Torture and U.S. Policy in Iraq

The scandal sends politicos scrambling, but also encourages more thorough critique

After months of silence on reports of systematic torture of Iraqis, the U.S. media has finally opened its eyes.

The pictures of tortured Iraqi prisoners from Abu Ghraib prison, long withheld from public view by military officials, have shocked the nation. Virtually overnight, support for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq has arisen markedly. A recent Zogby poll put support for the war at an all time low of 44 percent.

“The justifications for this war and occupation have been shown to be either exaggerated or false and the tide of public opinion is turning,” said Bill Dobbs, a veteran of the gay liberation struggle and now a leading member of United For Peace and Justice (UFPJ), a national coalition of anti-war organizations groups.

A Belgian doctor, Geert Van Moorter, an infectious disease specialist affiliated with medical Aid for the Third World, spoke in New York on Tuesday night at a meeting organized by the International Action Center, another anti-war group. Moorter was in Baghdad for a total of five months on several different occasions last year.

“I heard reports of torture in the prisons as early as July and August of 2003,” he said. “But American reporters wouldn’t even speak to me about it.”

Asked about the roots of the violence itself, Moorter argued that it is an extension of the total impunity occupying forces have in terms of the local population.

“I watched people die after being shot by coalition troops while ambulances didn’t arrive,” he said.

The callous arrogance of U.S. officers has been shocking to humanitarian workers in Iraq.

“A military officer told me that the U.S. does not investigate murders of Iraqis,” he said.

Echoes of Vietnam are in the air. In that war, photos of napalmed children, of soldiers placing guns in the mouths of terrified villagers, and worse helped turn the tide of public sentiment against a war whose brutality had been kept under wraps for years. Today, comparisons to Vietnam, long dismissed as hyperbolic even by some progressives, are being made by establishment publications.

Alongside pictures of horrific abuse, we see the U.S. political establishment racing to place blame. Yet the discussion of why this torture took place is focused primarily on who knew what in the Pentagon chain of command. The torture itself is examined as aberrant individual behavior, rarely as a symptom of the overall aims of the U.S. war.

Anthony Arnove, editor of “Iraq Under Siege,” a book of essays about pre-war sanctions against the country, argued that the torture has wider implications.

“This isn’t about individuals,” said Arnove. “Its an entire occupation based on the dehumanization of Iraqi people and of Arabs and Muslims more generally. We’re not dealing with a few bad apples, but with systematic state terrorism and state torture.”

Lou Plummer, an active member of Military Families Speak Out, spoke to Gay City News from his home in North Carolina. Plummer, who served in Vietnam and was once a prison guard, knows about the dehumanizing effect of war first hand.

“In Vietnam the terms were gooks and chinks. Today we hear about towelheads,” he said.

Some of the war’s most ardent cheerleaders are now at odds. This week, the Economist called for Rumsfeld’s resignation, arguing that removing him will help restore the occupation’s legitimacy. Arch-conservative William Safire lept to the beleaguered Rumsfeld’s defense, in a brazen op-ed in Monday’s New York Times.

While placing blame for the torture on the military brass in Iraq, Safire argued that any sign of weakness by the U.S. will only fuel the Iraqi resistance and would be a step toward eventually ending the occupation without completing the mission.

But what is news to America, thanks to a mainstream U.S. press unwilling up until now to look at the issue of military abuses, has been widely reported internationally, in media as wide-ranging as Al Jazeera, the Guardian in Britain, and Mexico’s La Jornada.

“Iraqis have been trying to tell journalists of the brutal treatment they are receiving at the hands of their occupiers,” wrote Robert Fisk in Britain’s Independent.

Reports coming from foreign media sources suggest that the question of what leads individual prison guards and soldiers to torture or brutalize Iraqis cannot be understood without a wider view of the political character of the occupation. According to that perspective, incidents of torture at Abu Ghraib are not freak aberrations, but are extraordinarily graphic examples of policies that are pursued more broadly.

In February, the International Red Cross released a 24-page report detailing systematic abuse of prisoners in prisons across Iraq. Prisoners were held “completely naked in totally empty concrete cells in total darkness.” The report also said that military intelligence officers confirmed that “methods of physical and psychological coercion used by the interrogators appeared to be part of the standard operating procedures… to obtain confessions and extract information.”

Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Red Cross, says that he complained about the prison abuses in a face to face meeting with Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Paul Wolfowitz, though Rice, for one, denied such a conversation took place.

Yet the hearings in the U.S. Senate this week, while full of angry calls for Rumsfeld’s resignation, ignored all this and papered over as much as they revealed.

“Once again, members of the U.S. Senate showed that grasping the big picture is not their strong suit,” wrote David Corn in the Nation.

A year after the invasion, Amnesty International presented a report on conditions in Iraq that stands as a searing indictment of the whole enterprise.

“Scores of unarmed people have been killed due to excessive or unnecessary use of lethal force by coalition forces during public demonstrations, at check points and in house raids,” report issued earlier this year. “Thousands of people have been detained and subjected to prolonged and often unacknowledged detention.”

The new debate among the American political leaders is limited largely to how to restabilize the occupation and create some semblance of Iraqi self-rule. The nearly unquestioned assumption is that a Pax Americana, both militarily and economically, is the solution to the instability in that part of the world.

For example, Thomas Freidman of The New York Times, who has consistently sought to find virtue in the Bush Iraq policy, has now concluded, “We are in danger of losing something much more important than just the war in Iraq. We are in danger of losing America as an instrument moral authority and inspiration in the world. I have never known a time in my life when America and its president were more hated around the world than today.”

Internationally, the debate is much broader.

Egypt’s Al-Ahram, in an editorial, wrote, “The behavior of these soldiers is totally in line with the mission for which they came to Iraq to begin with: to invade this major Arab country, destroy its economic and military capabilities… control its enormous oil wealth and eliminate anything that might hinder these aims, whether this comes from the [Iraqi] army, the people or the armed national resistance.”

Forces in the U.S. anti-war movement, which receives very little attention in the mainstream press, have been making this point for months.

While the pictures themselves are shocking, the fact of torture is not,” said Emily Goldstein of the Campus Antiwar Network (CAN). “This is a product of the basic logic of occupation.”

“What’s been most stunning for me is watching the reactions of people around me,” said Monique Dols, also a leading member of CAN. “This has put a human face on the horror of occupation, and has had an impact beyond what I would have expected. This is what happens when you begin to occupy a country. Torture and humiliation are essential means of perpetuating an occupation.”

Millions of Americans who had opposed the war before it started, became convinced of the need to support some form of U.S. occupation in its aftermath. Yet for many who have wavered over whether Iraqis should be allowed to run their own country, current revelations are forcing a rethinking.

Historian Howard Zinn has issued a direct challenge to the waverers.

“The history of military occupations of Third World countries is that they bring neither democracy nor security,” he wrote. “The laments that ‘we mustn’t cut and run,’ ‘we must stay the course,’ our ‘reputation’ will be imperiled, etc., are exactly what we heard when at the start of the Vietnam escalation some of us called for immediate withdrawal.”

“We face a choice between the certainty of mayhem if we stay, and the uncertainty of what will follow if we leave,” Zinn wrote in The Nation. He concluded that a full pullout of U.S. forces “gives the Iraqi people a chance. Continued occupation gives them no chance.”

USA Today reports that a mere third of Iraqis now believe “that the American-led occupation of their country is doing more good than harm.” A solid majority support immediate military pullout in spite of fears of what could follow, and support for the Iraqi resistance is strong.

As U.S. elites now scramble for a new strategy for maintaining their occupation, the movement against the policy here and worldwide is clearly gaining steam. On March 20, 100,000 marched in New York against the occupation in a rally organized jointly by UFPJ and ANSWER, the other major national anti-war formation. Many chanted, “Troops out now, Iraq for the Iraqis.”

With the brutality of Abu Ghraib exposed, more and more Americans are likely to agree.

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