Sunday, January 25, 2009

Abu Ghraib: Abuse and Sexual Humiliation by American Soldiers in the News Again

Abu Ghraib is back in the news.

You remember Abu Ghraib? That Iraqi prison was big news about four years back: "Torture at Abu Ghraib - American soldiers brutalized Iraqis. How far up does the responsibility go? (The New Yorker)

'Everybody knows' what those American soldiers are like: When they aren't brutalizing helpless prisoners or throwing puppies off cliffs, they're they're massacring helpless villagers.

And, what 'everybody knows' isn't necessarily so.

"Darkest Secrets" of American Abuse - in the News

Abu Ghraib is re-opening, under new management, with a new look and a new name. Here's a sampling of how the event is getting treated news and view:

"Abu Ghraib to Reopen After Getting a New Name and Makeover"
Digital Journal (January 25, 2009)

"Abu Ghraib, the infamous prison with heavily fortified walls and watchtowers that came to represent abuse and sexual humiliation of prisoners by American soldiers after photos revealed its darkest secrets is scheduled to reopen in mid-February...."

"Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison to reopen - with new name"
Reuters (January 24, 2009)

"BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq will reopen its notorious Abu Ghraib prison next month, but will change the name which became synonomous [!] with abuse under both Saddam Hussein's rule and U.S. occupation, a senior official said on Saturday...."

Abu Ghraib: Just the Facts; But Not All the Facts

Both articles are, as far as they go, accurate. Abu Ghraib was used by the American military, and a few American soldiers on duty there abused prisoners: and, like imbeciles, took photos of themselves doing it.

American military authorities had discovered this disgusting violation and started their investigation at least as early as August 11, 2003. The 'American Abuse at Abu Ghraib' stories broke about nine months later, in May, 2004. That's when news media began using Abu Ghraib as another example of how dreadful American soldiers are, how awful the American military is, and (in some cases, at least) how America is pretty much yukky.

Interestingly, Al Jazeera was one of the news outlets that mentioned (or admitted) that the American military was investigating the outrage. Even so, most readers were, I think, more likely to read, "US commander 'allowed prison abuse'," placed closer to the headline.

Al Jazeera wasn't lying, by the way:
  • The abuse really happened
  • The commander didn't stop it until it was discovered
  • So, since it happened on that commander's watch
    • the commander "allowed prison abuse"
Which isn't quite the same as 'knowingly allowed prison abuse.'

It's marvelous, how language can be used to reveal facts: or obscure them.

'If at First You Don't Succeed - - - Exit Abu Ghraib, Enter Haditha

Partly, I think, because Americans and others, don't rely entirely on traditional news media for facts any more, Abu Ghraib failed as an anti-war rallying cry for the American public.

More recently, the 'better sort' had another shot at recalling their glory days, during the Vietnam War. An incident in Haditha, Iraq, promised to be the "Iraqi My Lai!," "Iraq's My Lai!," the "Defining atrocity of the Iraq War!" Then, facts started slipping out, and the Haditha 'massacre' faded from the headlines.

Abu Ghraib: Here We Go Again

Four years is a long time for many people, and the odds are that quite a few have forgotten those pesky little details about the Abu Ghraib scandal.

And, what they do remember is shaped by people like Senator Ted Kennedy, who offered this wisdom regarding Abu Ghraib: " 'Shamefully, we now learn that Saddam's torture chambers reopened under new management: U.S. management.' "

As I wrote earlier, "Amazing. I wouldn't have realized that a sustained policy of mass-murder and routine rape, mutilation, and beating of prisoners is equivalent to a few perverts taking obscene pictures."

From that Reuters article, and Digital Journal's contribution to shaping perceptions, it looks like we're in for a rash of Abu Ghraib retrospectives. If they're as selective about what actually happened as the 2004 campaign, I've got some suggestions:
  • Remember
    • Abuse at Abu Ghraib really happened but
      • A handful of soldiers were involved
      • American military authorities had been investigating the incidents for nine months before the press got excited
    • People and organizations don't always fit into neat "good guys" and "bad guys" categories

  • Think
    • Senator Ted Kennedy and The New York Times may not be telling everything they know
    • Twisting truth by using a selection of pertinent facts is an effective way to distort perceptions
As tempting as it might be to assume that a few perverts assigned to Abu Ghraib were typical American soldiers, the assumption won't hold up.

Reading Past the Headlines is Hard Work

"The cases of abuse at Abu Ghraib by no means serve as a microcosm of how the large majority of US Soldiers conducted detainee and interrogation operations throughout Iraq in 2003 and 2004. The vast majority of Soldiers assigned to detention facilities or involved in interrogations performed their duties with honor and in accordance with international standards of decency. A review of the history of the JIDC and the incidents of abuse that occurred there, however, can improve the understanding of the challenges facing the US Army in its drive for strategic intelligence and in dealing with the deteriorating security environment...." (

Reviewing "the history of the JIDC and the incidents of abuse that occurred there" is hard work, though. It's so much easier to accept the words of an elder statesman: " 'Shamefully, we now learn that Saddam's torture chambers reopened under new management: U.S. management.' "

Easier, yes. Prudent? I'd say, "no."

Related posts: News and views: Background: Related posts, on censorship, propaganda, and freedom of speech.


Anonymous said...

"That's when news media began using Abu Ghraib as another example of how dreadful American soldiers are, how awful the American military is, and (in some cases, at least) how America is pretty much yukky"

I love the way you address that,

the media is by no doubt sick of the war and by no doubt biased. But are we talking Iraqi media? or American Media? I remember the whole thing with the prison. And the American media was biased and looking for a way to frame America,
It was not America's fault all the way it was the soldiers choice to do disgusting stuff to the prisoners. It was not like we purposefully did it and loved every Minute of it we just did not order it or know about it until after it had happened for a little bit.
Anyone who blames America better look at the good we did when we invaded Iraq we did good to a land that was enslaved and that had worse off treatment in prisons but if America dare make a mistake then the media has to jump on it.
And start syaing that we never should have invaded Iraq we should have just let them suffer, but the Media did not say that flat out they simply inclined that was what they believed.

Brian H. Gill said...

Politics and the Future,

Thanks for the good words.

And, thanks for catching me at being vague. I had global 'media' as a whole in mind: more specifically, the larger, more prominent, and more traditional elements. Like Reuters and Al Jazeera.

Iraqi media, I haven't been following all that closely: not a matter of slighting them, but because Iraq's information industry doesn't have the global clout that more established media do.


I think that there is a tendency among many news resources, to assume the worst of America. I discussed a particular instance of this in "Global Patriot Reporting: Anti-American Bias?
Could Be
" (March 25, 2008).

I would like to see news media return to the candor of the late-19th and early-20th century American Midwest when newspapers would have phrases like "Staunch Republican Newspaper" in their banners (not to worry: Democrats had their papers, too), and carried news that was as obviously and openly slanted, opinionated, and selective as many blogs are today.

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.