Donald Rumsfeld assures us that the abuses at Abu Ghraib are "un-American."
Indeed they are, but the perpetrators of these acts were Americans. That is not an incidental fact. Soldiers always reflect their societies.
In the first weeks of World War I, the story goes, a young British officer in Belgium was reprimanded for not having put a guard at a certain point. His response reflected the genteel assumptions of the time: "Oh, the Germans wouldn't come that way, Sir, it's private property."
So it is that in Abu Ghraib and its aftermath we see some of the seamy undercurrents of America magnified in a horrifying fashion -- in particular, the celebration of cruelty, the ubiquity of pornography and a cult of victimhood. Any society, of course, will produce weak and malicious people, and prison abuses are nothing new. Andersonville, Ga., is still notorious for the conditions in the Confederate prison camp there. But the distinct echoes of Abu Ghraib in our culture are unmistakable.
Consider the iconic film of the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction." It includes a scene of the rape of a man imprisoned and kept as a sexual slave, which prompted laughs in theaters. The victim, "The Gimp," became a figure of fun. Tarantino's latest, the "Kill Bill" movies, present the same romance of power and violence, arbitrarily and stylishly wielded. Cruelty, Tarantino tells us, can be fun.
This is not to say that the filmmaker, or anyone besides those who committed and condoned the acts, is in any way responsible for Abu Ghraib. It's just that Tarantino -- and he's not the only one -- touches something within us that enjoys exalting the strong and humiliating the weak. And not just on movie screens. Large men forcibly sodomizing smaller men in U.S. prisons is widely made light of America.
So, it was shocking to see a large gloved man smiling in a picture with his arms crossed as he stood over a pile of naked Iraqi detainees, but there was something familiar about it too. The apotheosis of the strong. There was something familiar in the picture of Lynndie England, with a cigarette dangling from her lips, pointing her finger at the genitals of a naked detainee. We know what she's doing in that picture -- she's trying to seem cool. She thinks that cruelty is a game, that the strong engage in it casually.
Then, there is the very fact of the pictures. The American jailers, who live in a country where pornography is a $10 billion-a-year business, became amateur pornographers. They videotaped themselves having sex with one another. One of the officers disciplined at Abu Ghraib allegedly took pictures of a female soldier showering. The Americans sexually humiliated Iraqi prisoners, forcing them to masturbate, to wear women's underwear, and to commit (or feign committing) unnatural acts, and captured it on film. If they had done this stateside in different circumstances, they might be very rich and perhaps even up for an Adult Video Award.
Before this scandal is over, the alleged abusers will be portraying themselves as quasi-victims. The officer ultimately in charge of the offending soldiers, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, has already hit the airwaves explaining she was victimized by circumstances. The Army report on the scandal noted "her complete unwillingness to either understand or accept that many of the problems ... were caused or exacerbated by poor leadership." Get used to it. Don't be surprised if the alleged perpetrators find a reason to sue the military -- that too is part of the American way.
America is much bigger and better than the abuses at Abu Ghraib. We can be proud of the alacrity with which the military began an investigation and acted on it and of the righteous disgust with which the revelations have been greeted here. But into the seam created by the indiscipline and poor command at Abu Ghraib seeped some of the poison of America's civilian culture. It's not pretty.