13 May 2004

The Abu Ghraib photographs

If the full horror of the Abu Ghraib photographs has yet to hit you, let us engage in a moment of conjecture. What if Edmund Stoiber had been elected Chancellor of Germany in the last general election and, as may be reasonable to infer from his campaigning, he had backed the American-led war, sending troops into Iraq? Or, alternatively, if Gerhard Schröder had gone back on his commitment to keep them out? And then what if, amongst all the possibly authentic and fake photographs coming out of Iraq at the moment, pictures of German soldiers urinating on naked Iraqi prisoners were made public? The headlines are easy to imagine. The tide of anger and disgust that a single photograph would unleash against the nation (still) most hated and feared by its Western fellows would be unstoppable. 60 years of abstention from military action (until recently, at least), the surrendering of rights to the European Union, decades of guilt and atonement for the atrocities committed in Germany’s name, would be swept away under the torrent of accusations that Germans had once again reverted to the fascism which clearly lies beneath the skin of each and every one of them. All of the (in the case of certain forms of journalism and entertainment, barely) suppressed phobias about the Nazi menace would surface and leave the German reputation in ruins. The Nazi ghost still traumatises the German nation and haunts the rest of the Western world, and the unlocking of such associations would prove devastating, not least for the population of Germany, who would undoubtedly take to the streets in enraged disgust. Whether or not the photographs were forgeries would not matter; as any editor will tell you, it is the initial impression that counts, and sells. And this would be in relation to a country which has been at self-contorting pains for six decades to come to terms with the ghost of its past in the hope of finally laying it to rest.

From here it should be possible to imagine the extent of the horror with which the Abu Ghraib photographs must have been greeted across the Arab world, where the word ‘America’ surely has achieved comparable associations to those suggested above: with unfettered disgust. And this is in relation to a country whose alleged atrocities are to be seen everywhere in the world, and do not lie decades in the past, with 60 years of self-realisation in between.

This is not to say that I am generalising from the actions of a few soldiers in an Iraqi prison (although the true extent of the outrage is known) to the government and the people as a whole; rather that similar associations must already exist for the populations of many nations of the earth. The attempt to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Arab world has not, surely, been undermined by the unearthing of the photographs, since that attempt flies constantly in the face of the evidence which presents itself to any with the will to see. And at a time when so many possess a ‘will to see’ the failings of the remaining super-power, such photographs provide further evidence of what was already known, rather than presenting us with a shocking reality. America has been traumatised by these images, by the smiling American perpetrators, by the gratuitous cruelty which seemingly contradicts American values. ‘This is not the American Way’ has been the familiar response, which is all the more pitiful since it implies that the speaker believes that the American Way had been upheld before, as if this were the first time it had been called into question. In truth, the American Way which a large part of the rest of the world perceives (rightly or wrongly) is not contradicted or undermined by these images: it is embodied by them. The fundamental dichotomy between America’s view of itself and the way it is perceived from abroad is that America regards itself as basically honourable in its goals and methods, while from outside it is most commonly seen, not merely as a boy who cried wolf, but one who did so, stole the chickens, and imposed a wolf of its own making. The real meaning of ‘winning hearts and minds’ is to break down these assumptions, assumptions which have been continuously perpetuated by media and religion on both sides. Until the American population come to see this it will be impossible to win any hearts or minds anywhere. Instead of asking, ‘Why do they hate us?’ the question must become, ‘If they see us like that, how could they not?’

It is also clear that somebody must be made to pay for these photographs. And in this, again, it does not matter whether the photographs are authentic or not. If not, then the author, and publisher, is guilty of criminal irresponsibility. The idea that anyone would fabricate such images simply to sell a few newspapers or further a political agenda is almost as obscene as what the photographs represent if they are indeed real. And if they are found to be authentic, then someone in a responsible position, be it Rumsfeld or Bush, must be deemed culpable. If they were aware or in any way condone such methods, they are simply guilty; if they were unaware then the charge is gross incompetence. Pleading ignorance can be no excuse: if soldiers were unaware that such behaviour was unacceptable then the responsibility lies with their ultimate commander for not informing or restraining them. But, perhaps most significantly, the photographs illustrate the Bush Administration’s failure to understand the issue at hand and the real importance of winning confidence and of not being provocative. The images are likely to become iconic rallying-cries for those opposing the American hegemony, emblematic of the policy of pre-emptive action, of the attempt to install democracy in the Arab world, and, if there is no significant response to the images, of America’s brazen inability to see its own failings, even when the are beyond question. The Abu Ghraib photographs have not undermined America’s cause so much as used up the last shred of credibility which allies alone had been willing to grant it. A clear sign of understanding that a mistake has been made, at the same time heralding in a new approach, is essential. Those apologists who would claim that removing Donald Rumsfeld would lead to instability, or even that not removing him is a sign of leadership, clearly fail to appreciate the significance of the images covering the front page of their newspapers, not merely for those opposing America, but for those who would be its friend; and they are simply contributing to the problem.

The problem is that no matter who is made to pay for the atrocities given witness to in these photographs, even if the whole Bush Administration were to crumble overnight and be replaced by one led by Kerry at dawn, the concerns of the Arab world would not even begin to be confronted. The sin for which the people take to the streets and fly air-planes into buildings is not the torture found in Iraqi prisons, but the American Way as it is perceived to manifest itself about the world, rather than as it is imagined by Americans. The collapse of a government in response to an isolated event (or even sequence of events) would not in itself start the process of coming to terms with the wider issue, which is the seemingly tyrannical stance of the USA throughout the last 60 years. Notice also my continued use of qualifiers such as ‘seemingly’ and ‘perceived’: it does not matter whether there is any truth in these grievances, since when a large proportion of the world feel them they must be addressed patiently and without condescension.

They are, as the Iraq War and, more explicitly, the photographs from Abu Ghraib show, not being addressed at all. To be confronting these concerns, America’s behaviour would have to be beyond reproach, immaculately moral and transparently democratic.

As in the case of Germany, rebuilding, or rather building, an acceptable level of trust will take decades if not longer. Which raises a final question: if Western countries still harbour such suspicions about Germany as they do, even after that country has spent 60 years attempting to restore confidence, what hope does an American government, which for the last 60 years has been perceived as an aggressor in so many countries, have of winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of an alienated world? Even if America were to adopt Germany’s policy of self-effacing introspection, what reason can we have for thinking that, 60 years from now, the aggrieved nations of the earth would not still resent the remaining superpower, just as so may continue to do with Germany? This is not a task which will be solved in our lifetime; in truth, the ‘war’ on terror has not even begun.