Are we there yet?

David Simpson

  • Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror by Mark Danner
    Granta, 573 pp, £16.99, February 2005, ISBN 1 86207 772 X
  • The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib edited by Karen Greenberg and Joshua Dratel
    Cambridge, 1284 pp, £27.50, February 2005, ISBN 0 521 85324 9

Where does it stop? The events at Abu Ghraib prison show no signs of vanishing into historical inertia. On the contrary, they seem to be replicating themselves throughout the defenceless body politic of the ‘coalition of the willing’: even the Danes now apparently have their scandal. The photographs of British misdeeds made public after a hapless soldier took his film to be developed at a shop on his local high street have given us Camp Bread Basket, another probable icon of infamy. The photos are hard to read. Are the clenched fists and heavy boots caught in midair about to break the bones and bruise the flesh of defenceless prisoners, or are they posed for the camera in a gesture of simulated, lookalike bravado? Are they staged re-enactments of beatings that have already taken place, or prophecies of those to come? We will not know more until the court martial runs its course, and we may not know everything even then. The assessment has just begun. Meanwhile in the US the American Civil Liberties Union recently released another report listing various cases of torture and abuse, some already investigated and others, often involving the Special Forces, perhaps yet to be explored or convincingly resolved.

Mark Danner’s opening thesis, formulated of course before this latest round of revelations, is that the wide circulation of the Abu Ghraib photographs, startling though they were when first released, has increasingly worked to ‘block a full public understanding of how the scandal arose and how what Americans did at Abu Ghraib was ultimately tied to what they had been doing in Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and elsewhere’ in the so-called war on terror. So here he offers a reprint of some of the most important items in the historical record, an invitation to read the small print that prefigured and followed on the scenes now embedded in our memory and reproduced all over the world as icons of the Coalition’s cruelty and hypocrisy: a hooded man standing on a box with wires hooked up to his limbs and genitals; a dead man wrapped in plastic sheeting; a naked man on a leash; a man cowering in front of a soldier with a dog. The 32 photographs (out of more than two hundred) that make up the public record of the tortures and abuses at Abu Ghraib during the last three months of 2003 are here reproduced in modestly minimised format, squeezed onto eight pages in the middle of the book. They are still shocking, and their meanings and implications have yet to be fully understood, digested and discussed. I would not say that they are blocking a full public understanding, which is not something we should be in a rush to think we have achieved. But they do call for words, and the words are coming thick and fast. Torture and Truth reproduces some of them: the prisoner testimonies, the Red Cross report, the three official investigations (Taguba, Fay/Jones and Schlesinger) that have separately reported on the events, along with the record of various defining exchanges in 2001-02 between lawyers in the White House, the US Department of State and the Department of Defense discussing the Geneva protocols, interrogation techniques and POW categories, all of these preceded in the book by reprints of Danner’s own essays, published in the New York Review of Books between May and November 2004.

The even more extensive compilation of documents assembled by Karen Greenberg and Joshua Dratel includes all of these, along with further Bush administration internal memoranda from the years 2001-04, important reports critical of the administration from the New York City Bar Association (April 2004) and the American Bar Association (August 2004), and the 300-page Mikolashek report (July 2004), in which the army’s inspector general reported on detainee operations.

It has been widely claimed, as it is here by Danner, that the establishment of separate inquiries reporting on bits and pieces of the Abu Ghraib affair as they involved the army (Taguba), military intelligence (Fay-Jones) and the Department of Defense (Schlesinger), has had the intended effect of diminishing any awareness of the connectedness and deliberate coherence of the pattern of abuse, and its relation to policies originating at the top of the chain of command. But a careful reading of these reports produces much that should impede any such displacement. The soldiers on trial for their part in the Abu Ghraib atrocities were following routines established (and continued) in Afghanistan, at Guantanamo, and at other sites in occupied Iraq. They are not so different from the routines familiar to British troops (the MoD has admitted that seven Iraqis have died in British custody) and to torturers the world over. One Department of Defense legal brief (11 October 2002) actually discusses the legal implications of the aggressive interrogation techniques of the British in Northern Ireland, which overlap with some of those favoured by US forces: hooding, loud noise, prolonged standing, deprivation of food, water and sleep. All the reports share a rhetorical emphasis on the ‘few bad apples’ argument: the events at Abu Ghraib are variously framed as ‘wanton acts of select soldiers’, or as ‘aberrant behaviour’ carried out by ‘a small group of morally corrupt soldiers and civilians’. This is constantly undercut, however, by the evidence of the authors of the reports themselves, who argue for ‘institutional and personal responsibility at higher levels’, discover clear or ambiguous permission for stronger than normal interrogation techniques in a number of memos and findings, and point to intense pressure for results from frustrated military officers. In the light of these accounts, Abu Ghraib does seem to have been exceptional in its vulnerability to mortar attack, its radically overcrowded conditions, its low morale and obscure command structure, lack of coherent record-keeping and prisoner identification, and for the sense among those running it that it was a ‘forgotten outpost receiving little support from the army’. There is agreement that 80 to 90 per cent, or more, of those rounded up were innocents with no information of any use to the coalition. But the goings-on there were not categorically different from procedures at other internment camps and prisons. They just happened to generate some unforgettable photographs that found their way into the public domain and generated an intense pressure for explanations.

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[*] ‘Should the Ticking Bomb Terrorist Be Tortured?’, reprinted in Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge (2002).