From an Amateur's Angle: The Impact of the Visual Image in Defining Abu Ghraib
Many have deemed the invasion of Iraq as the American government’s ‘brass-knuckled quest for information’ – a strong statement given that the self-appointed ‘land of the free’ is insinuating that justice can be achieved regardless of the cost. As President George W. Bush stated, “I will never relent in defending America – whatever it takes”. However, one power that the Bush administration failed to consider is the power of digital technology. With the unprecedented release of controversial photographs from the American military prison, Abu Ghraib, the existing beliefs regarding activities in Iraq have been altered. The representation of war that was captured by the personal cameras of American soldiers has provided a tool for examining the difference between the redacted images shown in newspapers and the landmark amateur photographs that illustrate what really happens when the unexpected becomes public.
"In contemporary conflicts, any mention of culture
may mask the sound of a revolver being drawn" Hermann Goering
(Quoted in Paul & Bogler 1998: 35).
Author George Orwell (1949) wrote about the future of the
modern world at a time when 1984 was merely a date in the distance. The
seeds for Orwell’s dystopian reality can be found in today’s society:
"And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all
records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became
truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the
future: who controls the present controls the past’,” (p. 20). The fact
that today’s modern state is itself one filled with the conflicting
realities of success and failure, knowledge and ignorance, torture and
peace – it is crucial to examine how such dichotomies have come to
shape the seemingly progressive reality of today.
Many have deemed the invasion of Iraq as the American
government’s ‘brass-knuckled quest for information’ – a strong
statement given that the self-appointed ‘land of the free’ is
insinuating that justice can be achieved regardless of the cost. As
President George W. Bush stated, “I will never relent in defending
America – whatever it takes” (quoted in Draper, 2007, p. 390). However,
one power that the Bush administration failed to consider is the power
of digital technology. With the war in Iraq being filtered to the
American public through the use of sound bites and rumors, there is an
extreme disconnect between what is happening on the frontlines in the
Middle East and the information available to the public. The mediated
message that has been crucial for the Bush administration in selling
the war to the masses has suddenly, through digital technology, started
to be questioned. While truth can be considered the first casualty of
the Iraq war, it is important to examine how technological advancements
in the hands of amateurs have reshaped the notion of truth. With the
unprecedented release of controversial photographs from the American
military prison, Abu Ghraib, the existing beliefs regarding activities
in Iraq have been altered. The representation of war that was captured
by the personal cameras of American soldiers has provided a tool for
examining the difference between the redacted images shown in
newspapers and the landmark amateur photographs that illustrate what
really happens when the unexpected becomes public:
When the first words and images about Abu Ghraib appeared
in May 2004, much of the initial shock came from sheer surprise. None
of us had ever seen anything like this. Now, after seeing so much
analysis and exegesis, the novelty fades but the revulsion is deeper:
the hooded, naked, manacled men huddle by cell gates; the grinning US
soldiers point at the prisoners’ genitals; the off-stage photographer
obsessively records each move; dogs are about to attack naked men in
their cells. I must admit to my own private reaction: these are the
only atrocity images that I have seen that I literally cannot bear to
see again (Cohen 2005: 27).
The ‘War on Terror’ has become a war synonymous with technology. The
realities of Abu Ghraib made their way into the lives of Americans as a
result of the power of such technologies in transferring digital images
from the frontlines of Baghdad to the front pages of national
Where once photographing war was the province of
photojournalists, now the soldiers themselves are all photographers –
recording their war, their fun, their observations of what they find
picturesque, their atrocities – and swapping images among themselves
and emailing them around the globe (Sontag 2004: 27).
For the American military the war’s latest adversary may
be digital technologies such as digital cameras, home video recorders
and cell phone cameras, and their ability to disseminate images that
question the status quo. The
technology of photography has become an unpredictable insurgent, a
detrimental, and unforeseen weapon against the Americans in Iraq: “Abu
Ghraib initially became big news because digital cameras in the hands
of military personnel enabled the press to build a story that was
largely buried behind Pentagon walls before the photos emerged”
(Bennett et al., 2006: 468). As
Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense, stated: “[Today’s
soldiers] 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” (quoted in Sontag, 2007, p. 27).
The digital images from Abu Ghraib were shot by American
soldiers from an American cultural perspective, with a common
understanding of legitimate means of torture, as constructed by popular
media. The American soldiers posted at Abu Ghraib relied on their own
knowledge of torture to inflict pain on Iraqi prisoners. Such
references to the knowledge of traditional methods of torture are often
displayed in a humorous or sanitized fashion in such Hollywood films as
Dazed and Confused or G.I. Jane (see Appendix 1). The
American public did not bat an eye at the acts of sexual violence,
domination, and abuse depicted in such films, and yet when the heroic
soldier proudly wearing the American flag is caught referring to such
visual references, shock and outrage follow. The
hypocrisy of the occurrences at Abu Ghraib and the subsequent coverage
in the U.S of the abuse, reflects the power structure of a society that
prides itself on its seemingly upstanding morality while producing
visual images (through both film, television and magazine photos), that
compromise any notion of a sound morality. In examining the unfolding
of an event that those in power had hoped would never surface, it is
evident that the sanctity of American society has been compromised.
With the accounts of torture at Abu Ghraib having been exposed, the
once seemingly truthful coverage of the War in Iraq is now, more than
ever, being questioned.
The manner in which the events of Abu Ghraib have been
manipulated by politics, redacted by the press, and altered by
photographers made these acts of torture especially troubling to the
American public. This paper sets to provide an interpretation of the
manner in which the American President, the public, and the press
reacted to the release of the photographs of torture from Abu Ghraib
First, the manner in which the images were accidentally
released to the public brings up questions of power and authority in
American society. The common trope, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, which
traditionally was used with regard to the policy about homosexuality in
the U.S. military (Shilits 1994), appears to have become the motto for
the agreement between the press and the military regarding the war in
Iraq. When such an
agreement is breached, primarily as a result of the availability of
technology, journalistic autonomy is questioned.
Second, the shock and awe value of the photographs is
surprising, given that it can be argued that these images released from
Abu Ghraib are similar to depictions of visual imagery that represent
pictorial narratives found in American culture. These photographs are
similar to classic images of sex and violence depicted in today’s
popular culture. The fact that these acts were performed by the
American soldier, a figure who traditionally upholds American values
and vigor, makes these photographs contentious. In addition, it is
important to examine the culturally tailored torture techniques that
emerged at the hands of American soldiers who resorted to torture
techniques previously witnessed in popular visual images.
Finally, when the occurrences at Abu Ghraib were
discussed by the media the topic of torture was undermined. Regardless
of the visual images representing torture, the press began to
manipulate the American public’s idea of torture by relying on specific
semantics in their coverage. The press became diffident in reporting on
whether the actions were those of abuse or torture and who was to blame
for the seemingly ‘out of control’ actions of the 800th Military Police Brigade stationed at Abu Ghraib.
Manipulate: To influence or manage shrewdly or deviously
The manipulation of the perceived events in Iraq managed
to convince the American public that the prisoners at an American
prison were being treated in an acceptable manner. However, what was
considered ‘acceptable’ was up for debate. “The behavior at Abu Ghraib
is nothing more than a good time… sort of like hazing, a fraternity
prank. Sort of like that kind of fun” (quoted in Warner, 2004, p. 74).
This statement was uttered by Rush Limbaugh in May 2004, when asked
about the alleged abusive occurrences taking place behind the walls of
Abu Ghraib prison. Many Americans were shocked and confused when
confronted by the scandalous pictures appearing in The New York Times:
“The events depicted in the photos demanded interpretation as they were
highly challenging to American’s social identity as a morally upright
nation” (Bennett et al, 2006, p. 470). How could a country that prides
itself on morality, have committed such disgraceful acts? The rumors
could not be real – and then the photos were released:
When U.S Army Specialist Joseph Darby arrived at this
post at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in November 2003, he heard about
a shooting in Tier 1A. He asked the military police officer in charge
of the area, Specialist Charles Graner, if there were any photos of the
site. Garner gave him two CDs of photos, but they were not what Darby
expected to see. As a Washington Post story later put it, those
images would soon become “iconic, among them, the naked human pyramid,
the hooded man standing on a box hooked up to wires…” (Higham &
Stephens, 2004). It is a measure of the photographs’ impact that they
could be described as ‘iconic’ only three weeks after CBS’s 60 Minutes II made the photos public on April 28, 2004 (Bennett et al, 2006, p. 467).
The power of the printed image has been a longstanding
tradition during times of war. Newspapers printed images from the
frontlines in order to help bring the reality of the battlefield to the
homes of those awaiting loved ones. It
is the choice of news journalists to decide which photos are printed
and which ones are discarded—strategically selecting a specific war
storyline to provide to viewers while still keeping the agenda of the
day in mind. With
journalists wary of which photos to publish and whether the pubic
should be aware of the goings on behind prison bars in Baghdad,
journalistic autonomy began to be compromised, with the line between
fact and fiction starting to blur.
In Salon of 1859,
Baudelaire wrote, “A foul society has flung itself, like Narcissus, to
gaze at its trivial image on metal” (quoted in Tagg, 1988, p. 51). The
power of the technology of the photograph has managed to endure the
test of time as a result of its indisputable rawness – transmitting the
reality of any situation in a manner that is open to all
interpretations. The iconographic power of the photograph provides
viewers with a currency unlike any other technology – both amateurs and
professionals have the ability to capture events, and neither is more
or less powerful than the other. According to communications historian
James Tagg (1980), the emergence of the photographic camera from a
professional tool to a layman’s hobby is what has allowed many scholars
to examine the power struggles within a given society:
In the decades of the 1880s and the 1890s, photography
underwent a double technical revolution, enabling, on the one hand, the
mass production of cheaply printed half-tone blocks and, on the other
hand, the mass production of simple and convenient photographic
equipment. At the very moment when certain professional photographers
were seeking, in reaction, to exhibit their status as artists in all
kinds of refinement of printing technique, this double revolution
stripped the image of what Walter Benjamin called its ‘aura’ by
flooding the market with cheap and disposable photo-mechanical
reproductions and by giving the untrained masses the means to picture
themselves (p. 66).
The defining moment in the history of the photographic
camera was the instant the technology became available to the masses
(ibid, p. 65). Gone were the days when those with both power and money
captured the events of the day, suddenly the amateur was given autonomy
in deciding what was worthy of remembrance: “An ideological
contradiction was negotiated so that photographic practice could be
divided between the domain of art, whose privilege is a function of its
lack of power, and the scientifico-technical domain, whose power is a
function of its renunciation of privilege” (ibid, p. 66). For the men
and women who began capturing their actions at Abu Ghraib on their
digital camera, they too were exercising power through the photographic
lens. However, it is crucial to examine why these soldiers decided to
have Iraqi prisoners pose in the specific way that they were
represented. In analyzing the photographs, it is evident that a
specific power relation was being performed—that of a colonizer
imposing specific standards on the colonized. All of the photos
represent a classical American visual reference point: the hoods that
are similar to those used by the Klu Klux Klan, poses emulating
American pornography, or even a thumbs-up gesture by a smiling soldier. These images, if taken out of their context, can be found in visual imagery across the country.
With the combination
of professionals and amateurs contributing to the construction of
photographic images, underlying representations of power and identity
are consequently created. Michel Foucault argued that, “power in the
West is what displays itself most and hides itself best,” (quoted in
Freund, 1980, p. 10). The mistaken release of the Abu Ghraib
photographs to the media by American Army Specialist Joseph Darby
illustrates how new technology challenges the West’s power structure as
described by Foucault. For Foucault (1979), power relations are best
examined in comparison to punishment and how the punishment of
criminals by those in power is a direct commentary on the discourse of
authority in society: “The punishment is carried out in such a way as
to give a spectacle not of measure, but of imbalance and excess; in
this liturgy of punishment, there must be an emphatic affirmation of
power and of its intrinsic superiority” (p. 49). The disturbing
photographs taken by the soldiers at Abu Ghraib encourages this notion
of political discourse whereby there is always a powerful and a
subservient character in the narrative of punishment.
Redacted: To prepare, edit or revise for publication
When the press was confronted with Darby’s digital
photographs, editorial boards from major newspapers across the country
met to discuss how such images directly challenged the War in Iraq
narrative that had previously been presented to the public. Questions
about trust, control and depictions of power circulated as editors
considered how to respond to images that contradicted what had been
deemed the status quo. In the photographs from Abu Ghraib, the
relations of power are shockingly depicted. With soldiers flippantly
directing a thumbs-up to the camera, while grinning beside a pile of
naked bodies, Foucault’s notion of the power of punishment cannot be
more evident (see Appendix 2):
The photos on 60 Minutes II, on Wednesday, April
28, 2004 were riveting – a hooded figure in a ragged black poncho
balanced uneasily on a box, an off-kilter Halloween Christ with bare
feet and palms plaintively open, electric wires running from the hands
like the strings of a marionette; an American girl with a cigarette
dangling from the corner of her mouth in one photo and an impish grin
in another as she points derisively at the genitals of a naked, hooded
Iraqi man and signals thumbs up; smiling soldier behind naked men posed
in a tangled human pyramid; hooded, stripped prisoners simulating
fellatio and sodomy; an unmuzzled dog snarling at a cowering, naked
prisoner (Rajiva 2005: 10).
American art historian Aby Warburg argues that
photographic representations are merely mirroring society’s
pre-established priorities and ideals (cited in Eisenman, 2007, p. 38). He
terms this phenomenon, the ‘Hellenistic pathos formula” – theorizing
that photographs are representations of ‘introverted oppression,
eroticized chastisement or rationalized torture” (Warburg, 1998, p.
90). In examining the pornographic nature of the majority of the
photographs released from Abu Ghraib, Warburg’s theory is confirmed.
The reference point that these soldiers referred to when carrying out
the acts of torture can be found in popular images from many mainstream
media; Media that normalizes such images of domination in television
shows, advertisements, and films.
A news article published in The Washington Post on
May 11, 2005, attempted to disprove the argument that the soldiers who
committed the acts were psychologically unsound: “The U.S. troops who
abused Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad were most likely
not pathological sadists, but ordinary people who felt they were doing
the dirty work needed to win the war,” (quoted in Bennett et al, 2006,
p. 475). The ambiguous term ‘dirty work’ takes on many meanings and
when one has to consider which techniques to resort to in order to
extract information, many turn to what they know. For the average
American, images of violence are rendered realistic and possible
through their depiction in popular media. These soldiers relied on
pre-existing notions of torture that they learned through witnessing
fictional accounts in movies, television shows, and videogames to aid
them in fulfilling what they deemed their ‘patriotic duty’.
According to Brooke Warner (2004), author of Panic: Origins, Insight, and Treatment,
the heuristic approach to coercion applied by soldiers at Abu Ghraib is
most visible in examining the torturous acts committed by female
soldiers toward Iraqi prisoners:
Perhaps the three women’s transgressions are unique
because of something the feminist movement worked toward but whose
generation never completely embraced. But this generation gets it,
lives it. Women are no longer the “delicate sex.” Young women are
tough, hard-edged, and aware of their power. The post-feminist world is
an increasingly more violent world. Television, cinema, and videogames
have had an effect, no matter what the media moguls claim to the
contrary” (p. 71).
The images released from Abu Ghraib depicting female
soldiers holding onto a leash around a prisoner’s neck references a
form of sexual domination that is often encouraged by images in popular
media (see Appendix 3). Ironically, the images from Abu Ghraib that
shocked the nation are fundamentally based on pornographic images that
have been circulating in popular culture for years. However, now that
the all-American soldier from the land of the free has taken the reigns
into his or her hands, an underlying American belief has been shaken to
the core. Yet, the images of sexual domination, homosexual eroticism,
and rape are images that have already been caught on film – and have
been viewed by many Americans.
communications scholar Richard Jackson Harris (2004), erotica as a
stimulator of aggression is becoming more widespread in American media:
“Sexual violence is by no means confined to pornographic materials
restricted from minors” (p. 307). Therefore, the generation of soldiers
fighting in Iraq grew up with more images of sexual violence than their
parents or grandparents who fought in Vietnam or World War II (see
Appendix 4). Vietnam veterans were exposed to the nostalgic sense of sexuality from Playboy,
while today’s soldiers have the world of Internet pornography at their
fingertips. With the Internet available to the troops in Baghdad, their
access to sexual images is more predominant than previous generations
Harris cautions the media industry, explaining that
individuals who are prone to use violence in their own lives are more
likely to become aroused or incited to violence by sexually violent
media: “Sexually violent media often affect men very differently
depending on their propensity to use force in their own lives” (ibid).
With the military encouraging violent means of resolution in times of
conflict, combined with the socialization of many soldiers growing up
in an era of television where rape and sexual violence are normalized,
it seems inevitable that the events at Abu Ghraib occurred:
The Taguba report finds that an American MP “had sex”
with an Iraqi woman; Iraqi women were forced at gunpoint to bare their
breasts (according to some reports also their genitals); and naked
female prisoners were videotaped. The evidence was shown to Congress
but not deemed suitable for the public… The anonymous letter writer
‘Noor’ claims that she and others were stripped, raped, and impregnated
by American soldiers. The lawyer Swadi investigates and finds her case
credible and representative of systematic abuse and torture by U.S.
guards “all across Iraq” (Rajiva, 2005, p. 133).
While Harris argues that sex and violence in mainstream
movies is often characterized by the woman as the victim of rape, a
combination of homoerotic practices and reverse sexism occurred at Abu
Ghraib,. Female soldiers took up the role of sexual dominator,
performing what could be interpreted as vengeful acts against Iraqi
men, often emulating dominatrix images from popular culture. Salon
writer Cathy Hong quoted neoconservative author Stephanie Guttman as
saying, “Women can act just as badly as men. I think they have been
aware of the Islamic attitude about women – which is not respectful.
They may have subtly enjoyed being sadistic to the kind of men who
enjoy humiliating other women” (Warner 2004: 75). The
male soldiers also acted out their own fantasies, reverting to
fraternity-like hazing rituals as acts of torture or dominance, thereby
subjecting the Iraqi prisoners to the role of rookie or freshman (see
Appendix 5). As Rush Limbaugh pointed out, “[it was] a good time… sort
of like hazing, a fraternity prank” (quoted in Warner, 2004, p. 74).
While these images
are consistent with the notion of American soldiers colonizing the
Iraqi people, it is crucial to consider the role of authority in
encouraging such behavior. The American soldiers resorted to a
culturally displaced form of punishment, a means of colonization
imposing American standards of torture on a culture whose idea of
humiliation and punishment is worlds apart. The acts of torture at Abu
Ghraib can be seen as culturally tailored, with soldiers relying on
their prior knowledge of torture (in an American milieu) as a standard
Arab Islamic people value modesty as a means of
minimizing sexual interest during the public routines of life and as
symbolic submission to God. Female modesty is well known. Westerners
would have no intuitive feeling for the unbearable shame of a father
and son forced to face one another stark naked, with genitals exposed
(Rubmin 2004: 9).
Floyd W. Rudmin (2004), author of Torture at Abu Ghraib, and the Telling Silence of Social Scientists,
argues that previously gathered information regarding Arabic cultural
norms was used in devising ‘appropriate’ forms of torture at Abu Ghrab:
“It is most unlikely that reservist guards from Virginia could have
found that positioning pornographic or could have conceived it
themselves as a torture technique. The work of social scientists was
probably involved in devising such torture” (p. 9).
While the soldiers themselves resorted to their own
exposure to torturous methods, social scientists well versed in Arab
cultural norms may have been involved in the devising of such acts. A
text that some researchers have marked as a landmark document in its
explanation of the cultural differences between Arabs and Americans is
Raphael Patai’s 1973 book, The Arab Mind (cited in Starrett, 2004, p. 11). Seymour Hersh, the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist whose Abu Ghraib accounts in The New York Times
have been deemed the most-telling descriptions of the horrors behind
the accusations, cited Patai’s work in his research for the American
military: “[The Arab Mind] as one source of our government’s
understanding of the psychological vulnerabilities of Arabs, including
the notion that Arab men are particularly subject to sexual shame”
(ibid, p. 10).
The majority of
American soldiers were raised in a culture that focused on virginity,
vulgarity and victory encouraged by Hollywood films and MTV, a
different view of sexuality is often espoused. According to Patai,
Arabs approach sexuality from a more discrete and sacred perspective:
“To the Arab mind, the realm of sex is a more personal and more
sensitive area of life than to the modern Westerner” (p. 126). Therefore,
the sexually violent acts of torture at Abu Ghraib, while appearing as
almost second-nature to Americans (as a result of images from popular
media) were foreign to the prisoners. In fact, in The Arab Mind, Patai references that sexual experiences are regarded as sinful in the Arabic culture:
In the typical Arab home, the existence of infantile
sexuality is either ignored or denied. The repressive attitude of the
mothers with reference to sexual manifestations in their children is so
strong that 75 per cent of the mothers questioned in a study on the
subject stated that their children had never handled their own
genitals… The result of such child-rearing practices within the context
of a religiously oriented culture, as Arab culture, is to create a
close association in the child’s mind between sex and sin… In biblical
Hebrew and Talmudic Jewish societies, fornication (i.e. any kind of
illicit sexual activity) “was looked upon as the arch-sin, the sin most
hateful to God, the one sin that He can never forgive”. This ancient
view has been retained completely by the Arabs to this day (ibid, p.
As a result,
not only were the prisoners at Abu Ghraib being humiliated by American
soldiers, they were also disgracing their God in being forced to
perform sexual acts. This cultural clash implemented by U.S soldiers
occurred as a result of the disparity in sexual images originating from
two opposite cultures. The readily available visual images, inundated
with sexual references, are second nature to the American population.
However, in a culture where sexual propriety is highly regarded, such
acts are more destructive than perhaps intended.
Alter: To change or make different; modify
The events from Abu Ghraib are just that—raw events that
the public, the press and the President could not ignore. However, the
controversy surrounding the Abu Ghraib images reached a new perspective
when famed photographer Andres Serrano created his own interpretation
of Abu Ghraib for the cover story of The New York Times Magazine on June 12, 2005. Instead
of resorting to the amateur photographs released to the press, Serrano
created his own interpretation of the photographs (see Appendix 6). While
Serrano’s photographs were representative of the kind of abuses that
took place at Abu Ghraib, they were much considerably more tame and
constructed than the real images.
The series of three photographs contained underlying
influences of American power using neutral representations of the
horrific atrocities that actually took place. The first photograph
shows two hands bound together with wire; the second photo provided
readers with the image of a man’s face covered by a white cloth, with a
water bottle being poured over him; and finally, the last photograph
contained merely a dark figure with a pointed hood over his face – not
dissimilar to historical photos of the Klu Klux Klan (see Appendix 7).
These constructed images printed in The New York Times Magazine
allowed readers to consider whether the tame photos were accurately
representational of the atrocities (Duganne, 2007, p. 70). The mild
suffering illustrated in the photos undermines the abusive activities
that occurred at Abu Ghraib. In strategically selecting photographs
that were not as shocking as the original digital images, the
authenticity of the events at Abu Ghraib is questioned. These photos do
not provide an answer—they problematically attempt to make abuse
The manner in which the compositions are meticulously
composed – right down to the trickle of blood running down one of the
handcuffed hands – suggest that the suffering may in fact, not be
“real”. That the photographs were taken by artist Andres Serrano
heightens this association. Known for highly stylized and carefully
staged images that often depict bizarre, morbid, and what some consider
offensive subject matter, Serrano’s name – one that many Times readers would find familiar – also placed into question the ‘realism’ of what is depicted (ibid, p. 72).
The common argument that art represents life should be
reconsidered with regard to how the press strategically chose to
display the atrocities at Abu Ghraib. The constructed photographs
undermine the horrors faced by Iraqi prisoners and instead are
presented in a more aesthetic manner – a representational account that
hardly does justice to the acts.
Subjugate: To bring under complete control or subjection; conquer, master
Along with deciding which digital images to provide or
conceal to readers or viewers, the press also had to decide whether to
refer to the atrocities at Abu Ghraib as forms of ‘abuse’ or ‘torture.’
For national newspapers such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post
the term ‘abuse’ seemed to be the most neutral term to refer to the
behavior of American soldiers at Abu Ghraib (Bennett et al, 2006, p.
475). The Washington Post’s
editor Leonard Downie argued, “Abuse is obvious from the information
and images we have, and is serious in its own right. Torture is a more
loaded term and its use requires more information about whether the
abuse constitutes torture” (quoted in ibid, p. 479). The focus of many
news reports was not on the torture itself, but rather the
Administration’s role in ‘fixing’ the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners.
One man who provided a realistic account of the events at
Abu Ghraib was Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh, who
broke the story of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam in 1968 (Rajiva,
2005, p. 17). Hersh’s first Abu Ghraib account was published May 10,
2004 in The New Yorker. The following is an excerpt from his article, “Torture at Abu Ghraib”:
Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric
liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating
detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees
with rape; allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a
detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his
cell; sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a
broomstick, and using military dogs to frighten and intimidate
detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance, actually biting
a detainee (p. 10).
Following rumors that Hersh would publish a series of articles in The New Yorker,
other media organizations came out of hiding and attempted to report
the truth about what happened behind the barbed wire in Baghdad:
“Anticipating the outrage, CBS had actually sat on the story for two
weeks at the Pentagon’s request and ran with it only when it became
clear that a report of the army’s secret internal investigation by
Major General Taguba had been leaked to Seymour Hersh” (Rajiva, 2005,
According to a content analysis of the news coverage of
Abu Ghraib conducted by scholars Lance Bennett, Regina Lawrence and
Steven Livingston, the term ‘torture’ began to appear in more news
articles following Senator John McCain and other leaders’ demand that
the White House to “limit the cruel and inhuman treatment of prisoners
overseas” (Bennett et al, 2004, p. 479). A
polarizing battle between Republican and Democrat inclined newspapers
emerged, focusing not on the events from Abu Ghraib and the digital
images that provided the truth, but instead on which political party
could deflect the blame with the most discretion. What followed was the
media’s strategic coverage of how the Bush administration managed its
mishaps and the repeated televised apologies the President made to the
Rather than meeting with a blanket cultural prohibition
on discussing torture, the Abu Ghraib photos enabled an event-driven
news pattern to briefly and tentatively challenge the news management
capacities of officials, but the fragile event-driven news dynamic
faded as the administration aggressively took over the framing
virtually unchallenged by top-level officials…On May 5, Bush addressed
the Arab world in a televised speech that characterized events at Abu
Ghraib as regrettable abuses (ibid, p. 480).
The power of the digital images from Abu Ghraib to bring
the reality of the prison into the lives of Americans, was short lived
as the press blithely turned a blind eye to the events and focused
instead on the task at hand – a debate on party lines.
Closure: The tendency to see an entire figure even
though the picture of it is incomplete, based primarily on the viewer’s
George Orwell wrote about “Good People doing Bad Things.” He warned
that, “Long-abandoned practices like torture would not only be common
again, but would be tolerated and even defended by people who
considered themselves enlightened and progressive” (Cohen, 2005: 54).
An enlightened country by its own standards, the United States has
managed through the events at Abu Ghraib to shed light on cultural
discrepancies during times of conflict—discrepancies that are
distinguished as a result of technological innovations.
The extreme disconnect between the digital images of Abu
Ghraib and the reality of ideas and the truth associated with the war
in Iraq was brought to the limelight by amateurs, relying on the use of
their digital cameras as purveyors of truth. Functioning as both
President Bush’s army of soldiers and as tourists with cameras in tow,
the American military has managed, through the accidental release of
these photographs, to challenge the nation’s morale one photograph at a
time. Since the first photographs of torture were released in May 2004,
the American public’s understanding of the events in Iraq has become
blurred. Citizens began demanding answers from once long-standing
bearers of truth and reason – the American military, the American
President, and the American media. However, the American public rarely
considered that these images of torture were in fact inspired by images
of American popular culture, nor did they consider that these images
are primarily representations of previously established photographic
As art historian Aby Warburg (1998) stated, “Photographs
fail to arouse mass outrage in the U.S. because they are nothing out of
the ordinary” (p. 15). The blame should not be fully placed on the
American soldiers posted in Baghdad, but instead on the power of the
visual image to provide a point of reference for acts of sexual
violence, domination, and abuse. The images from Abu Ghraib sparked not
only outrage, but a continuous question-and-answer session between
those in positions of leadership and those who look to leadership for
understanding. Such a period of questions will inevitably continue
until U.S troops return from a war riddled with unanswered questions.
Popular Media’s Ability to Encourage Masochism
Traditional hazing as seen in Dazed and Confused
Dazed and Confused. Dir. Richard Linklater. Universal Pictures, 1993
Dazed and Confused
Dazed and Confused. Dir. Richard Linklater. Universal Pictures, 1993
G.I. Jane. Dir. Ridley Scott. Hollywood Pictures, 1997
Private Lynndie England, 22 years old giving ‘thumbs up’ to acts of torture.
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Pornography – From Vietnam to Now…
Playboy issued during Vietnam War (1965-1975),
November 1968 issue
Playboy issued during Vietnam War (1965-1975),
October 1971 issue
Maxim issued during Iraq War (2003 – present),
Playboy issued during Iraq War (2003 – present),
Playboy issued during Iraq War (2003 – present),
‘Hazing-like’ Rituals at Abu Ghraib and in Popular Culture
Abu Ghraib prison, March 2004
Duganne, Erina. “Photography After the Fact”. Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the
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Abu Ghraib prison, March 2004
Duganne, Erina. “Photography After the Fact”. Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in
Pain. Ed. Mark Reinhardt. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007. Pp. 57-75
Hazing ritual at U.S college
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Photos by Andres Serrano, pp. 6-9
A Hooded Reality?
The Klu Klux Klan and Abu Ghraib Prisoners
The Klu Klux Klan
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Abu Ghraib Prisoner
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