Green Shirt”


In a slum outside Rio de Janeiro, a gang of gun-toting drug dealers chases a runaway chicken. Meanwhile, a studious boy who grew up with them walks through the same neighborhood, having recently become a photographer for a city newspaper. Suddenly their paths intersect: the boy freezes, camera dangling from his neck; the dealers clutch their automatic rifles; he has reason to think they want him dead. But instead they ask to be photographed. As it turns out, they love seeing themselves in the paper. So the boy lifts the camera to his face, the dealers clasp their guns, and he does the shooting.

Or he would have, if the police hadn’t preempted him with their own shots. This is a scene from City of God, a Brazilian film released in the United States in January 2003—around the time President Bush was waging his ad campaign for war in Iraq, and about a year after he’d signed a memo wiggling the U.S. military free of the Geneva Conventions. All this is connected only insofar as the memo (either explicitly or by generating a climate conducive to abuse) emboldened a group of soldiers at Abu Ghraib to exploit what the young photojournalist in Rio learned by accident: a camera is a tool of power—sometimes a match for a whole drug gang, other times just enough against defenseless prisoners of war. The camera’s violence has been a trope of photography criticism for many years, but usually in a metaphorical, postmodern, hedging sort of way. At Abu Ghraib, this metaphor found its skin.

The images of prisoner abuse, captured between October and December 2003, are hideously magnetic because they are as bizarre as they are sexual and violent. There are the relatively straightforward images of cruelty—a soldier winding back his arm as he prepares to pummel a knot of prisoners; or a detainee cornered by an attack dog; or, with a certain flair for narrative, a pair of before-and-after shots that show, first, a naked prisoner with a thigh wound pooling into a red puddle on the concrete floor, and, second, almost the same scene, but on the floor a noticeably larger puddle. And there are the sexual shots—naked prisoners posed in attitudes of fellatio; naked prisoners whose erections are smirked at by a female guard trying to look as macho as possible, with a cigarette hanging from her lips.

But then there are images that coruscate with a sense of the deeply, darkly weird—the prisoner cloaked in a poncho that recalls the KKK, balancing on a box, electrodes attached to arms which are extended as though crucified; the multiple images of naked prisoners stacked in sloppy pyramids, like cheerleaders rehearsing their finale. Besides intimidating and humiliating prisoners as effectively as the other snapshots, this last category of images seems especially strange because it performs a travesty on American culture. Yet in some sense all the Abu Ghraib images are tainted with this theme: each photograph blasphemes against the ideal of American soldiers in general and their “liberating” mission in Iraq in particular.

Given all that was incendiary about the “prison scandal,” what’s remarkable is just how minor, how polite, a scandal it was (in the United States, that is). The only Americans who were seriously and enduringly horrified by it were those who get paid to be seriously and enduringly horrified: the critics. Abu Ghraib attracted media attention last April, after the photographs were broadcast on television. For a few minutes, then, it seemed as if the Bush administration might be called to account—not just for those isolated actions, but for reneging on the Geneva Conventions throughout the “war on terror.” But no accountability came. Even as election campaigns heated up the political climate last year, Abu Ghraib remained a nonissue. Today, Abu Ghraib is often enough dropped into comma clauses by journalists wishing to scold Bush in a general way. But the big stink is over.

Is this merely because we expect the ideal soldier to be brutal and aggressive—and whether that brutality occurs on the battlefield with a gun or in a jail with a camera, we hardly care? Our perplexity over this basic distinction means something fundamental has been lost from our understanding of Abu Ghraib. In conflating the Abu Ghraib violence with the “cleaner” violence of ordinary warfare, we’ve been able to avoid asking how the war on terror has affected us—or, if you like, infected us. After all, the violence of the abuse, combined with the theoretical-symbolic violence of photography itself, lends new meaning to the term “theater of combat.” In fact, the soldiers’ conduct maps with eerie precision onto the literature of photojournalism. “The camera doesn’t rape, or even possess,” wrote the late Susan Sontag in 1973, “though it may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and, at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate—all activities that, unlike the sexual push and shove, can be conducted at a distance, and with some detachment.” So what about photographers who lustily breach the camera’s detachment, who sexually push and shove their subjects (before beating them to death), who grin ecstatically over their ice-packed corpses? Why is the camera brought in to capture such moments at all?

Perhaps the soldiers in Abu Ghraib longed to see those pictures on the internet, on 60 Minutes, in the world’s media, as much as the dealers in City of God wanted their pictures on the front page. Photographs might incriminate, but more importantly public images would elevate their aggression, transcend its causes, and consolidate their power over the enemy. (Isn’t that why the Abu Ghraib photographs make us uncomfortable? Simply by looking at the images we satisfy the abusers’ hunger for publicity.) A version of this desire for publicity resides also in the grimly photogenic, Hollywood-block-buster-style attacks of 9/11. Looking again at the images of that day explains some of the perplexities surrounding Abu Ghraib.


The brilliance of bin Laden’s particular form of attack was that he spoke to us in a language of images we understood. When people remarked, incredulously, that 9/11 didn’t feel real to them, that it seemed like something out of an action movie, they were in fact getting the point. It was supposed to be like something out of an action movie. Otherwise it might fail to capture the world’s imagination; it might be dropped by the media after a few weeks; it might not be enough to attract a fresh army of recruits to jihad. Terror had been a factor in historical conflicts for centuries, and a pivotal force in international relations for the past forty years, but ordinary Americans (ordinary citizens in most parts of the West) had never paid much attention to it before. This is despite the fact that there had been an attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. That attack had been forgotten, since its casualties were relatively modest (6 deaths and 1,042 injuries), and—perhaps more importantly—it had been visually hidden in an underground garage.

The events of 9/11 were something new. They gave us something to look at, images so powerful they seemed to come from the realm of fiction. Yet 9/11 grew out of decades of modern terrorism, and images have been central to that tradition. “Because terrorists realize the importance of publicity,” wrote Yonah Alexander in 1977, “terrorist operations have been broadly symbolic rather than physically oriented.” And in case we didn’t get the analogy to more benign forms of culture, Alexander added that “terrorism is like advertising.” Like commercials, he argued, terrorist acts are based on the principle of repetition. A single message must be forcefully repeated, and the singularity of that message is expressed through the “spectacular” nature of the terrorist violence employed. This analogy seems particularly astute given that Al Qaeda has since made ample use of the “advertisement” paradigm: Osama bin Laden’s videotaped statements resemble nothing so much as Islamist infomercials.

But what would images—or infomercials, for that matter—be without viewers to see them? One of the key definitions of terrorism, besides its targeting of civilians as casualties, is that it must inspire fear in those who are not physically harmed by the violence. This theatrical element of terrorism became apparent in the 1960s, when a broad shift occurred from rural guerrilla warfare to urban terror. In cities, as the historian Walter Laqueur has explained, “the terrorist could always count on the presence of journalists and TV cameras and consequently a large audience.” These days, terrorists don’t require location for logistical purposes; if someone is looking to strike within North America, they’ll find camera crews as thick on the ground in Peoria as in Manhattan. But obviously the impact of hitting Manhattan is still symbolically superior. And the point remains: the history of terrorism is intertwined with the history of the media. In recent decades terrorism has followed the cameras, rather than the other way around.

In this sense it’s significant that Al Qaeda is run by men who received their education in the universities of the West. In Terror and Liberalism (2003), Paul Berman notes that “an amazing number of the Arab and Muslim terrorists do turn out to have second and even primary identities as Westerners.” Terrorists—especially terrorist leaders—have an insider’s feel for Western culture. This kind of comfort goes beyond Stalin and Hitler’s avowed love of Hollywood movies. A standard part of growing up in bin Laden’s family, for example, involved attending university in the West. Several of bin Laden’s brothers did so, and the fact that Osama studied, instead, in Jiddah has often been explained as a function of the fact that he had already enjoyed a profligate period in a Westernized Beirut before repenting, returning to fundamentalist Islam, and marrying a young Syrian. Thanks to his family’s financial freedom, bin Laden reveled in “Western decadence” for several years. It must have been a period of real, if submerged, psychological conflict for him. On the one hand, he was accustomed to Western luxuries and indulged in them without any sense that they represented a cross-cultural activity. On the other hand, each indulgence was a betrayal of his Muslim heritage and pride. The former element has huge implications for how fluently bin Laden expresses the symbolic elements of each attack; the latter is, quite simply, the driving force of his aggression against the West.

Meanwhile, in the early eighties, when today’s superstar terrorists were young adults (bin Laden partied in Beirut from 1973 to 1975), a new terror phenomenon took the world’s breath away: suicide bombing. Previously, it had been assumed that terrorists wanted to survive their own violence in order to benefit from its political effects. But just after 6 a.m. on October 23, 1983, Islamic fundamentalists drove a truck into the Battalion Landing Team headquarters of U.S. peacekeepers in Beirut, triggered “the largest non-nuclear explosion that had ever been detonated on the face of the Earth,” as a recent court order puts it, and killed themselves as well as nearly three hundred victims. To put it mildly, self-preservation no longer limited the scope of terrorist carnage.

In fact, there is an explicit link between October 23 and September 11. John Lehman, secretary of the navy in 1983, has remarked that the Beirut attack, followed by the withdrawal of American forces from Lebanon, “was a major cause of 9/11. We told the world that terrorism succeeds.” But there is also a hideous symbolic connection between a bomb that decimates a building and a personal attack that injures a victim’s body: Sontag stressed this point last year in Regarding the Pain of Others. “To be sure, a cityscape is not made of flesh,” she wrote. “Still, sheared-off buildings are almost as eloquent as bodies in the street.” In the spectacle of 9/11, the metaphor of broken buildings as bodies achieved maximum resonance. You needn’t be a Freudian analyst to sense that on that cloudless morning the West’s most tremendous phallic symbols were brought down at the same time as nearly three thousand civilians were slaughtered—roughly ten times the number of peacekeepers killed in 1983. Those toppled towers invested each human death with something gratuitous—an element of ritual murder.

But ritual and symbolism are not simply strategies that terrorists use; the truth is, you can turn the statement around and say that symbolism uses terrorists. In 1967, the political scientist Ole R. Holsti published an essay titled “Cognitive Dynamics and Images of the Enemy,” in which he argued that, while terrorists exploit media images, they are also psychologically disposed to reduce their multifarious human enemies into a single abstract image. Holsti went on to say that these abstractions cause terrorists to resort to violence, yet the very abstractness and unreality of those trigger-images means they are bound to be dysfunctional, inspiring immoral action. This theoretical marriage of terrorism and images harkens back to Gustave Le Bon’s 1896 treatise, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, and Freud’s recapitulation of it, in 1922, in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. The group, wrote Freud, “thinks in images, which call one another up by association (just as they arise with individuals in states of free imagination), and whose agreement with reality is never checked by any reasonable agency.” So it is a perfectly closed loop: terrorist groups manufacture convenient images of the enemy, and then those oversimplified images prompt attacks that are themselves highly symbolic and image-conscious.

This seems a good time to return to the original questions: Why did the soldiers at Abu Ghraib feel the dual compulsion to abuse prisoners and to turn that abuse into a series of macabre photo ops? Why the insistence on creating images?

Consider how the soldiers’ behavior offers a parallel to the work of suicide bombers (not a moral equivalent, obviously, but a structural echo): to complete their mission, suicide bombers must, by definition, end their own lives; to gain maximum effect from their photographs, to demean the Iraqi prisoners before the world rather than merely within the walls of that damp jailhouse, the American soldiers needed to incriminate themselves. If photographing one’s own transgressions is an invitation for others to find you out, then taking digital photographs is a far more open invitation. It is an Evite. The ease of “sharing” images, after all, is the feature that has fueled the boom of digital photography. This means that to incriminate themselves the soldiers did not need to appear in all the photographs, though the fact that they did, and the manner in which they did, confirms their eagerness to flaunt their crimes. Judging from the photographs—in which each soldier’s face is locked in a leering, beatific rictus—there was a certain ecstasy in that kind of martyrdom. Assassinating one’s own character never felt so good.

Looking at the photographs, it’s hard to escape the sense that the soldiers felt an overwhelming sense of relief (not just release) in behaving as they did. This impression is borne out by Freud, who moved beyond Le Bon by arguing that groups are not merely clusters of people regressing collectively into primitive behavior. Groups, Freud maintained, are held together and organized by libidinal forces—that is, the sex drive. Group Psychology includes Freud’s famous examples of how the army and the church function. The cohesion of both groups is anchored by a father figure. Individual members of the group are stabilized by two sets of bonds: toward the father figure and toward one another. But once the father figure disappears, the whole thing unravels. Freud noted that when an army’s libidinal ties weaken (when the army’s primary bond, its collective faith in the commander in chief, fails), panic breaks out and the soldiers become subject to overwhelming fear. By contrast, when a Christian group dissolves (when its faith in Christ vanishes), “ruthless and hostile impulses towards other people make their appearance, which, owing to the equal love of Christ, they had previously been unable to do.”

What happened—did the Abu Ghraib soldiers read this analysis and confuse themselves with a church group? Freud’s thoughts on the dissolution of religious ties seem to point directly at Abu Ghraib. That becomes less incongruous when you remember this particular military unit was not in an ordinary army-combat situation. The soldiers’ job in the prison was passive rather than active (maintaining security), when it was not psychological (interrogating detainees). Their commander in chief, George W. Bush, had demoted these soldiers into missionaries with guns—missionaries who happened to have digital cameras. And it’s safe to say that by the autumn of 2003, when the abuse occurred, Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” spectacle of the previous May resembled nothing so much as a betrayal. The soldiers’ anger and frustration is confirmed by Craig R. Whitney’s introduction to The Abu Ghraib Investigations (2004), where he notes that they “had expected to go home after American forces occupied Baghdad in the spring of 2003 and were demoralized when they were kept on into the fall to handle an influx of thousands of detainees from the gathering insurgency against the occupiers.” In this light the contrariety of the soldiers’ abuse follows a bedeviled logic: humiliating, injuring, and killing prisoners on film granted the soldiers an entry into the terrorists’ realm of ritualistic images (Go, Team America!), while simultaneously sabotaging the U.S. foray into Iraq (Take that, Daddy!).


Following the exposure of the photographs on 60 Minutes II last April, many critics deplored the similarities between the abuse, internet porn, and mainstream U.S. culture. It was one of those subjects that united the Left and Right in a convulsion of the collective conscience. On the liberal side, Susan Sontag’s seminal essay in the New York Times Magazine argued that our video-game culture had legitimized the soldiers’ sense of brutalized “fun” and exhibitionism, and in the Village Voice George Smith made a parallel argument about Abu Ghraib and reality TV. Meanwhile, commentators from the Christian Right were logging points in the culture war by saying essentially the same thing. Only Frank Rich, in one of his New York Times columns, pointed out the overlap and its political implications: if “it was the porn that made them do it” (as his headline quipped), then there was no need to blame anyone higher in the chain of command, no need to question the chucking of the Geneva Conventions or to chuck Donald Rumsfeld from his post. Far from becoming a reason to doubt Republican policies, Abu Ghraib could be spun (and was) into yet another confirmation of the dire need for “moral values.” And we know where that led—straight to a second term.

There’s no denying that internet porn influenced the form that the abuse took. A digital camera captured the images, which were then emailed among soldiers. The images themselves featured, among other things, naked male bodies simulating fellatio or leaning up against one another, bare backs supporting bare asses. All of this stuff was obscene in one way or another, and it was disseminated in the same way as internet porn. How could it not have been inspired by contemporary pornography and culture?

But with all the talk of porn and Abu Ghraib, it’s helpful to consider again a parallel involving terrorism—terrorism and porn. Both are spectacles whose meaning resides in their audience. Terrorists intend to kill a certain number of people, yes, but they also need to terrify a far larger portion of the public. “The watchers are those whom the terrorist wishes to impress,” a terrorism expert named H.H.A. Cooper wrote in the 1970s. Substitute a few words and you have the formula for porn production: the viewers at home (rather than the sexual partner in a given scene) are those whom the porn actor wishes to impress.

The Abu Ghraib abuse may have been influenced by a porn-addled culture, but more importantly it represented a new hybrid of terror and porn. And in a crucial twist, it was produced by the army, by the flexed arm of the state—which traditionally plays the role of censor when it comes to pornography. No wonder the soldiers rigged their crimes to all but ensure they’d be seen around the world: “being seen” was the central meaning of this particular torture. You can take this irony even further to point out that while Bush Sr. yanked funding from the NEA in the early nineties to curb what he considered to be “smut,” a decade later his son’s foreign policies generated smut of a far more malignant character.

Certainly, contemporary circumstances—culture as well as government policies—influence the substance and style of a given transgression. But there is also something more-than-contemporary, something darkly ritualistic about the Abu Ghraib abuse and the inevitability with which it shaded into sexual violation. Look at the photograph of Specialist Sabrina Harman giving a thumbs-up over the corpse of Manadel al-Jamadi. This image needs to be juxtaposed with that of another American woman sacrificing everything for her country in a time of war: Rosie the Riveter. If you turn the Harman photo counterclockwise ninety degrees, she overlaps with Rosie. The same all-American beauty in three-quarter profile; the same elbow bent into a “V”; the same 1940s red lips; the same long, elegant eyebrows; the same glossy brown curl on the temple.

Specialist Sabrina Harman gloating over the corpse of Manadel al-Jamadi, in a pose that, turned on its side, seems a direct parody of Rosie the Riveter's WWII heroism. Image courtesy Reuters.

Harman updates the original image in a number of ways, of course. Rosie’s resolutely closed mouth becomes Harman’s mindless, grinning “Cheese!” Rosie’s firm fist turns into a thumbs-up—the casual sign for can-do and it’s-all-good (ironically, it was originally the sign for this-one-gets-to-live). Harman’s hand is different from Rosie’s also in that it wears a rubber glove, and this of course signals the crucial distinction between the two portraits. Slide the photo back ninety degrees: Harman is smiling radiantly over the ice-packed body of an Iraqi prisoner killed during a particularly enthusiastic interrogation. His mouth gapes open and his cheek is bandaged. Harman’s rubber glove invites the ugly thought that she has touched the corpse, perhaps sexually. If Rosie’s voice bubble exclaims “We Can Do It!” then Harman’s seems to crow “We Did It!” We killed him, and possibly we fucked him with a broom. As it happens, an especially perceptive web company is now selling T-shirts that show Rosie the Riveter uttering an alternative slogan, one that might occur to Harman as a very unconscious thought bubble: “Up Yours, George!”

Harman’s glee in response to al-Jamadi’s corpse seems not just morally grotesque but also emotionally bizarre. A soldier, like an undertaker, may get comfortable with the sight of dead bodies, but still—who becomes quite so bubblyhappy near a corpse? Even one belonging to “the enemy”? The elemental reason we recoil from corpses, according to Georges Bataille, is that they represent violence and murder—forces which, through the dead body, can spread to others who are still alive. By this reasoning, Harman’s smile in that photograph is so shocking because she is breaking a powerful taboo simply by reveling in, and not running from, the dead body. But there’s a twist. Bataille notes the death taboo “is only true for the members of the community. Within it the taboo has full force. Without, where strangers are concerned, the taboo is still felt but it can be violated.” So al-Jamadi, as a putative member of the opposite side during a time of war, was outside Harman’s community, and it was natural for her to feel immune to his death. Yet that is precisely why the photograph hits us with the shock of its moral decay: here we are, supposing ourselves to be civilized—enlightened enough to see that enemy soldiers have human rights, that the dead of both sides deserve a decent burial, that conflict is geopolitical and not personal or tribal. These are lessons we supposedly learned after Rosie won her war, in response to which, in 1949, the Geneva Conventions were devised. Yet there is Sabrina Harman, gloating over a corpse with her thumb in the air as if he were a turkey she had just roasted to perfection.


The fact is, on February 7, 2002, the United States backed out of its civilization agreement with the rest of the world. The memo George W. Bush signed that day was carefully-worded to ensure that only “unlawful combatants” (i.e., terrorists and not “‘regular’ armed forces fighting on behalf of states”) would be denied the rights bestowed by the Geneva Conventions. At the time, even those who mistrusted the Bush administration might have been swayed by the memo’s logic: “the war against terrorism ushers in a new paradigm,” it read, and “this new paradigm—ushered in not by us, but by terrorists—requires new thinking in the law of war, but thinking that should nevertheless be consistent with the principles of Geneva.” The administration seemed to be displaying both American ingenuity (“new thinking”) and ethical restraint (“but thinking that should nevertheless…”). But as Mark Danner has exhaustively detailed in the New York Review of Books, the swerve in policy (or from policy) radically altered U.S. military culture. “For torture,” as he put it, “this decision was Original Sin.”

At Abu Ghraib, prisoners were stripped, injured, and sexually violated, and several were killed during interrogation—that last a fact that went underreported in most of the coverage of the “scandal.” Yet there was no active response from the top branches of government; there was no public outcry; there was no sustained pressure from the media. From all this one can only conclude that Americans feel solidarity with those sadistic, abusive soldiers—after all, they’re our sadistic abusive soldiers.

Don’t laugh: this is the logic Dennis Miller used on his show last summer to squelch a panelist’s claim that Abu Ghraib was perhaps a serious problem. And don’t laugh for another reason: “our side” really does crave images that show “the other side” being toppled, brought low. By the time Abu Ghraib made the news, the wonderful ahistorical non-war-torn God-givenness of the American identity had for thirty months been hijacked and replaced with uncertainty. And that uncertainty came dressed in unforgettable images. All the images belonged to “the other side”: the airplanes, the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, the Pennsylvania field, bin Laden’s anti-press conferences, the beheading of Westerners in Iraq. Everybody knew what the soldiers did at Abu Ghraib was wrong, but it did not feel as wrong as what Americans had recently suffered.

After all, our guys had merely posed a few people in attitudes that, in our culture, are staples of the multibillion-dollar porn industry (we conveniently forgot that prisoners had also died in the course of this treatment). More fundamentally, the unconscious responses that both unleashed the photographs and were unleashed by them colluded with the administration’s political shoulder-shrugs. Here is a case where the evidence of a crime actually helped exonerate those who were ultimately responsible for it. (Adding to all of the above was the seemingly commonsense notion that acts of such prurience could never have flowed, directly or indirectly, from an institution as serious and asexual—don’t laugh—as the White House.)

And so there has been only a premature, unthinking sort of closure on Abu Ghraib. It was a scandal of futility, except in the Muslim world, where the photographs have been very useful indeed. Since last May, there has been only one public commemoration of the crimes—a show at the International Center of Photography last fall (which ran concurrently in Philadelphia). Both shows displayed seventeen of the Abu Ghraib snapshots, along with four mise-en-abîme photographs of those snapshots as they have been disseminated throughout the Middle East—in newspapers, as protest placards, on huge public billboards. At the ICP, the Abu Ghraib show was juxtaposed with two other exhibits. After buying a ticket to all three, you first entered a large, light-filled gallery devoted to Cornell Capa’s exhilarating images of John F. Kennedy’s presidency. Downstairs, another large, white-walled gallery displayed photographs from Life magazine—not all exultant, but most of them proud and tough. From here, you had to poke around to find the Abu Ghraib room. It was a small square space whose walls were painted a stark, dark gray. This itself felt symbolic: it was as if here, in the bowels of the ICP, Capa’s and Life’s optimistic American images had sprouted a tumor, and that tumor was Abu Ghraib. You stood there, staring at those irreducible snapshots, feeling intensely mournful for something, as though you were visiting a seriously ill friend in the hospital. You wanted to cut his tumor away, and you felt you might have the courage to do it yourself, right then and there. But of course it was already too late. The tumor had metastasized globally—as the four other photographs at the exhibit reminded you—and the patient’s morale was quite extinguished.

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