To subjugate the Iraqis the American military needed to feminise them. Joseph Massad*
examines the cultural dynamic coupling imperial power to sexual conquest
The word "torture" seems to be a difficult word for Americans to utter when they are caught in the act of committing it. But political language has always been a malleable thing in America just as it was in Orwell's 1984. Torture of POWs and detained civilians, we are told, is "abuse of prisoners", murdered civilians by US bombings are "collateral damage", strafing of villages is "pacification", foreign occupation is "enduring freedom", pillage of natural sources is "free trade," and so on and so forth.
While the American media and the American educational system are quite adept at imparting to Americans this elastic language, for the rest of the world, the horrifying torture to which Iraqis have been subject will remain pure torture. The only "abuse" being committed here is the abuse of language by the American government and its subservient media.
During the US invasion of Vietnam, the atrocities committed against the Vietnamese were not limited to the killing of millions of civilians and the maiming of millions more, the destruction of agricultural land and harvests, outright massacres and napalming of whole villages, and the subsequent economic embargo imposed on the destroyed country after the war, there were also important torture mechanisms that the US military reserved, not only for male resistors, but also for female "Viet Cong" fighters. Their torture included rape, otherwise known as "searching" them with the penises of US soldiers, as they could be hiding weapons inside their sexual organs (See Arlene Eisen- Bergman 1975 book Women of Vietnam ).
The mixture of sex and violence in an American (or European) imperial setting characterised by racism and absolute power is more uniform than the American or British media may think. Just a bit over a decade ago, during the first Gulf war of 1990/91, American fighter-bomber pilots would spend hours watching pornographic films to get themselves in the right mood for the massive bombing they carried out in Iraq (see The Washington Post, January 26, 1991). This, of course, is one example of many in which sex figures prominently in imperial ventures. The question then is what is the mechanism that couples American (and British) imperial power and sexual conquest at the cultural level?
While Western Orientalist accounts never tire of speaking of sexism and women's oppression in the Arab World, including the Western horror at "honour crimes", it might be time to address the rampant Western misogyny which disdains all that is feminine and posits women as the terrain of male conquest. It should not be forgotten that in America, not in the Muslim World, between 40 per cent and 60 per cent of women killed, are killed by their husbands and boyfriends, but such murders of course are no longer even called "passion" crimes, much less "honour" crimes. It is this misogynistic trait of imperial American culture and its violent racism that propels the torture to which Iraqi prisoners (POWs and civilians) have been, and may still be, subjected.
It is with this misogyny as background, that the US military understood well that American male sexual prowess, usually reserved for American women, should be put to military use in imperial conquests. In such a strategy, Iraqis are posited by American super- masculine fighter-bomber pilots as women and feminised men to be penetrated by the missiles and bombs ejected from American warplanes. By feminising the enemy as the object of penetration (real and imagined), American imperial military culture supermasculinises not only its own male soldiers, but also its female soldiers who can partake in the feminisation of Iraqi men.
It is in this context that both male and female white American (and British) soldiers can participate in sodomising Iraqi soldiers with chemical lights, beat them, urinate on them, force them to perform homosexual acts (while hurling racial and sexual epithets at them), unleash dogs on them, and kill them. It is also this context that has permitted the torture and actual rape of Iraqi women prisoners.
When confronted by lesser men on the American mainland, the behaviour of white uniformed American masculinity does not differ much. In August 1997, Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was arrested outside a nightclub in New York city and was later tortured by white New York policemen who shoved a broken broomstick up his rectum and into his mouth while beating him in a police station bathroom and hurling racial epithets at him (Louima underwent several surgeries as a result of the injuries he sustained). Such practices clearly demonstrate that white American male sexuality exhibits certain sadistic attributes in the presence of non-white men and women over whom white Americans (and Brits) have government- sanctioned racialised power.
Much of the commentary in the US and the British press and in official US and British government discourse is that the barbaric torture to which Iraqi prisoners were subjected was the work of exceptionally errant soldiers and certainly not reflective of US or British military behaviour, much less US or British cultures and values. In fact, such torture is emblematic of American and British imperial cultures not only at present but also historically. Let us review one such episode:
"The types of torture employed are varied. They include beatings with fists and [stomping] with boots..., as well as using canes for beating and flogging to death. They also included... the penetration of the rectums of the victims with canes, and then moving the cane left and right, and to the front and back. They also included pressing on the testicles with the hands and squeezing them until the victim loses consciousness from the pain and until they [the testicles] get so swollen that the victim would not be able to walk or move except by carrying his legs one at a time... They also included the starving of dogs and then provoking them and pushing them to devour his flesh and to eat off his thighs. It also included urinating on the faces of victims... [Another form of torture included the soldiers'] sodomising them, as it seems that this was done to a number of people."
This report, which describes in almost identical terms what the Iraqi prisoners experienced, was actually written in August 1938 describing how British and Zionist Jewish soldiers treated revolutionary Palestinians during the Palestinian anti-Colonial Revolt. The author of the report, Subhi Al-Khadra, was a Palestinian political prisoner detained in the Acre prison. He came to know of the torture of these prisoners, which had taken place in Jerusalem, because the prisoners were relocated later to his prison in Acre, and told him of their experiences and showed him the physical signs of torture on their bodies. This is how he described the motivation of the British torturers:
"This was not an investigation in which forceful methods are used. No. It was a vengeance and a release of the most savage and barbaric of instincts and of the concentrated spirit of hatred that these rednecks feel towards Muslims and Arabs. They mean to torture for the sake of torture and to satisfy their appetite for vengeance, not for the sake of an investigation nor to expose crimes."
Khadra's conclusion is not unlike the conclusions of American journalist Seymour Hersh and of British journalist Robert Fisk about the aims of American (and British) torture methods. His report was published in the Arabic press and sent to British members of parliament.
The racist media commentary in the United States has it that many of these torture methods are particularly egregious because they offend Arab and Muslim sensibilities and concepts of "shame"! Indeed, CNN's senior reporter, Wolf Blitzer -- who in previous incarnations worked for the Israel lobby in the US (AIPAC) and as a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, and wrote under the name Ze'ev Blitzer -- asks guests on his show to explain how and why Arab culture finds such torture offensive, especially, he adds, as Arabs are subject to similar torture by their own regimes.
Blitzer does not seem to know that it would surely be unacceptable to American morality if white American POWs and innocent civilians are tortured by an occupying foreign army, are forced to parade naked and hooded, are forced to perform homosexual acts with each other in full view of their captors, are kept on a leash, are attacked and bitten by dogs, and are beaten to death. To add insult to injury, some American experts (and ready and willing Arab native informants) are volunteering information about Arab culture and its allegedly strange taboo against nudity! As for the taboo on nudity that is allegedly exclusive to Arab culture, it remains unclear why all of America went into moral panic a few weeks ago when singer Janet Jackson voluntarily exposed only one of her breasts to television viewers.
Veteran American journalist Seymour Hersh has revealed this week -- in the third of a valuable series of articles in The New Yorker magazine on the torture -- that the view that "Arabs are particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation became a talking point among pro-war Washington conservatives in the months before the March, 2003, invasion of Iraq." According to Hersh, America's neo-cons learned of such a "vulnerability" from the infamous racist book The Arab Mind written by Israeli Orientalist Raphael Patai in 1973. Hersh quoted his source that the Patai book, was "the bible of the neo-cons on Arab behaviour." Hersh's source asserts that in the discussions of the neo-cons, two themes emerged, "one, that Arabs only understand force and, two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation." Hersh continues his revelations:
"The government consultant said that there may have been a serious goal, in the beginning, behind the sexual humiliation and the posed photographs. It was thought that some prisoners would do anything -- including spying on their associates -- to avoid dissemination of the shameful photos to family and friends. The government consultant said, 'I was told that the purpose of the photographs was to create an army of informants, people you could insert back in the population.' The idea was that they would be motivated by fear of exposure, and gather information about pending insurgency action, the consultant said. If so, it wasn't effective; the insurgency continued to grow."
Hersh's revelations prove that the torture taking place at Abu Ghraib (and most likely at other US-run prisons and detention centers in Iraq) is not the work of sadistic soldiers on the ground, but of sadistic planners and policy-makers that could reach the upper echelons of the Pentagon. The much publicised consultation that the Zionist Orientalist academic Bernard Lewis has provided to the US government on its policy towards Iraq is clearly not the only source for the administration's "knowledge" of Arab culture, Raphael Patai's racist book, which since its publication in 1973 has never gone out of print, and was reprinted in a new edition after 9/11, is clearly another valuable source.
It is claimed by some that it must be Israeli torturers who are contracted by the Americans, as one would presume that the Americans do not have expertise in such matters. While the Israelis very well may be helping, and not only in the "academic" realm (their torture methods of Palestinians and Lebanese are of the same order of barbarism and sexual perversion, including rape of abducted Muslim clerics), it would be just as likely that the Americans are also benefiting from the intelligence and torture services of their client Arab regimes, and perhaps even of Saddam's former torture experts. The point, however, is that it is the CIA who taught all of these client regimes effective torture methods, even the Israelis (who, not unlike the Arab client regimes, nonetheless became inventive of new methods on their own).
As thousands of Iraqi civilians have already been killed, tens of thousands injured and tens of thousands more imprisoned (according to Donald Rumsfeld, the number is 44,000 Iraqis detained since the occupation started), the recent pictures of torture and sexual sadism are hardly the worst that the Americans have inflicted on the Iraqi people during the last 14 years under the pretext of liberating them from Saddam. Indeed, even in the matter of torture itself, the Abu Ghraib prison, according to Baghdad's Red Cross (ICRC) spokesperson Nada Doumani, "is but the tip of the iceberg."
Under Saddam's tyrannical rule, human rights organisations continued to monitor the situation in Iraq, but since 9 April 2003, the Americans have refused to allow them to do so, as confirmed by US- imposed Iraqi minister of human rights, Dr Abdul- Baset Turki, who resigned in early April in protest. He had submitted his reports of human rights violations to Iraq's new dictator, Paul Bremer, but to no avail.
It has been suggested that the pictures of torture were not only going to be used to record the humiliation of the prisoners and to blackmail them, but also as mementos for American and British soldiers to take home with them to show to their families and friends. In such a case, the soldiers clearly believe that their families and friends would enjoy the pictures just as much as they do, which speaks volumes about American and British racism.
Whatever the real usefulness of the pictures for the American torturers, for Iraqis and the rest of the world, the pictures will serve as mementos of America's unyielding sadism against those who have the misfortune of living under its occupation. The pictures prove that the content of the word "freedom" that American politicians and propagandists want to impose on the rest of the world is nothing more and nothing less than America's violent domination, racism, torture, sexual humiliation, and the rest of it.
* The writer is assistant professor of modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University. His book Desiring Arabs is forthcoming from Harvard University Press.