So, Who’s to Blame?

Secretary Rumsfeld has apologized. Or rather, he read a statement full of apology, now dutifully quoted in the media. Nothing in the rest of his testimony or his bearing, however, indicated the slightest remorse. Instead, with his usual nasal petulance, he lashed out against any suggestion that he had neglected to take proper action, waving impatiently at the time-line of military investigations. He snapped insultingly that a three-line press release in January had “informed the whole world,” so what more do you want? (His face went blank when one Senator returned quietly, “You didn’t inform us.”) He protested his incapacity to follow every little crisis, waving papers about “eight-thousand court-martials”–the only reliable statistic he bothered to bring. When did he inform the president? Well, come on. He had so many important things to discuss in those talks with the president, he could hardly be expected to remember when he had discussed the little matter of rampant torture in the US occupation’s main prison. The real culprit, then, in his view? Digital cameras. For without them, the process would have ground on normally, through the months, and resolved itself somehow, while Iraqis lay naked and ridiculed on concrete floors.

So who’s to blame? The generals at his side were clearly implicated, but they did what guidelines told them to do. Rumsfeld might have been partly right about that; as the old saying goes, military justice is to justice what military music is to music. It was Rumsfeld himself who clearly failed to do his job: here, to watch over the politics of detention policy–one of the most crucial and sensitive dimensions of any occupation–by jumpstarting investigations when the first ICRC reports came in, or at least warning the president and the Congress about the pending scandal. He knew about it, but paid no attention. It was not important to him. He didn’t read the Taguba report. He didn’t ask about the photos.

And it is precisely that casual neglect of suffering Iraqi citizens, through months of their systematic torture and detention without trial in US occupation prisons, which truly drives this crisis. Because it reflects something which has come to the fore more forcefully in Europe and the Middle East than it has here, and is the real burden the US must now overcome.

The larger politics infusing the prison scandal can perhaps be glimpsed by considering a very different event, an extraordinary exhibit now touring the US: photographs of lynchings, mostly of black people in the early-twentieth century. The collection is soul-wracking in two ways. Dangling black bodies, battered and bleeding, terribly evoke past hours of terror and torture. But it is the white people standing around the tree, smiling into the camera–sometimes including women with parasols and fine frocks–who fascinate observers. For as curator said, it is “the comfort, the ease of the crowd” which conveys the dire context: that a whole white society shared a mindset in which this cluster of fine citizens could pose openly beside their murdered trophy and smile for a photograph. As the visitor peers into these tiny documents of racial terror, that very act of looking brings a final, gut-wrenching realization: for these photos were converted into postcards, mailed as mementos to family or friends. Such was the heart-stopping dehumanization of black people in the era.

Those postcards should better illuminate our understanding of the politics now surrounding these photos from the Iraqi jails. It is not simply that people were stripped, or piled naked into a pyramid, or left shackled together on the corridor floor. The real shock has always been the guards grinning and clowning for the cameras–or even the casual guards just standing about, discussing other things, while prisoners lay naked in their midst–because it signaled that the prisoners’ torment was entertaining, or otherwise of no moral consequence, because they were vaguely dehumanized. And unfortunately for US foreign policy, the crucial condition framing this debasement is that those prisoners were Iraqis–Arabs–being tormented by white Americans or Europeans. Appalled US critics speak of “sadistic abuse” and “brutality” and “humiliation,” and these terms are correct. But even footage of Saddam’s torturers beating Iraqi citizens does not convey the impression of essential degradation conveyed here, especially by Lynndie England’s infamous leash. Yes, many Arab governments routinely torture, and get away with it. But they do not routinely reconceive their own people as subhuman, and something particularly awful surrounds that. Europeans recall “master race” doctrines; Arab societies recall colonial racial debasements. Either way, Americans are now anathema.

Many in the US would hotly deny a pattern of racism against Iraqi Arabs, and they would be right to an extent. But racism does not always look like the same. Sometimes it comes out as paternalism: like dumping unmanageable authority for a wrecked country on the shattered Iraqi people under condescending slogans like “it’s time for them to take some responsibility.” For US policy in Iraq, it first showed as a reckless willingness to invade and occupy the country on false pretenses, risking an entire society on a geostrategic myth. But in the event, it has shown especially as criminal negligence. Real respect for Iraqi society would have required elaborate planning for the occupation, and indeed the US State Department and its genuine Middle East specialists worked for a year on such plans. Rumsfeld and his Pentagon Office of Special Plans threw out those plans like old trash and instead employed a “minimal force” doctrine which had no planning at all–and the Iraqi people’s national infrastructure was looted down to the wiring. Casual disregard further showed in the occupation’s neglect of Iraqis’ most urgent basic need, health, by failing to give all priority to fully restoring Iraq’s once-fine and now-wrecked hospitals. It still shows in the grossly inadequate troop complement, which has left Iraqi society struggling with rampant crime and the trauma of multiple insurgencies.

Outright racism has especially reeked from Rumsfeld’s disdainful dismissal of any hint that the US should keep count of Iraqi civilian casualties, as is required by the Geneva Conventions. In similar vein, impatient disdain has infused Rumsfeld’s accusation that, because “insurgents” in Fallujah were “using women and children as shields,” US forces were somehow legitimized in blowing those women and children away by the hundreds–numbers he and his cronies actually denounced the Arab media for trying to confirm.

So who’s to blame for the prison atrocities? Little Lynndie England, clutching her leash? Sadly, yes. But who gave her the leash? And who told her what to do with it?

Racism is not the whole story, of course. Many Americans soldiers in this fatally flawed occupation genuinely see Iraqis as people like themselves and are trying their best to be helpful. Across the cultural barrier, human beings recognize each other, and some are losing their lives doing it. But not all soldiers can keep their moral compass in situations like this, as we learned to our lasting national grief in Vietnam. It is therefore not just some suspicious civilian contractors who inserted a grotesque dehumanization into Abu Ghraib–although a likely influence in that regard is peeking much speculation, for who else in the region sees Arabs as animals and has all these much-mentioned translation skills? But the whole hard-hearted Rumsfeld backdrop of the occupation is reflected in the casual body language of Abu Ghraib guards, as they stand chatting or smiling around naked Iraqis lying twisted on the concrete. For a message has filtered down from the top, the old paternalistic colonial message that so easily switches from generosity to brutal iron-fist repression: Iraqi Arabs aren’t quite like us, are they? They are just a bit less. They need to be saved by us. But if they act up, bring them down fast. Because they don’t really feel things the way we do, and it’s so easy to humiliate an Arab.

In any case, even if many Americans reject that message with anguish, it has now been broadcast all over the world in front-page photos from Abu Ghraib, thanks to Rumsfeld’s casual neglect of these prisons and the welfare of the Iraqi people. It will require long hard work and a humility that our government is just discovering–starting with dismissal of the man ultimately responsible for perpetuating the torture–for our country to overcome it.

VIRGINIA TILLEY is an Associate Professor of Political Science
at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. She can be reached at:


VIRGINIA TILLEY is associate professor of Political Science and International Relations, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and author of The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock. She can be reached at: