A picture of uncertainty

What the torture snaps from Iraq reveal about the coalition.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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If the grainy photos showing coalition forces humiliating Iraqis give an insight into some of the crueller practices in postwar Iraq, the heated discussion of the photos provides a snapshot of a deeply divided and confused coalition.

There are two sets of photos: some genuine ones showing Americans mistreating hooded Iraqis in Saddam’s old Abu Ghraib jail west of Baghdad, and black-and-white pictures reportedly showing Brits in Basra urinating on an Iraqi and hitting him with a rifle, whose authenticity has been disputed. According to one journalist, the photos have caused ‘an international shit-storm’. President Bush is due to appear on Arab TV today to describe the photos of naked Iraqi prisoners piled on top of one another in Abu Ghraib, with American soldiers pointing and laughing at them, as ‘shameless and unacceptable’ (1).

UK prime minister Tony Blair has described the British photos, which some reports claim are Ministry of Defence reconstructions of events that really took place but not actual photos of those events, as ‘shocking’ (2). In a special statement to parliament yesterday, Adam Ingram, Britain’s minister for armed forces, said he would leave ‘no stone unturned’ in getting to the bottom of the photo debacle (3).

The pictures, certainly the American ones from Abu Ghraib, show that coalition troops have indeed done terrible things to Iraqi prisoners. But while many have debated what the photos reveal about the relationship between the coalition and its Iraqi charges (that of an ‘oppressor to the oppressed’ according to one report), few have asked what the release of the photos and the response to them tell us about the coalition itself.

The British soldiers who sent the black and white pics of alleged British torture in Basra to the UK tabloid the Daily Mirror said they couldn’t live with themselves and wanted ‘the world to know’ what was happening in Iraq; it was an American soldier who sent the Abu Ghraib photos to his superiors and, reportedly, to CBS News. These soldiers are effectively whistleblowing on a war while the war is ongoing – an unprecedented state of affairs.

It is not unusual for troops to take pictures, or even trophies, of humiliating scenes from war zones. As UK newspaper columnist Tony Parsons reminded us on Monday, the walls of the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City are covered with photos of acts of brutality against the Vietnamese committed during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s, taken by US marines themselves (4). Ten years after the Falklands War of 1982 it was revealed that some British soldiers had removed dead Argentineans’ ears as ‘war trophies’.

What is new today is that such images are being released while the war is still being fought, by individuals involved in still fighting that war. The photos scandal is not a result of Iraqi protest about prison conditions in postwar Iraq, nor of investigative journalism, but of a deeper disgruntlement within the ranks of the coalition.

This very public clash between coalition forces is the result of a profound uncertainty about their mission in Iraq. In past conflicts an individual soldier’s concern about the behaviour of his comrades would most likely have been dealt with internally, or else suppressed by a broader sense of solidarity, of the troops being ‘in it together’ and committed to a broader aim. Things are very different in Iraq. This was a war that had no casus belli, where the war aims seemed to change on a daily basis, where troops were told to ‘tread lightly’ but also to ‘crush the enemy’, where victory, in the words of Tony Blair, would not be celebrated ‘in any spirit of elation, still less of triumphalism’. On such a confused battlefield, there was little to tie troops together in anything resembling solidarity, much less a sense of mission that might suppress individual concerns about the war’s conduct.

Soldiers making public their private concerns about the war has been a recurring feature of the coalition’s venture in Iraq. On the eve of the war, in March 2003, British troops went to the media with stories about inadequate kit and arms (5); some British troops considered taking legal action against the US military for injuries sustained in friendly fire incidents (6); the families of six UK military police killed in southern Iraq last year are looking into suing the Ministry of Defence for failing in its ‘duty of care’ to their sons (7).

Hardships that in the past would have been seen as facts of war, as risks to be taken during the course of a mission, have become points of controversy in the mess that is Iraq. The leaking of photographs of humiliated Iraqis takes this trend to a new level, where troops now reveal what is going on behind the closed doors of the coalition’s prisoner-of-war camps. This is driven by a broader institutional incoherence, which now appears to affect even the military, the state’s body of armed men. Among today’s troops, everything from injury and death on the battlefield to becoming ill to the treatment of prisoners can become sore points, hitting the front pages of the papers or winding up in court even before the war is over.

The response to the photos, in both media and political circles, also reveals something telling about the coalition. Many have argued that the publication of these photos around the world has badly damaged the coalition. They are ‘the pictures that lost the war’ according to Glasgow’s Sunday Herald. ‘Grim images of American and British soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners have not only caused disgust and revulsion in the West, but could have forever lost Bush and Blair the moral high ground that they claimed to justify the invasion of Iraq’, says the Herald (8).

According to American journalist Juan Cole, ‘The Bush administration, despite the savvy of its spinmeisters and Hollywood-trained publicists, has lost the war of images abroad’ (9). One reason why Bush is appearing on Arab TV today, it would seem, is to attempt to win back some of the lost ground in this ‘war of images’.

The focus on images from Iraq – and more importantly how they play around the world – points to a hole at the heart of the war. For all the claims that the war in Iraq was a campaign of high principle, a real substantial political action in contrast to the flimsy politics of spin at home, in fact it has consistently elevated image over substance.

From the outset, the one discernible war aim seems to have been to project a positive image of the coalition abroad. Before the war, strategists hoped that the winning of the soft target of Basra would provide the ‘defining image of the war’; during the war, coalition forces knocked down symbols of the old regime in order to ‘communicate a message to Iraqis and the world’; the Americans allowed the media to take photos of Qusay and Uday Hussein’s corpses, to prove that they were dead and that Iraqis were now ‘liberated in fact as well as spirit’ (10).

This concern with positive images suggests that the war was more the product of the politics of spin than many realise. In toppling old symbols and replacing them with positive images of the coalition’s good work, it was almost as if the coalition was trying to discover a mission in Iraq, attempting to convince itself of its role in the world and to prove it through imagery. After all, a war for liberation, democracy and Iraqis’ rights would not be so easily rattled, or as some are claiming, lost, by a few photos of some wayward soldiers doing bad things to Iraqi prisoners. In the war of images that was Gulf War II, however, negative images can swiftly unsettle the image-conscious warmongers.

As a consequence of a war that is spin by other means, images have assumed a disproportionate importance. So those who have a gripe against the coalition, whether it’s free speech activists in America seeking to have photos of American coffins released by the US Air Force or unhappy coalition troops leaking prison pictures to the press, also use the image as a way of making their point.

The photos from Iraq reveal two things – that some coalition troops are committing acts of cruelty against Iraqis, and that the coalition is divided, confused and desperately seeking a mission.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Prisoner abuse ‘shameless and unacceptable’, Bush to tell Arabs, Mark Sage, Scotsman, 5 May 2004

(2) Alleged abuse of Iraqi prisoner ‘utterly unacceptable’ – Blair, Kim Pilling, Scotsman, 2 May 2004

(3) ‘No stone unturned’ in abuse inquiry, The Australian, 5 May 2004

(4) Revenge or cruelty? Just take your pic, Tony Parsons, Daily Mirror, 3 May 2004

(5) See These boots were made for talking about, by Brendan O’Neill

(6) After the war, a fight for justice, Richard Colbey, Guardian, 3 May 2003

(7) Red Cap families ponder suing MoD, BBC News, 1 March 2004

(8) The pictures that lost the war, Neil Mackay, Sunday Herald, 2 May 2004

(9) Juan Cole on our war photos, Tom Engelhardt,, May 2004

(10) See Liberation by snapshot, by Brendan O’Neill

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Topics Politics


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