Abu Ghraib Abuse Allegations Include Rape

By now, you’ve likely heard of the most recent allegations regarding U.S. soldiers’ abuse of Iraqi prisoners: they include rape and other sexual assault, of both female and male detainees, and there may be photographs of the assaults among those which Obama has recently decided not to release.  You can read the details here — it probably goes without saying that they’re immensely disturbing.

It’s hard to know what to say to this.  I’ve spent the last day trying to figure it out, to come up with something intelligent.  Instead, all I can muster is seething rage, crushing sadness, and unbearable shame.  I’ve never been a patriot.  Honestly, I don’t even understand patriotism.  And I’ve certainly been ashamed of my country before.  But this is certainly a new low.  As a rape survivor myself, particularly.

I think that Jennifer Pozner hit the nail pretty much right on the head in under 140 characters on Twitter.  Rape is a part of war.  And U.S. soldiers have been raping the “enemy” ever since the U.S. military was established.  It’s one of the many reasons I oppose war.  That doesn’t surprise me, though it doesn’t lessen my rage, sadness or shame.

What is shocking (if not surprising), and only magnifies that rage and shame, is the fact that all of these abuses were seemingly sanctioned by our government.  The soldiers who committed other abuses at Abu Ghraib claimed that they were following orders.  While that in no way absolves them, seeing the government’s stance on torture, we also have little reason to doubt them.  And I see little reason to believe that these rapes and sexual assaults were somehow vastly different.  What’s shocking is that in the 21st century, the U.S. government is condoning and possibly even promoting rape as a war tactic.

Of course, the Obama administration is trying to deny that the photos exist.  The automatic response to that is, the only way we’ll ever know is if you just release them like you promised.  At the same time, Mark Leon Goldberg makes an excellent point that these victims have rights. And it is indeed pretty damn difficult to justify releasing photographs of rape and sexual assault to the public without the victims’ consent.

So I don’t know where to go from there, on any of this.  I guess I’ll just open up the floor to all of you.

ETA: Ashley has some good and difficult thoughts over at the SAFER blog.


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25 comments for “Abu Ghraib Abuse Allegations Include Rape

  1. Anpan
    May 29, 2009 at 5:19 pm

    I appreciate that people are starting to argue for the rights of the victims in the photos. It’s been breaking my head apart that the majority of people seem to feel that these victims of these horrible crimes have no right to their dignity when compared to America’s need to bare its soul and lance its festering boils. (Or at least that’s the way things have gone when I’ve tried to bring this up in conversation.) As troubling as the pictures are, it troubles me more that many people are failing to perceive the victims in them as human beings with rights.

    It makes me feel creeped out in the sense that if we can’t see these people as human and can’t want to protect them more than we want to self-flagellate and lay blame, then the process of dehumanizing those victims is working on us, too. There are other ways to solve this problem of ours; I think we have to make other ways, or join the ranks of the abusers. The welfare of a nation has already been used as an excuse for abusing those people.

    I don’t think I’ve had the nerve to comment before, but I had to, about this. I know there’s not a simple answer and some very big things are at stake, but it tears me up to see those people victimized again in front of the world. So, thanks for bringing it up.

  2. May 29, 2009 at 5:41 pm

    The earlier Abu Ghraib pictures of naked men stacked up like cordwood were sexually exploitive as well. Both are wrong to display.

    Hey, maybe if we had more women in the military, like half, they wouldn’t feel like they have to act like the toughest men (read: Lynndie England), and wouldn’t put up with this crap?

    Women are involved with war whether they like it or not — the question isn’t whether they’re there, it’s whether they’re armed. That’s a big part of the subtext to not wanting women in the active military.

  3. Erika
    May 29, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    I don’t get the argument for releasing the pictures to the public. It’s so voyeuristic and shows that we (Americans, I guess) care more about showing we know torture is wrong and that torturers should be shamed than recognizing the dignity and humanity of the people in the photographs who will be victimized all over again should their photos be seen by everyone. I cannot get behind calling for the release of the photos.

    We know this shit is happening. We know people torture other people. How is voyeurism going to make that stop? Unless something big changes and someone with much more power than I have makes a commitment to actually do something about it, it won’t stop. Releasing pictures will satisfy some really gross urges for some people, allowing them to feel more moral for a little while, but ultimately it’s pretty dehumanizing for the victims. This shouldn’t even be a debate.

  4. evil_fizz
    May 29, 2009 at 8:19 pm

    By now, you’ve likely heard of the most recent allegations regarding U.S. soldiers’ abuse of Iraqi prisoners: they include rape and other sexual assault, of both female and male detainees, and there may be photographs of the assaults among those which Obama has recently decided not to release.

    I don’t think there’s any real argument that the original pictures from Abu Ghraib were not photos of sexual assault. I am hesitant to argue that photo documentation of penetrative rape is somehow an order of magnitude worse than what’s already out there. The idea of “sexual humiliation” as opposed to “sexual assault” is a hair too fine to split.

    Also, I was reading the article Pozner linked to regarding the fact that sexual assault was a policy of the US Army in Iraq. There doesn’t seem to be substantiation for that fact. The few bad apples theory has been thoroughly discredited, but there still appears to be a a gap between rotten fruit and following orders/sanctioned policy.

  5. May 29, 2009 at 8:39 pm

    This does not seem that difficult to me. Release the photos only to the DoJ and ACLU, which has requested them. I don’t believe either would then make the photos public, but merely verify or refute the reports of what they depict.

  6. May 29, 2009 at 8:57 pm

    Rape is a part of war. And U.S. soldiers have been raping the “enemy” ever since the U.S. military was established. It’s one of the many reasons I oppose war. That doesn’t surprise me, though it doesn’t lessen my rage, sadness or shame.

    Yeah. This.

    I do consider myself a patriot, mostly because I don’t think we yet have a world system that allows us to live outside of the nation-state, so you might as well make the one you’ve got as good as you can. And this is NOT in any way the America I want to live in.

  7. karak
    May 29, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    Rape and abuse of prisoners during wartime/conflict is normal. It has nothing to do intrinsically with the US or with US policies. Now, I’m not saying this is right. I’m not saying that it should be allowed or encouraged, and when these kind of abuses are found, they should be rooted out, and the perpetrators should be punished according to, at the very least, US laws governing rape.

    I believe every good military should have a division in charge of seeking out and punishing these kinds of abuses, as well as making sure the organizational structure is not encouraging them, by omission or commission.

    That said? From the moment our troops landed in Iraq, I knew that prisoners were being tortured, and people were being raped. I didn’t suspect, I KNEW, because this happens in every single conflict of all time in the entirety of human history. We have the Standford Prison Experiment of 1971 and the Milgram Experiment of 1961, both of which tell us that perfectly normal human beings will torture and murder each other if they think authority has told them too, or will take responsibility. This isn’t a “bad apple” thing. NORMAL PEOPLE DO THIS.

    So. For the US Army to say they didn’t know… well, they’re lying. And for me to say I’m shocked or surprised? That would be lying, too. Actually, in a way, I suppose it is a good thing that this isn’t being hushed up–it got out into the public to force them to do something about it.

  8. Mina
    May 30, 2009 at 12:54 am

    Honestly I’m just surprised so many people haven’t heard of this until now. Taguba’s report was leaked years ago, and we knew they had photos of rape for at least two years now. I guess the blogs I read picked up on it pretty quickly, but it’s a little disheartening to see how long this stuff can take to hit the mainstream media. All the recent torture stuff hitting the news these days has been one long deja-vu of the past four years.

    It really makes me wish this stuff would have gotten the coverage it’s getting now then. It doesn’t make me angry, the whole thing just makes me inordinately sad, sad, sad.

  9. Ferawle
    May 30, 2009 at 2:22 am

    It’s interesting, like evil_fizz has argued, that there seems to be a fine line between sexual assault and outright rape that it being upheld, here. The photos I have seen almost all displayed sexula or gendered humiliation – then why would releasing these photos be such an issue? I do understand the argument that victims have rights – and we should also consider the repercussion of ‘being raped’ in Arab/muslim culture (I hate speaking in these generalizations, as any good anthropologist would do – but there is something about homosexuality and rape that touched not only on an individual’s sense of self but the honour of a family or community as a whole which we shouldn’t underestimate, here). Then again – when I read that the photos wouldn’t be released because they were too graphic in nature, I thought to myself… Is this old-fashioned American puritanism surfacing?

  10. May 30, 2009 at 3:05 am

    I need to draw on my own patriotism when I read about things like this – because I want my adopted country, to have a better standard. Not that I have any illusions about the way that war works.

    I think that voyeurism and puritanism are both at work here. On one hand, some people will reach to these pictures for titillation. But the sense of decorum often comes from the wrong place as well – some people just don’t want their delicate sensibilities upset, they’re afraid they might feel something when they glimpse this horror, so they’ll hide behind the dignity of those they don’t see as human beings to begin with. As a journalist, I think a lot of good can come even from a terrifying image (remember “Vietnam Napalm”?), buy I don’t know if any society is mature enough to view the photos Obama has decided not to release. Maybe I’m wrong.

    Personally speaking, if a picture existed of anything that’s happened to me, I don’t know how I’d feel about having it released (even with facial features obscured). I think there’d be lots of conflicting emotions. On one hand, I wouldn’t want to be defined by it – or used as wank fodder. On the other hand, I’d want people to know.

    I know there are people who troll my site for their own jollies, for example. I know that stories of abuse and violence excite them. But do the stories themselves lose something due to that?

    Pictures are more visceral, of course, can’t forget that.

  11. soullite
    May 30, 2009 at 9:02 am

    Good luck getting an investigation without showing these pictures. Obama and Congress are clearly intent on covering this up, or they would have announced an investigation by now.

    But hey, the rights of three people outweigh the rights of the thousands who will continue to be treated because you were all too prudish to do what had to be done to put a stop to this.

  12. May 30, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    Soullite, the issue is whether they should be released to the PUBLIC, not whether they should be used as evidence in a criminal investigation.

  13. May 30, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    I think there is a huge misrepresentation of this issue. Obama is suppressing the documents to say they didn’t exist. Obama is using a tactful way to not disclose the atrocities of what took place. Of course, forms of retribution and vengeance will be sought. Ever been to the Holocaust museum in D.C.? Ever seen a tourist with a smile on their face when they walk out after visiting it? Clearly not, this is a sensitive subject, and I don’t understand the backlash against Obama’s policy towards the refusal to release sensitive pictures to a mainstreamed media. The only thing that can happen is another outcry for him deciding to ? I think that people fail to recognize Obama was a Constitutional Law professor. Do you realize that if we released these documents we would be no better than the Modern Age? The age where a guillotine was a form of entertainment for the public? It would be a very large mistake to allow these pictures to be released and I fully support the administrations decision. I wish people thought more critically in society, rather than using biased ideology to find a way to pick on someone.

  14. May 30, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    Wait, what? When did the only options become suppressing the fact that atrocities took place and grotesque voyeurism? I’m pretty fucking sure that there’s at least one middle option. And I don’t even get the Holocaust point, but my best guess is that you’re saying the Holocaust museum makes people sad (I’ve been, and indeed it does), so we should protect people’s feelings by not talking about future human rights abuses. In which case *head explodes*

  15. Persia
    May 30, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    I do think that releasing the photos would create more public pressure for a real investigation. I’m not sure it’d create enough pressure to justify the release, though.

  16. Alison
    May 30, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    Anpan , agreed

  17. May 30, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    Taguba has now said that he was misquoted, and that he was referring to the original set of Abu Ghraib photos, not the ones the Obama Administration is seeking to suppress.

  18. Morningstar
    May 31, 2009 at 10:07 am

    Sure he was…

  19. Kathy
    May 31, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    “If you didn’t know, you should have. This is absolutely a case of mass guilt. Over a million people have died. There was horrific torture of civilians, including children. In our names. We knew. If we didn’t know, our ignorance was willful, and it had everything to do with the race, nationality, and religion of the victims. We are responsible.”

    Ashley – THIS. THANK YOU. The big racist, xenophobic elephant in the living room about our whole sordid adventure in Iraq. This will be the much harder issue for all of us to deal with, regardless whether the photos are released or not. It underlines almost everything else about our policies in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

  20. piny
    June 1, 2009 at 11:48 am

    We know this shit is happening. We know people torture other people. How is voyeurism going to make that stop? Unless something big changes and someone with much more power than I have makes a commitment to actually do something about it, it won’t stop. Releasing pictures will satisfy some really gross urges for some people, allowing them to feel more moral for a little while, but ultimately it’s pretty dehumanizing for the victims. This shouldn’t even be a debate.

    I feel about this the way I feel about other similar debates, like the “right” of media sources to release names of victims of rape: I’m not sure any third party should decide one way or the other. And I agree that we have no right to violate the victims’ privacy in order to make a political point, and that they have no reason to trust any of us as advocates.

    But I don’t know if I agree with the argument that these photos would have no moral impact for people who currently aren’t terribly bothered by the idea of waterboarding the bad guys. Knowing and seeing are different things. We react on a much more visceral level to individual and visual evidence. We “knew” that there were death camps, but what we remember now are the photographs of prisoners who became living skeletons. Images like that can become the defining elements of cultural memory. Perhaps this is because I already understand torture as reprehensible, but I feel differently about the photos than I do about the simple fact of torture, or even details like “183 times.”

    Then again, the original Abu Ghraib photos–which certainly indicated widespread sexualized abuse to anyone with half a dose of common sense–don’t seem to have accomplished much. The Jack Bauerites are still clinging to their thumbscrews and their religion. I may be looking at all of this through a journalistic fallacy: create space for the human interest and then fill it up. Our apathy is what creates these pictures in the first place.

  21. piny
    June 1, 2009 at 11:56 am

    It’s interesting, like evil_fizz has argued, that there seems to be a fine line between sexual assault and outright rape that it being upheld, here. The photos I have seen almost all displayed sexula or gendered humiliation – then why would releasing these photos be such an issue?

    Probably because most people don’t think like feminists? Melissa McEwan made the point that the original Abu Ghraib photos should have clued people in to the strong likelihood of sexual assault and rape, because they depicted the sexualized dehumanization of helpless prisoners. I’m kind of amazed that anyone can deny that this happened. But the connection between “gendered humiliation” and sexual assault isn’t very well understood. Look at Joe Arpaio. He’s tough on crime, not a sadist.

  22. William
    June 2, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    When did the only options become suppressing the fact that atrocities took place and grotesque voyeurism?

    I’m not so sure there is a middle option. Human beings are visual creatures and the discussion is being dominated by charismatic president desperately trying to cover asses and a former vice president who is not only a consummate liar but who shows an active disregard for anything that might be called the truth. Like it or not, the bodies of the people in these images have become political, they are the center of a political issue, and these pictures being submitted to a monstrously voyeuristic public is perhaps the only thing which is likely to cause any kind of serious investigation.

    We use graphic images when we talk about the holocaust not to underscore how terrible it was or because it was somehow special or unique, but to dispel any possibility of denial. We don’t want to believe that our own people are capable of the kinds of things that were done at Abu Ghraib, we don’t want to believe that anyone is capable of those kinds of things, as a culture we look for any excuse we can to push away that possibility (from the “bad apples” argument to gross denial to justifications).

    The release of these photos would undoubtedly be a violation of the privacy of the people in them but, realistically, thats one of the things that we must accept is part of the discussion. Obama wants this all to go away and only significant political force will overcome that. This is an issue that could cost him his presidency if he goes after high officials from the previous administration and he does not want to risk that. Congress has shown that it is does not have the will to press the issue. That leaves us, sadly, with two options. Sacrifice the privacy of torture victims in the hope that the incontrovertible, visceral evidence their images provide will force a reaction, or allow those in power to make the entire affair just fade away. Both are terrible options, and so it is that torture continues to do it’s damage long after the flesh it was visited upon has died.

  23. June 3, 2009 at 9:02 pm

    There are several issues here. First, to release these photos would be a terrible injustice to the victims and would add more shame and misery to their insufferable pain incurred at the expense of the US justice system. Second, we need to be asking ourselves as a society how are we going to recompense these people; just as many governments finally got around to paying the victims of the Holocaust or of WWII prison camps in Asia we need to start building a consensus to repay these victims in visible, tangible means. Third, every last Bush admin official right on up to his former war mongering VP Cheney, need to be put on a WAR TRIAL in The Hague.

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