<%-- Page Title--%> Reflections <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 157 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

June 4, 2004

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Kodak Moments out of a Nightmare

Mustafa Zaman

Call it the twenty-first century Vietnam, or the latest morass of a land that the US has been struggling to stable its foot upon, Iraq remains a steamy issue even after more than one year of occupation. It is even getting steamier, as missteps of the occupying forces are being scrutinised in the international media. The latest outburst of information, courtesy of the images that "illegally got in the hands of the press" -- as the man at the top, Rumsfeld, The Defense Secretary of the US, dubbed it during the first senate inquiry, -- has opened up a whole new frontier. New in the sense that, so far, the world at large, has been unexposed to such vile means of torture. The American variant has certainly carried the shock value in the highest dose.

How does a country with a knack for seeing itself as an example of democracy and liberal practices make it this far? The issue must be confronted from many directions. One clear direction would be to ask what price does a nation pay for playing police to the world? Especially when policing in today's world that has unwittingly created pockets of resistance, either in the form of terrorist outfits or in alternative movements, against the monolithic practice of modernism, is such a Herculean task. Confrontation with newer forces is inevitable. Who realised that a man like Moqtada Al Sadre would become a key factor in Iraq? A force that is showing no signs of let up even in the face of the fiercest American offensive!

War not only begets war but also a series of unknown maladies. And lives are not the only casualty of war. The strange side of it, an aspect that often remains under wrap, is that great wars leave both the sides with their human qualities often snubbed and at times completely effaced. The crusaders of the mediaeval era often took pleasure in raping and plundering their enemy. The impact of war on the collective psyche is something no one has any control over. It is the beast that unleashes other beasts. After having fought several wars in foreign lands, Americans are now paying the price. They are finding it hard going in fighting the demons that twist and lurch in their own fat belly. What war does to the combating soldiers' psyche is something that is obvious and well documented in the West. But that it opens up avenues to depravities are something that still remains an underrated issue. The American soldiers in Iraq have changed that. In the post Abu Ghraib world, it seems, nothing is left unexplored that has the capacity to jolt.

The war against terrorism, like the holy wars of the past, is no exception in its sinister capacity to spawn psychic disturbances that lead to more sinister happenings. The war in Iraq, that started purportedly to quell terrorism and to oust a dictator, and now pretends to bring the fruit of Western democracy to the land of oil, finally shows its inner composition. What went on in the name of interrogation at the Abu Ghraib prison is a sample of the lowest humans can sink to. The sheer 'inventiveness' to subject enemies to such physical degradation is something that will remain a nightmare in the history of war and will provide scope to study human behaviour in extreme conditions.

Is this behavioural bankruptcy all pervasive? Or is it a faction that went berserk and acted badly on their own? Before we even ponder these questions, one lesson that can be learnt is that the great powers thrive in things that are brutal and inexplicable. Meanwhile, the whole affair provides us with a new ground of anthropological significance -- a whole new field of study of human behavior now has opened up. According to the accused soldiers, they were 'simply' engaged in carrying out orders. But the results were norm defying for sure, and of-course like fine art -- form braking.

But before equating it with the arts and performances that are also shocking and norm defying, one must seek to contextualise it. Is it a terminal deformity of our civilisation that finally brings out the basest of instincts in humans? One of the soldiers, a woman, whose presence was ubiquitious in the first batch of pictures, said she was just carrying out orders. She did not behave any different from her male counterparts. All the army officials in charge of the interrogations, including women, looked similar, basking in their army-training induced maleness. Women personnel looked devoid of their femininity. Their antics seemed in conformity with the aggressiveness that they all shared. Even their countenances were masculine, and their actions bore the brand of depravity marked by transgressions verging on the fascistic.

One striking feature of the images that had been smuggled out of army hands, both still and moving, is that they bear a strong resemblance both to art and to movies to pornography produced by a culture that crossed all conceivable bounds. At least the index of the last forty years or so illustrates a dark America, taking a strong liking to, if not immersed deeply in, sado-masochism and anything that is brutal. The obsession with the brutish is an aspect that moved many an artist. The video installations by trail-blazing artists like Bruce Newman, performances by Cindy Sherman and many others that followed them in the '90s, as well as the recent images of torture, are visual indicators of a culture, one that lost faith in everything.

The principle of getting pleasure by shocking others, or by inflicting pain is an old idiom, with the West it often marries the expression of art, or should one say anti art that flourished to address issues of sex, gender, aids and most of all alienation.

Perhaps art that tackles brutality has different functions in the society. But it also reveals, as does the willingness on the part of the participating US solders, an obsession for what is base and diabolic. The soldiers surpassed all other genres with their form. In their hands two intentions melded, one of staging a live and brutal drama, the other of keeping a record for posterity. The first usually is the field of the artists of gore, and the latter is the obsession of the journalists. The act of the soldiers were two kinds of expertise rolled into one.

Torture is a confirmation of negating the enemy fully with a vengeance. The American soldiers surely needed to show it to their fellow countrymen how they successfully participated in the piece of the action that aimed to humiliate the enemy and they felt they needed hard evidence of their deed. How else would one understand the utility of the photographs and videos? The act of queuing for photo opportunities alongside dead Iraqis was the ultimate kick that redefines the relation between the victor and the vanquished. It also surpasses all morbid art produced in the West in its shock value; even those that used neatly composed parts of cadaver as elements.

A culture, or what is wrong with a culture, manifests not only in the arts and the civil lives of a nation, but also in the form of torture. Even the army operations provide an index. It is something that comes out in the open all by itself.

So far, the seamy side of American lives has never been a staple for the international press. They, as well as their lives have never been scrutinised the way we always scrutinise the images produced by the artists and, at present, by the army personnel. The world's safest haven for market economy is known as the land of opportunity, but one needs to have an open eye to discover what lies under the veneer of the beautifully laid out physical environment. We are well acquainted with the fruits of American democracy, but, it seems, that the world, to an astonishing degree, simply never took a good look at the scale of skin bias, domestic violence, child molestation, and the serial rape and killing that taint America. And one can always add to that the unholy interest of the Americans in their serial murderers and killers.

Surely, these are not the only stuff that America is made of. But they certainly correspond to the mindset that in the name of fighting the worst enemy of this civilisation has actually done more harm to it. There are a lot of indicators that point to a million of good things about the average American. But the pictures taken in Abu Ghraib are an ultimate reminder of the fact that nationalism, if taken to its extreme, can take a sinister form.





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