Forgetting Saddam's myriad victims at Abu Ghraib

Posted in Iraq | 21-Aug-04 | Author: Sabah Salih

Abu Ghraib - a bad chapter in the book of "God's own country".

Professor of English at Bloomsburg University

America has done some very good things in Iraq. To deny this would be to look at the situation there through ideological blinkers. It would mean exchanging the resources of logic and dialectics for sophistry, something many in the American academy and the international press are routinely doing these days, if only because they were never for the removal of Saddam Hussein in the first place.

Those who claim that the US intervention in Iraq has made the situation grotesquely worse than it was are intoxicated by dogma. No matter how one looks at it, replacing tyranny with pluralism was no mean feat. America deserves to be applauded. However, as was to be expected from such a mammoth undertaking as "regime change," mistakes were made. America did not destroy Abu Ghraib prison; they refurbished it and allowed it, perhaps inadvertently, to continue to play a role in defining post-tyranny Iraq.

For the Kurds, as well as for others, no image, no monument, no spectacle was more synonymous with state brutality under the Baath regime than Abu Ghraib. The very mention of this sprawling infamous prison was enough to send jitters down one's spine. It was a summation of the regime, a storehouse of its methods and techniques, a place where fear, torture, dismemberment and disappearance had actual faces.

There is no shortage of testimony in Kurdish collective memory to back that up. For me, one incident in particular remains unforgettable. I was a middle school teacher in 1977 in the town of Galala, one of hundreds of Kurdish towns and villages depopulated and completely destroyed by Saddam in 1986. We were at midday recess, three teachers and some120 students, enjoying the April sun, when several military trucks pulled up. They were packed with people whom we knew - the families of our students. The soldiers had come for the students. One by one they were shoved into the Russian-made trucks for a journey of no return. All but the soldiers were crying. The goodbyes were faint but piercing: "They're taking us to Abu Ghraib; please don't forget us."

But forgotten they will be, for their narrative has always had very few takers to begin with. And now that the recent images of Iraqi prisoners from Abu Ghraib have taken the center stage, memories like the one I've just described will not only recede into oblivion, they will also be damaged.

The recent Abu Ghraib images are here to stay. They will become an integral part of the intellectual justification for opposition to the Iraq war. There are several reasons for this. First, there was a vast, passionate revolt against the war, as Perry Anderson wrote in the March 2003 London Review of Books, despite the fact that the principles for entering Iraq differed little from prior military interventions that were accepted by so many of those now up in arms against the Bush administration. For the critics, the images from Abu Ghraib provide ample opportunities for ideological manipulation, and, in an American election year, this is welcome news for those hoping to unseat President George W. Bush.

However, this is also bad news for the Kurds. From now on their suffering will scarcely provoke a shrug. Already, much to the delight of Arab pundits in London, Cairo and elsewhere, Kurdish particularity is being steadily swept aside as terms like "the Arab world" and "the Muslim world" occupy the center.

Second, the Abu Ghraib images - part brutality, part drama and part art - have given the world a spectacle like no other. Humiliation and poses of the kind the prisoners were forced to engage in belong to the sinister world of our private imaginings. In public we are ashamed by them, or at least that is what we pretend. They stand in stark contrast to our everyday sense of right and wrong. But we tolerate them in art, which helps us become philosophical in a general way about the frailty of the human condition.

Third, the power of the images lies not so much in what they show as in the nature of their targets: the Arab and the Muslim. There would certainly have been little or no international outcry had the images been of, let's say, Serbian men. For one thing, the Serbs have already been demonized by the war in Bosnia. For another, they number less than 8 million. In contrast, there are 280 million Arabs, with many more millions of Muslims on their side. The images will reinforce a perception, popularized by the likes of the late scholar Edward Said and fortified by the perennial obsession with victimhood in Arab political culture, that America is no friend of the Arabs or Muslims.

Fourth, much of the world today seems to be united in its hostility against the Bush administration. The plain-speaking president, his sharp-tongued defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and his enigmatic vice-president, Dick Cheney, are seen by many, even in the United States, as incarnations of evil - a cabal of diehard Christian conservatives with little cultural sophistication but plenty of imperial arrogance, trying to remodel the world. Many see in Bush's words that America doesn't need "a permission slip" to defend itself, and in Rumsfeld's disparaging (and true) description of France and Germany as "old Europe," a replay of Ronald Reagan-style politics: Stand tall and wield a big stick.

No matter what Bush says, therefore, the Abu Ghraib images will feed into this anti-American frenzy, which, like all ideological constructions, is based more on sentiment than fact.

Fifth, the images also revive the age-old European notion, popularized by playwright George Bernard Shaw and others, that America is culturally inferior to Europe. As Shaw put it in 1903, the US was "a nation of villagers" hooked on violence, greed and lawlessness. That is how many Europeans these days view Bush's America. Who is right or wrong is beside the point. The issue is that the Abu Ghraib photos are sure to intensify such fixations.

Some of the Abu Ghraib prisoners may very well have blood on their hands; some may well have been former Saddam henchmen, trained in more gruesome forms of torture and humiliation than the ones they experienced as prisoners. But that matters little. In the eyes of a world increasingly at odds with America - an America that, they feel, dwarfs them - these men and women are now the true victims. They, not the thousands upon thousands of people exterminated by Saddam Hussein, will become synonymous with Abu Ghraib. Therein lies the harm to the Iraqi narrative in general and the Kurdish narrative in particular.