Unpacking Abu Ghraib: A Reading List on the Torture of Iraqi Civilians by the US Military

In 2004, images of the torture of Iraqi prisoners in the notorious prison of Abu Ghraib by American soldiers sent shockwaves through the world that such an exercise was carried out by the United States. A decade later, a detailed report on the exact techniques used to extract “intelligence” from Iraqi detainees was made public. Who is responsible for the torture? How did America get off the hook? And 17 years later, who remembers Abu Ghraib?

September 2021 marks 20 years since 9/11—20 years since Al Qaeda attacked the United States (US), 20 years since the George Bush administration launched its global so-called War on Terror, and 20 years since the US stationed its forces in the Gulf, in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Horn of Africa.

In April 2021, US President Joe Biden announced that the superpower was withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan and that by 11 September 2021, it would end all American involvement in the country. The move to put an end to America’s “longest war” is welcome, however, it is observed that it is unlikely the US will pull out its troops from Iraq, where they have been stationed since 2003.

Having displaced an estimated 37 million people since it began in 2001, many believe that the "War on Terror," with its series of cascading consequences, is far from over.

One of the major fallouts of the US’s military intervention in Iraq and its global "War on Terror" is the detention and torture of the local population as well as religious minorities in its own country.

In May 2004, snapshots of torture from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq bombarded the US and rocked the world. Formerly used by the Saddam Hussein regime for live executions and torture, the prison became, what Anupama Rao calls, a site for the US’s “imperial ambitions.”

Torture became the means of controlling civilian populations and asserting social and political dominance. As Shubh Mathur puts it, torture is not “random violence” but a calculated move meant to “break the will of its victims and act as a warning to others.”

This reading list attempts to understand how the US used, abused and excused the torture of Iraqi detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Developing an Excuse

In light of 9/11, with “imminent terrorist attacks” on the line, the US took it upon itself to use any and all tools possible to hunt down those it deemed were terrorists. With the support of politicians and the public, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was allowed to do “whatever it could” to prevent another terror attack. In the US itself, “post-9/11 detainees”—mostly South Asian, Arab and Muslim men—were arrested on the pretext of “guilt by association” and subjected to violence by prison guards and inmates alike.

“There is little doubt today that some suspects under US control have been tortured,” wrote Itty Abraham. Doubts, however, should be cast on whether human torture proved successful and if the information gained from it had any real value. Further, doubts must also be cast on why the conflict between a nation state and organisations like Al Qaeda, which is neither state nor a movement, is defined as a “war.”

[T]he defeat of terrorist groups without territorial ambitions has always come about through police methods, especially the collection of intelligence and the use of informers. The armed forces are, by definition, unable to defeat an enemy that does not involve the control and domination of military space. Without a physical base to destroy, victory means the elimination of every single terrorist or potential terrorist—an impossible task. But once a conflict is defined as war, counterterror actions are removed from the purview of the police and become defined through military means. The inability to be sure that every terrorist is eliminated produces a grand strategy of state paranoia, which, taken to its extreme, turns the axiom of “innocent until proven guilty” on its head.

Defining the Prisoners

What actually took place at Abu Ghraib? An EPW editorial notes, “The techniques of torture include the sadistic ‘rectal feeding,’ ‘waterboarding,’ being hung by the wrists for many hours, being confined to a coffin, etc.” 

Anupama Rao believes that the way American soldiers behaved in Iraq reflects a form of “colonial aggression” that is supported by a racial argument, which says that the acts of violence the natives are supposedly themselves party to, combined with their ability to withstand pain, justifies the brutality inflicted upon them.

The way Iraqi prisoners were treated in Abu Ghraib was similar to how captured “terrorists” were treated back in America. With an ambiguous status of “unlawful combatants,” Rao wrote that “terrorists” in the US and “detainees” in Iraq were denied the rights granted to prisoners of war. 

[M]ost of the detainees in Abu Ghraib were civilians swept up in random military sweeps at highways or otherwise unfortunate enough to come to the attention of the military police. The term ‘detainee’ itself speaks volumes about the laws of exception that characterise governance in Iraq. Lacking the status of prisoners, detainees are not entitled to the same rights to legal representation or even the laws of habeas corpus. Detainees can be forgotten, subjected to intense violence, yet no one will know.

Defending the Violence

The “pornographic pictures” of the Abu Ghraib atrocities were revolting, particularly since people believed that such acts of violence were happening for the first time, a belief that Sumanta Banerjee wrote, is misplaced. The “scenes of voyeuristic entertainment and smutty festivity,” as Banerjee calls them, only show that the US’s roots of torture began much before 9/11. 

In fact, the most publicised picture to come out from the Abu Ghraib prison is a replica of the US treatment of Vietnamese prisoners in the 1960s. It is the image of a hooded man standing naked on a box, arms outspread, with wires dangling from his fingers, toes and penis. Commenting on the picture, an expert on the use of torture said: “That’s a standard torture. It’s called the ‘Vietnam.’” He then added: “But it’s not common knowledge. Ordinary American soldiers did this, but someone taught them” (Newsweek, May 24, 2004).

But who did?

Banerjee noted that it was common for the US military to employ war veterans to train its military police as “professional torturers,” whose senior officials provided them with complete immunity. Therefore, contrary to what the public thought, the American military guards at Abu Ghraib were not unsupervised soldiers who were “provoked” by 9/11 and the death of their colleagues.

In this logic, there is a sneaking proclivity towards leniency—if not justification—about the culprits who have been shown torturing the Iraqi prisoners. Looming in the background of their thinking is the spectre of terrorism—the war against which, they feel, cannot be fought by adhering to conventional norms that are enshrined in the Geneva convention or the UN convention against torture. Torture therefore is being taken for granted by them as an extraordinary but necessary part of this unconventional warfare.

Deflecting the Blame

In 2014, the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) declassified a heavily redacted report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program. It dealt with, in particular, its “enhanced interrogation” techniques—a euphemism for torture. An EPW editorial noted that the SSCI concluded that torture produced little “intelligence” and actually resulted in “false answers" based on the CIA’s reports.

The big question however remains: Is it merely the CIA that has to be held responsible for the torture programme that it conducted? What about the then US President George W Bush and the Vice President Dick Cheney, the then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defence Ronald Rumsfeld, and other concerned top officials in the then executive of the US state? Culpability for the torture programme cannot just end at the CIA headquarters, and there is definite evidence, in fact, from the horse’s mouth itself—Dick Cheney—that both he and Bush authorised and approved of what the CIA was doing.

Alberto Gonzales, the US attorney general under the Bush administration, had also made it clear that he would authorise the use of “unusual interrogative techniques,” and solicited a response from the Department of Justice on how torture could be construed in those circumstances. 

Vinay Lal noted that Jay S Bybee, an assistant attorney general, signed a White House memo in August 2002 redefining the term “torture,” which was received by Gonzales. According to Banerjee, this memo called the “Bybee Memorandum,” was a “cold-blooded exercise in exploring the limits of torture.”

It takes the cue from Section 2340 of the US federal law which defines torture as an act that is intended to inflict ‘severe pain or suffering, mental or physical’. Since the statute is vague on what constitutes ‘severe pain’, the writer of the memorandum decided to redefine it as that which would be associated with conditions like “death, organ failure or serious impairment of body functions.” In other words, short of killing and maiming, any form of physical abuse could be allowed.


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