Amongst the mass of comment and analysis that has flowed from the media around the world since the publication of “those pictures” was a small perhaps un-regarded, late-night piece on Radio 5, one of the of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s domestic radio channels in the United Kingdom. It was about Mother’s Day in the United States in the weekend that has just gone. A Marine “mortar-man” talked about his joy at being home in New York for this Mother’s Day having spent the last one in Iraq on duty for the Coalition. His tearful mother was equally, naturally overjoyed that her son was home safe. Every parent would empathize with her and with him till he began to explain his motivation for joining the Marines in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Centre and for being in Iraq. It seems he had lost friends or relatives in that catastrophe. He joined up he said to defend the United States against terrorism. What came next was the most revealing not to say chilling as he quietly stated how in Iraq he “had sure got his revenge”.
What was this man taking revenge for and against whom and how? Was it by torturing prisoners? As we see the iconic photographs that will forever characterize this disastrous war is that the mentality that has taken hold of the United States and its troops? If it is then it emanates directly from Bush and the deliberate conjunction in the American mind of Iraq and Al Qaeda when of course no such conjunction existed or at least under Saddam Hussein. If it exists now it is because of the actions of the Coalition. Are we in fact seeing the American collective revenge against the Arab world and does Ms. England and do her fellow torturers represent the stark, pictorial reality that finally confronts America with the perversion of its own supposed values?
It is no surprise to anyone from Ireland, Kenya, Cyprus or Aden or indeed anywhere the British have militarily occupied during their Imperial period that the British Army uses torture, murder and coercion as a deliberate tool against those whom it considers to be insurgents. Neither will those who have any memory of the Vietnam War or recent American support for atrocious regimes throughout the world, including Saddam Hussein himself, be surprised that American forces have and probably still are torturing Iraqis and Afghanis. America has condoned the use of torture and murder throughout the world when perpetrated by regimes which do its bidding. Those Europeans (the majority) who opposed the war knew from the start that there was no benign intention in the invasion and occupation of Iraq no matter how it was dressed up by Bush, Blair and Rumsfeld. Those who supported it are rapidly learning the hard truth about the United States.
The torture and degradation of Iraqis and Afghanis does not represent an aberration from the American norm by a few mindless and sadistic soldiers; it represents, in European and certainly Arab eyes at least, the very essence of modern America, ignorant, arrogant, violent and utterly disregarding of the culture and humanity of those it sees as its potential enemies or even its friends. In the American collective mind the whole of that part of the world that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Afghan frontier with Pakistan appears as one indistinguishable implacable enemy with one indistinguishable Islamic culture at once responsible for the attack on New York, Saddam Hussein and countless other evils. That view has been fostered by Bush and his right wing coeterie and reflects the deep penetration into the US administration of the anti-Arab sentiment of right wing Israeli politics inherently hostile to any genuine settlement with Palestine and profoundly racist in its view of Arabs generally.
That pervasive attitude is starkly revealed by the failure of any programme of reconstruction in Iraq if indeed any such ever existed beyond the back of an envelope and the abject failure to establish order let alone the rule of law. What has been created in Iraq is not an orderly progress towards the re-establishment of basic requirements for life but a cowboy-like frontier lawless zone in which “goodies” (Americans) fight “Baddies” (Iraqis) and various freebooting American companies and individuals loot the wealth of the country. There is no concept of the rule of law; Rumsfeld and Bush made it clear at the outset that the rule of law was not a concern. America must get its enemies “dead or alive” (Saddam and now Al-Sadr). Concern for human rights and international law were for “Old Europe” and bleeding-heart liberals in the United States. Moreover it was unpatriotic to question the rightness of the cause and its progression. Native Americans will recognize this process as will the Vietnamese and many others who have suffered under American imperialist ventures and its insouciant racism.
It is abundantly clear and becoming more so by the hour that both the United States and British Governments were aware of torture and degrading treatment being practised in coalition prisons for many months. Rumsfeld, Bush and Blair are now falling back on the pathetic excuse of not reading the reports (Teguba or the International Committee of the Red Cross) though in fact torture and abuse has been repeatedly reported by journalists from around the world in the British media at least. And why were Iraqis being tortured and murdered? What were they being forced to reveal? If it were to force details of resistance to the coalition then it appears to have been an abject failure as resistance has increased in direct proportion to the level of brutality of Coalition forces. If it were to force prisoners to reveal details of weapons of mass destruction or assist in their location the coalition partners knew from the outset that they did not exist. It is becoming the inevitable conclusion that the torture and degradation of prisoners was driven by the same brutal atavistic instincts that drove Saddam and his savage regime; a desire to assert power and to be seen to be doing so. The hand wringing and wind-baggery that is emanating from Washington and London is no more than that and persuades not even former supporters of the war. Bush, Blair and Rumsfeld are being forced to apologize not because they have any real regret or because they are surprised but because what has been revealed has removed any last shred of credibility that the invasion and occupation forces possessed. Were they in control of the situation on the ground there would be little concern or comment as there has not been for over a year. The fact that the Coalition is sinking in a quagmire of its own making is what is driving the contrition. Helping hands are going to be needed to get the coalition out in due course and none will be extended while the allegations of torture hang like sulphurous smoke in the political air. For Bush the real test is the looming election not the rights of Iraqis.
Is the torture also revenge for 9/11. It is fairly clear that our original hero Marine thought that his action in Iraq was exactly that. How many others in the US forces believe that at some deep level? The assault on Fallujah and Najaf made it abundantly clear that US forces had no intention of treating the Iraqi civilian population with any of the consideration they might have expected from being liberated. With the deeply imbued racist and anti-Islamic attitude of the US and its forces it is easy to see how prisoners can be regarded as less than human and how easily orders to soften them up for a pointless interrogation can be followed. The addition of a personal sadistic and sexual element to the degradation makes it utterly clear what the torturers thought of their prisoners and of Arabs generally. And where did they develop that view of Arabs and Iraqis whom they were telling the rest of the world they were liberating from degradation and torture?
The impact on European and world public opinion is catastrophic for the US and for the regeneration of Iraq. Bush had characteristically failed to understand how the mass of Europeans saw the war at the outset. His naïve and simplistic not to say offensively stupid analysis of “those that are not with us are against us” and his division of Europe into “Old” and “New” inflamed all shades of political thought. His cavalier disregard for the rule of law has generated a fear of the US and its intentions in the modern world, now enhanced by the latest revelations. That his own administration is crumbling around him is little consolation as most others in the world fear that the torture of Iraqis as a deliberate policy would be popular with the denizens of Fort Ashby or Forth Worth. We outside of the US listen with open mouthed astonishment to the justifications of torture by the people of Ms. England’s home town and those of the other perpetrators. The Nuremberg defence is no longer available and how is it a justification that these people were following orders? The question that hangs in the air is how did this society produce the people and circumstances in which such orders could be given and carried out? It is exactly the same question that Germany had to face after 1945 but from this perspective the US seems poorly equipped educationally or morally to face it.
The trials that will follow of those seen in the photographs humiliating and torturing prisoners will no doubt be trumpeted around the world. To some extent the relatives of those soldiers are right when they allege that they will be scapegoats but utterly wrong when they fail to accept the moral responsibility for what is being done in the name of the US by their children and neighbours. And will they vote Bush back into power? The rest of the world fears that they almost certainly will.
Colm O’Liathain is am a human rights lawyer in the UK though of Irish origin and nationality. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org