Re: Creative cruelty and responsibility: Photos from Iraq

From: Oudeyis (
Date: Fri May 07 2004 - 03:01:25 PDT

Better late than never.
Those grins that we seen in those pictures do not communicate to me, "fun." They are the kinds of silly expressions, I think they're called silly grins; grins that are produced by the extreme embarrassment at being caught doing something that "everyone knows" is immoral and more often than not, "stupid in the extreme." You see these exaggerated vacuous expressions in pictures of participants in Lynchings and on the faces of casual executioners (if you can stomach it, look more closely at those pictures, Gene) showing off the fruits of their labour. The New Yorker photographs appear to me to show clumsy and markedly amateurish efforts of inexperienced and unimaginative young soldiers to "soften and break" prisoners destined for interrrogation. Like the Stanford prison experiment this is just the kind of activity that might develop - see my earlier messages - when a small, socially and culturally isolated group (such as a unit of prison guards on night duty or a military unit assigned to "special" prison duty)is intentionally or through negligence allowed to grow wild. It's still not clear whether Brigadier Karpinski and the immediate commanders of this unit are guilty of negligence or with collusion with intelligence officers, CIA operatives, and even "private contractors," but their abandonment of these lower ranks to the warped products of the unrestrained dynamics of unit solidarity is no less, and in my view more serious, than the criminal acts of the soldiers themselves.

One of the justifications for the military hierarchy of authority is the inherent difficulties of internal supervision of the natural development of "strange" practices that plague isolated military units in alien and often threatening circumstances. The military concept of honor, so alien to civilian society, is also closely related to this problem. The supervisor of a military unit on duty; officer, noncom or in some cases a civilian authority, is expected - at least in a tolerably well-organized military institution (somewhat of a non-sequitor)- to keep the unit "on track" or, in other words, in conformity with the operational and norms of the institution and with the normative relations between the military institution and the civilian society which it serves. The tools he uses for this end are effective display and use of objects embodying higher authority, recognition of practices inconsistent with the operational and normal expectations of higher authorities, and sufficient familiarity with the practices and organization - in particular or in general - that enable him to realize the norms of higher authority in the activities of the unit. The military concept of honor is, at its best, a matter of the supervisor's own commitment to the values and mores expected from soldiers by those he serves. Incidentally, serious contraventions of normative military practice such as that seen in Iraq, should be regarded as a serious case of declining morale, and should alert both American citizens and their leadership to serious defects in their military organization. It's the growth and spread of these kinds of "wild units" that helped to bring about the disintegration of military authority in the American expeditionary force in Vietnam and the Red Army in Afghanistan.

The moral highground in war is narrow and not very high, and there are tremendous temptations for using "pragmatic measures" without too much concern for their eventual consequences for operations and for the morale of the force. Military and civilian authorities alike are more often then not subject to tunnel vision, to ignorant self interest (often a cause for tunnel vision) and to irresponsible unfamiliarity with the conditions facing them, i.e. they are like most people locked into social systems - including ostensibly military organizations - that are not particularly adapted to the demands and stresses of war. A philosopher of war and military activity, I think it was Alfred Vagts (1967) The History of Militarism Free Press; Revised edition, contrasted the practice of militarism, the systems which overvalue the military virtues, glorify war, or give inordinate power or rewards to soldiers with the practice of war and showed just how inadequate the system of values and practices of militarism are for the effective execution of war. In the '60s I found it an especially penetrating tool for comparing the US army with the Viet cong and the North Vietnamese forces and extremely useful for mapping the decline and failure of the American mission in Vietnam. Recent events in Iraq indicate that the American's have learned nothing from the Vietnam experience and have gone off on another adventure, expecting that their overwhelming technological advantage will pull their chestnuts out of the fire. It just goes to show just how important it is that we address ourselves to the problems of war; military practiceand organization, the social dynamics of war and , and militarism with the same sense of urgency and overwhelming concern that we devote to business enterprise and to civil administration and politics.

Highest regards,

---- Original Message -----
From: Eugene Matusov
  Sent: Monday, May 03, 2004 2:24 AM
  Subject: Creative cruelty and responsibility: Photos from Iraq

  Dear David, Victor, Judy, and everybody-

  To tell the truth, I did not expect that our discussion about people who creatively add misery to others will become so practical so quickly... (thanks David for your posting!)

  I want to support Judy's keen observations and reasoning. I think that there has been "pragmatics" of creative cruelty and humiliation that is evident in the photos. This cruelty and humiliation of Iraqi POWs can help to get intelligence information from them, break their will, terrorize other prisoners and those resistance fighters who are still at large, develop "discipline" and "order" in the prison (cf. Foucault), and so on. It also serves the purpose of providing ways for "reducing" sexual tensions in young US soldiers (including in female soldiers as we now know), entertain themselves in the context of monotonous as well as very stressful routines, and build a certain solidarity (please, notice that the photos are addressed to a sympathetic audience). Judy is right that the photos communicate a sense of (erotic) pleasure that the US soldiers are getting from humiliation and torture. There is also humiliation of "maleness" of Iraqi soldiers by putting them in gay sexual positions (and thus employing homophobia sense in the expected audience of the photos) especially when the humiliation is done by a US female soldier. The Iraqi POWs are reduced to alive, but headless, sex toys. I forced myself to watch photos of lynching black victims by Whites ( and Nazi's photos of executions of Jews ( - I did not see so much perpetrators' having fun as I see in the photos of the US soldiers. Photos of torture of Iraqi POWs by British soldiers (although the authenticity of these particular photos is challenged right now by British military) "fit" more traditional photos that are done by other perpetrators in past ( then the photos done by the US soldiers ( .

  I think that military creates "grey" area of objectifying, torture, and humiliation that slowly erodes a sense of humanity and morality in the coalision soldiers with regard to the enemy side. I suspect that the US military routinely uses dehumanizing language to refer to Iraqi soldiers, resistance fighters, and, probably, to whole Iraqi population (you can watch the movie "Black hawk down" to see how US soldiers refer to Somali population). I also suspect that US military routinely and "legitimately" uses hoods to cover face of prisoners (although I do not know that for sure - does anybody know?). Covering faces (especially eyes and mouth) not only terrorizes victims who do not know what is going on around them but also transforms people into faceless, responseless objects (animals) for the guards. It transforms hooded prisoners into animated bodies that can be easily exploited and sexualized (as it was done by the US soldiers on the photos). Bush administration use of fundamentalist language demonizing the Iraqi resistance facilitates transformation of the "grey" area of "legitimate" treatment of POWs into a pure dark area of torture and humiliation.

  I expect that these 6 soldiers are pretty much surprised to be charged because they may not see much difference between what they did and what the military institution does routinely and "legitimately" (but maybe for a different purpose). Bush in his speech two days ago rushes to individualize the responsibility for torture and humiliation to a specific very few perpetrators that have to be ostracized from US military and from "US people." However, Amnesty International reports about systematic abuse of Iraqi (and Afghani) prisoners by the coalision forces ( despite the claim of an American general:

  General Myers gave slightly differing answers, however, on whether such mistreatment might have been systemic, possibly encouraged by military or intelligence officials demanding that prisoners be emotionally broken quickly to provide needed information.

  In one television appearance, General Myers said that "there is no evidence of systematic abuse" of prisoners being held by coalition forces.

  But in another interview, when asked how he could be certain that prisoner abuses were not more widespread, General Myers replied: "I'm not sure of it."

  It appears that the coalision forces institutionally create a culture and practices that promote torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners and socializes coalision soldiers into torture and humiliation through setting pragmatic goals (e.g., getting sensitive info from prisoners), using physical tools (e.g., hoods), and semiotic means (e.g., objectifying labels and fundamentalist propaganda). An issue that I have is whether the coalision military institutions become more and more inhumane in response to the worsened occupation situation (especially in Iraq) or it has been that bad from the beginning. Although I do not have much evidence, I think that the both possibilities are at work: they were bad but getting even worse. I think there would have been a separate institution which only goal has to be monitoring human rights of the enemy (similar to Amnesty International but with the official right to punish and investigate the military). There must be another layer of separation of power. Military has too many conflicts of their interests - this creates "grey areas" for potential/actual abuse.

  Back to the issue of personal responsibility, I think that each case must be investigated in a full and broad scale. By the "broad scale," I mean investigation of the entire military institution and broader political climate that might produce the abuse and crime. Perpetrators and facilitators (e.g., Bush?) have to be punished and condemned.

  What do you think?


> -----Original Message-----

> From: Judy Diamondstone []

> Sent: Sunday, May 02, 2004 5:19 PM

> To:

> Subject: RE: Does no one read [between] Vygotsky's words?


> Victor, I think your explanation is rational, which may be its fault; you're

> also missing a significant piece of the story reported in the media, which

> is that U.S. intelligence officers were in charge of the prison and they

> instructed (or just 'encouraged'?) the soldiers to "soften up" the prisoners

> waiting for interrogation. In other words, those in power encouraged the use

> of (that) power in the service of psychological and physical abuse. The

> soldiers were reprieved from any moral responsibility; moreover, someone

> evidently understood sexual mores for Arabic males -- and targeted their

> genitalia. The eroticism associated with this sort of humiliation can't be

> overlooked, even if it evokes extreme disgust from our (more rational)

> perspective. The soldiers were having fun -- joissance. Isn't this something

> different from the banality of evil? (just doing our job) and not merely an

> exercise of revenge.

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