Abu Ghraib: the Least of the Least

Do not shame or humiliate a man in public. Shaming a man will cause him and his family to be anti-Coalition.

The most important qualifier for all shame is for a third party to witness the act. If you must do something likely to cause shame, remove the person from the view of others.

Shame is given by placing hoods over a detainee’s head. Avoid this practice.

Placing a detainee on the ground or putting a foot on him implies you are God. This is one of the worst things we can do.

(From a cultural sensitivity training pamphlet given to U.S. Marines last September as part of an effort to improve relations between soldiers and Iraqis; republished in the June 2004 issue of Harpers)

I realize I’m treading on volatile terrain here, or at least perhaps bringing up issues that people would just as soon put away, but the Abu Ghraib scandal has forced some moral and ethical issues that compel me to initiate a dialogue. I think I speak for the majority voice in the bloggernacle in expressing disgust at the abuses at Abu Ghraib, even if that disgust may be tempered for some by the general and inevitable ugliness of war. Sure, as some are quick to point out, the atrocities of the enemy sink far below those of the prison guards. But the Americans are supposed to be the good guys; a greater respect for humanity and human dignity is supposed to be what separates the good guys from the bad guys.

One picture to emerge from the scandal, the one of the hooded prisoner standing on a box with his fingers attached to wires (which, he was told, would deliver a shock if he fell off the box), has already become a symbol for the abuse. Despite the foul, immoral, sexually degrading (and in some cases sexually abusive) acts depicted in several of the other pictures, I found the picture of the prisoner on the box the most disturbing. At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it; it wasn’t so much the actual story behind the photo, but the image’s formal properties: feet together on a pedestal, robe generously draped, arms away from the body, palms facing upward, head titled slightly. A few days later it hit me, as I accompanied the young men in my ward on a trip to one of the Church’s visitor’s centers to watch a movie. Before taking us into the theater, the supervising missionary ushered us into the small rotunda housing a replica of the Christus statue; a repulsive shiver ran up my spine when I realized the unconscious sacrilege I had been committing in reading the familiar posture of the statue in front of me into the grotesque form of the abuse photo. The latter contains nothing redeeming; it represents a compounding of crimes: the alleged crimes of the prisoner, and the documented crimes of his captors. Still, the superimposition of the two formally similar but contextually contrasting images indelibly suggested to me a familiar scripture, or, perhaps, its inversion. Usually, when we read of Jesus talking about the “least of these,” we think of seeing Him in the face of the poor and needy to whom we render service. Are we compelled likewise to see Him in our enemies, even those who may have blood on their hands–and to see self-indulgent malice against them as malice against Him? In the minds of the Arab world, the soldiers at Abu Ghraib were committing the ultimate sacrilege: playing God. Not to buy wholesale into the Crusader mentality that has sometimes characterized this administration, but to what extent are we compelled, as the good guys, to do the opposite: what is our obligation to the least of the “least of these”–our enemies?


  1. Jennifer J says:

    And while I’m at it, I think these tortures have removed any claim of innocence the US could make, ie ‘our acts of war are done in righteous anger because we were innocently wronged’. That may or may not have been true before, but I think from this point on it’s a false claim. We are in a bloody war and our hands are as dirty as the enemy’s.

  2. I didn’t mean to imply any sort of moral equivalency in the original post (though the claims that the handful of soldiers at Abu Ghraib were simply “anomalous” appears to be getting more dubious each day). Frankly, I’m not interested in our morality relative to the enemy’s because I don’t think morality is relative. That the enemy did worse things than our guys is rather cold comfort. Of course they did; that’s why we’re at war with them.

  3. Jennifer J says:

    I find it interesting that no one has commented on your post Jeremy. I’ll brave a few words.
    That comparision between the photo and the Christus does show a disturbing resemblance. And I think you are right, if anything it should remind us that all of God’s children are our siblings and to harm even one person is to harm Christ, assuming that the reversal of helping one of the least of these is helping Christ. He forgave those who tortured and wronged him without returning the violence. *Warning! Bleeding heart liberal speech on the way:* If Christ felt it unnecessary and wrong to avenge those who wronged him, who are we to feel justified in vengence?

  4. Aaron Brown says:

    Jennifer — your assertion of moral equivalency only makes sense to the extent the U.S. military and its soldiers are analogous to the Borg queen and her drones. Yes, certain soldiers at Abu Ghraib have their “hands dirty,” and their reprehensible conduct should not be downplayed, but “our hands” are certainly NOT “as dirty as the enemy’s.” It takes a shocking level of moral obtuseness to fail to distinguish between relatively anomolous incidents of sexual humiliation, and widespread, institutionalized mass torture and murder.

    I certainly wouldn’t like to be paraded around naked and photographed, but I’d probably like being gassed to death or shoved in a meat grinder even less.

    Aaron B

  5. Lynne, I agree–I just didn’t want to go off in that direction because I quickly gain too much intertia. I was recasting conservative apologists arguments to show their inherent flaws; like you, I recognize that (as the Red Cross estimates) between 70 and 90% of the detainess were erroneously imprisoned. But I the issue I wanted to raise, was, okay, say a guy REALLY IS a bad guy, does that at all mitigate the evil impulse to self-indulgent malice shown by the U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib?

    So, I agree with everything you said–I was just trying to say that even if all the “variables” were to swing in the direction of the conservative apologists, the apology is still insufficient.

  6. Our views on the Iraq conflict are quite different but your post is the most poignant comment on the Abu Ghraib atrocities that IÂ’ve read. Thank you. I hadnÂ’t thought about the situation from WWJD perspective.

    The crimes of the prisoners in Abu Ghraib may have warranted punishment. Some (like me) who support the idea of the death penalty for some murderers might even think that a portion of the men in the prison were deserving of this ultimate punishment. Even though I support the principle of government ending the life of a murderer (the ultimate act of “playing God”) I still felt sick when I saw the pictures of what was done to those prisoners.

    In and effort to continue your dialog regarding those who you say are “playing God” I argue that there is a different between those who recognize the need for justice in society and who make efforts to preserve it and those who could perpetrate (or order as the case may be) the evil that took place in that prison. Those who would preserve justice and humanely carry out the punishment of those in a prison such as Abu Ghraib could be accused of “playing God”…but I think they wouldn’t be violating the command to “do good unto the least of these.” Those animals who abused their fellow human beings are not similarly guiltless. I guess my point is that we have to be able to make a distinction between the two groups. The fact that this atrocity happened doesn’t mean that there aren’t good guys…it just means that no side in this conflict has a monopoly on goodness or wickedness. We all need to remember that.

  7. THEY DID WORSE THINGS TO US AND THAT’S WHY WE’RE AT WAR WITH THEM? Iraq had nothing to do with 9-11. If you’re talking about the burned contractors…
    please, most of the humiliated detainees were innocents, just farmers rounded up.
    The war in Iraq is wrong. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz should resign and Bush should be re-defeated. This is an unforgiveable quagmire. All we’ve done is create more terrorists.

%d bloggers like this: