Images & Abstractions & Genitals

The images of abuse from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison have been characterized by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld as ‘radioactive.’ He sees them as poisoning and contaminating the noble US cause of liberation and democracy. He and most other commentators argue that these images aren’t the real story and are terribly damaging because they will be used to argue that the real story is American humiliation, torture and rape of Iraq. Rumsfeld is handling the images as radioactive-trying to contain and bury a disastrous accident.

Though alerted by the Red Cross and human rights agencies who used the words ‘torture, abuse, murder and rape,’ Rumsfeld treated the charges as routine, properly addressed and corrected. It was the images which created the firestorm and caused the trouble he said. Commanding General Richard Meyers had asked CBS not to show them for fear of the danger to our troops from Arab anger and lowered morale. This is traditional justification for military censorship-don’t encourage the enemy or discourage your own. In the Second World War dead bodies of our soldiers couldn’t be shown; in Vietnam for much of the conflict body bags couldn’t be shown; presently flag-draped coffins are not to be shown. We condemned AlJazeera the Arabic tv network for showing US hostages in custody and we regularly reproach them for airing inflammatory scenes from the war.

We not only censor showing the dead but most gory pictures. We watched the war beginning as a fabulous fireworks show. The night sky of Baghdad was illuminated. We didn’t show the burning children, bleeding and terrorized people or savaged city. Rather than body images we use terms like ‘surgical strike’ and ‘collateral damage.’ War has a sanitized abstract quality in our public discourse-we speak of a war on poverty and a war on terrorism; it is a noble righteous attitude and cause, not a crushing, killing use of force.

Images are harder to spin than abstractions. They vivify abstract words like torture, abuse, murder and rape. They return us to human bodies not abstractions of the evil enemy. They speak a language we all know-pain, terror, pleasure, shame.

It is not surprising that Rumsfeld and Meyers and Bush didn’t see the pictures. They routinely look away and don’t see the obscene-that which is literally pushed off-scene because it is unsettling to look at. Or they repackage it with words-the terrible price of war, the messiness of freedom (Rumsfeld’s flip phrase for the despoilation of the Baghdad Museum). But the Abu Ghraib images are not easily repackaged. They’re pornographic not just obscene and while our warwagers are excellent at evading and repackaging violence they’re stopped cold by sex. The scenes we’ve seen so far are full of Iraqi genitals and hooded faces and grinning American soldiers.

President Bush finds them sickening and unAmerican; Rumsfeld labels them disgusting and can not imagine that any officer could order such a thing. The six indicted are characterized as bad apples and degenerate and not real American soldiers. But the pictures seem deliberately and even proudly posed. They’re not as bad as many Nazi pictures-decapitated heads in baskets, mutilated bodies in ghastly experiments, or even American Vietnam pictures of strings of noses or ears or genitals. War is about killing or torturing bodies into compliance after all, and crude as that may sound it looks cruder. King David of Israel a mighty warrior brought two hundred Philistine foreskins to King Saul as brideprice for his daughter Michal. While this may strike us as barbaric it’s probably more morally honest than pretending you haven’t killed and mutilated bodies in war.

Interestingly, as these pictures are broadcast in the US they are usually blurred so that we don’t see genitals. This is in the interest of our sensibilities for our general culture doesn’t look publically at genitals except in works of art. Most of Muslim culture doesn’t even allow naked genitals in art. Islamic miniatures of Adam and Eve (Christian artists’ favorites for requiring nudes) usually show them modestly covered. Commentators on the prison images speak of how shamed a Muslim man is to be made naked. A boyish US female soldier in one picture grins and points to the genital of a bound captive; in another she holds a naked prisoner on a leash. In other pictures the prisoners are forced into real and simulated sexual acts. There are more and worse terrible pictures and video as yet unpublished.

‘Sadistic’ Rumsfeld said shaking his head with disbelief and contempt. He doesn’t learn from the pictures, much as the President never has doubts. ‘They are not us, they are evil, they are unAmerican,’ they say. But the problem is not sadism-getting sexual pleasure from inflicting pain. The problem is inhumanity-torturing, murdering, raping human beings. The problem is not sex titillation but violence. Torture is a legitimate child of war-if I am willing to kill you, why should I stop at mutilating, humiliating and torturing you, the enemy, the evil one? Why can I not bend you to my will, make you talk, take away your manhood or rape your womb? I can. But I must be sober steadfast chaste in style lest I betray enjoying your pain.

Human beings get the picture.

DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at:


DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: