Abu Ghraib, Vietnam, and media amnesia

BY Subarno Chattarji| IN Media Practice | 05/06/2004
There are patterns and historical precedents for Abu Ghraib that have rarely been highlighted in the media.

Subarno Chattarji

More than a year after the US invasion of Iraq and with a month to go before the ¿handover¿ of power to the Iraqi authorities, the US finds itself in a bind over the abuse of prisoners at the high security Abu Ghraib prison. While CBS and the Washington Post revealed the horrors in late April and May the abuses had been going on at least since January 2004 when Major General Antonio Taguba began investigating the problem. The Taguba Report and subsequent depositions carried live on US television and BBC reveal a systematic pattern of torture and dehumanization completely at odds with the Geneva Convention on treatment of prisoners of war. In his deposition Taguba attributed the abuse to a ¿failure of leadership, supervision and discipline¿. The Taguba Report along with the live coverage of Congressional inquiry are testimony to the strengths of the US democratic system. What is interesting, however,  is the ways in which dominant media coverage has contributed to the damage control exercise launched by the US government. 

In the immediate line of fire after the shocking revelations was Donald Rumsfeld according to whom the Geneva Conventions do not apply ¿precisely¿ to Iraqi prisoners. The man famous for his ¿there are known knowns and unknown unknowns¿ statement was only discomfited by the fact that the media had exposed the tortures, not by the facts themselves. This is evident in his banal yet dangerous play on words and in the support he received from President Bush who described him as a ¿strong leader¿. While seven US military personnel involved in Abu Ghraib are being investigated and General Sanchez has been recalled from Iraq, there is little sense of accountability and outrage in the administration.  

Rumsfeld¿s junior in the Defence Ministry, Undersecretary Stephen Cambone stated in his live testimony that the US ¿values human life¿. All leaders in the Bush administration to the obvious disbelief of the rest of the world, particularly the Iraqis and the Arabs, have repeated his statement. Along with the everyday carnage in Iraq the Abu Ghraib pictures have added to the brutally phantasmagoric quality of the US occupation of Iraq. As in coverage of other events (the Israel-Palestine conflict, for instance) media coverage (television in particular) creates a bewildering montage of pictures with little or no context. The fact that pictures of British soldiers torturing Iraqis published in the Daily Mirror were later proven to be fakes adds to the sense of bewilderment. The shock and outrage in most western and Arab media was entirely justified but no contexts or historical patterns were discerned. 

The Bush administration has repeatedly stressed that a few US soldiers have disgraced the many who serve with honour and pride, that Abu Ghraib is an aberration and not the norm. While the Taguba Report does refer to Guantanamo Bay, the US has removed that prison facility from the ambit of human rights and international conventions on treatment of prisoners by declaring that the inmates of Guantanamo are not prisoners of war. It is interesting that General Geoffrey Miller, credited with introducing and overseeing some of the more barbaric practices at Abu Ghraib, was transferred to Iraq from Guantanamo Bay to expedite the gathering of intelligence from Iraqi prisoners. The first media reports of abuse surfaced after the horrific deaths of four US contractors in Falluja, which might have accelerated the processes of torture. Despite Amnesty International highlighting the fact that the US war on terror has actually heightened human rights abuse the world over, the US administration is keen to dismember any connection between Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Ironically both are integral to the US crusade against terror.

There are patterns and historical precedents for Abu Ghraib that have rarely been highlighted in the media and the ¿aberration¿ theory has been largely bought by the media not through any conspiracy but due to lack of analysis. Occasionally military leaders have compared the US involvement in Iraq to its earlier one in Vietnam. That comparison has been in terms of the ¿quagmire¿ theory, the idea propagated during the Vietnam War that the US was bogged down in a militarily unwinnable situation. The quagmire theory did not question the fundamental tenets behind the US involvement or raise doubts about the morality or otherwise of the US presence. We find a similar attitude in Iraq: not once have policy makers or the media raised doubts about the basic premises behind the US war in Iraq. It is an absolute truth that Iraq is and will be a better place because of the US led coalition; unpleasant complexities are silenced. One of the obvious ironies is that Saddam Hussein used Block 1A in Abu Ghraib to brutally silence critics of his entirely indefensible dictatorship. 

The manner in which photographs of prisoner abuse have circulated in US and world media and subsequent ¿aberration¿ theories has precedents in the Vietnam War. There are innumerable examples of prisoner and civilian abuse in Vietnam, ranging from the most infamous My Lai massacre to the ¿tiger cages¿ in which prisoners were kept in south Vietnam, to the Free Strike Zones and Strategic Hamlet Program. When Ron Ridenhoer presented the photographs of the My Lai massacre to LIFE magazine LIFE sat on them for a year. Despite the outrage, My Lai was and is seen as an aberration in a war that the US fought to ¿save the world for democracy¿. Veterans and journalists such as Jonathan Schell in The Village of Ben Suc have testified that My Lai was the most blatant example of other civilian depredations. 

In a war famous for its euphemisms Strategic Hamlet Programs were essentially concentration camps where Vietnamese civilians were cordoned off into barbed wire enclosures to protect them from fellow Vietnamese who were fighting to liberate their country. The ¿tiger cages¿ within which one could neither stand nor sit properly were manufactured in the US and used to incarcerate enemies of the military leaders propped up by the US. Even such a brief exegesis indicates prior histories of abuse and disrespect for the human rights of people who are to be liberated from the yoke of unfreedom in their countries. Admittedly the political contexts and leadership in Vietnam and Iraq are very different and one cannot equate Ho Chi Minh with Saddam (although Bush and Blair might do that if they went so far back in history), but the point here is the congruencies in terms of abuse and the subsequent circulation of ¿aberration¿ theories when such horrors are revealed. 

In Vietnam and Iraq the media played an important role in the revelation of some of these abuses. In popular cultural memory in the US and some respectable if conservative histories the media is even held responsible for US defeat in Vietnam. One can only speculate whether a similar fate awaits media history thirty years after Iraq. The more important point seems to be that dominant media at present is replaying some of the debates of an earlier era without being aware of that. I have only come across one article reprinted from the New York Times News Service - Elizabeth Becker, ¿America wakes up to ghost of atrocity, alcohol¿, The Telegraph, Calcutta, 28 May 2004 - that details the time when the My Lai photographs were released. It cites Melvin R. Laird¿s (then Secretary of Defence) reaction to the photographs, ¿They¿re pretty terrible.¿ While the article hints at connections with the present by its very presence, it doesn¿t actually make those links and leaves them to the intelligence and/or memory of the more informed reader. Since readers and viewers are deprived of information and/or analysis - as in the present scenario - it seems unlikely that many will make the necessary historical leap. This is entirely in keeping with the modes and agendas of contemporary mass media. While there has been an avalanche of photographs and articles since Abu Ghraib broke onto the world stage, there has been little analysis and less reflection. 

An exception is available in a BBC World Service ¿Panorama¿ programme telecast on 29 May 2004 which dealt in detail with the connections between Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and established a chain of command that could lead to Donald Rumsfeld. General Miller was sent to Iraq with Rumsfeld¿s blessings and Miller looked at Abu Ghraib inmates as potential terrorists although many were ordinary criminals or innocent. Interviews with Brigadier General Janis Karpinski clearly indicate that Miller usurped her authority and the introduction of Military Intelligence (MI) along with private civilian contractors for interrogation added to the problem. ¿Panorama¿ is also significant in that it included victim testimony in the form of interviews with former Abu Ghraib inmates such as Haydar Sadr Abed. The programme also made connections with prisoner abuse in Afghanistan, the other almost forgotten theatre in the war on terror.  

While ¿Panorama¿ is an excellent example of television journalism based on in- depth interviews, it fails to provide any historical contexts. It too contributes to the dehistoricising of Iraq and raises as many questions as it attempts to answer. Perhaps mainstream media is so rooted in the present that even an analytical programme such as ¿Panorama¿ cannot deal with larger patterns of history, policy, and memory. A welter of outrage, emotion, and political spin paradoxically contains the event in its very over exposure. What we are left with is not only the horror but also helplessness and perhaps the media is reflective of that. We are also left with the promise that the US will tear down and rebuild Abu Ghraib for future Iraqi administrations. One wonders if the Iraqi people will appreciate that addition to their benighted country.

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