Penetrating the body of the masculine “other”: White US Masculinity, war, and the ritual of “truth”

 Penetrating the body of the masculine “other”:

White US Masculinity, war, and the ritual of “truth”


Dr. Darlene M. Juschka, Religious Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies

University of Regina, Regina SK S4S 0A2

[email protected]

            My effort in this paper is to develop a discussion on the gender and racial coding of pain. To do this I examine the 2003 events at Abu Ghraib that captured on camera what appears to be the ritualized torture and humiliation of a number of Iraqi prisoners. It is my intention to make visible the link between pain evoked through torture, white US masculinity, and race in the “softening up” of the brown bodies of prisoners for interrogation at Abu Ghraib, with some reference to the prison at Guantánamo Bay. By developing a semiotics of pain I wish to unsettle how pain is represented as pure and desocialized experience and exempt from such categories as gender, race, geopolitical location, and class. Examined in this paper are the intersections of said categories in the context of a war of conquest that ultimately signifies the sexual, gender, racial, and colonialist construction of pain related to the body of the feminized and racialized male “other.” 

Context and problem

  Americans and certainly has influenced the shaping of the current global presence of the United States. The images of the planes slicing their way through glass, metal, and cement like a knife through butter flashed across televisions around the globe. CNN, filming this event, ran a caption underneath proclaiming “Breaking News: America under attack.” Shortly thereafter, as many of us who watched on our televisions recall, first the south and then the north towers collapsed and the images of aggressing and collapsing signified many things, but among these, and important for this paper, were the vulnerability of the US Empire and a return of the repressed: the racialized and feminized heathen “other” of the Christian/Jewish-colonialist fantasy.

            Terrorism, and its constant and ubiquitous effects, loomed large in the imagined communities (Anderson 2006) of the United States and with it came the belief that protection from such attacks was required at all costs. The constant ramping up of fear of an external and continuous menace would “soften up” the citizen body making it much more amenable to the use of torture; newly partnered with terrorism but certainly having been partnered in the past with militarism, law, medicine, and religion.

            Torture is a process of intentionally evoking pain in another living being for some purpose, often said to be the need for information, although torture used to acquire information has been demonstrated to be ineffectual and unreliable in the past and in the present.[1] At the center of torture is an embodied self who must passively (by being restrained in some fashion) accept the painful ministrations applied to her/his body, all the while being held responsible for these painful ministrations since it is her/his actions that compel the torturers to apply the pain (Scarry 1985, 35–36).

            Pain effected through torture is at the center of this paper, although the site of this torture is not abstract or removed by historical distance. The site of torture I want to examine is Abu Ghraib referring to the pictures that exposed the “softening up” of prisoners (under what has been named Standard Operating Procedures)  in preparation for interrogation, and written  documents recording further torture and death[2] in the interrogation room. As I watched the unfolding of the story of Abu Ghraib in mainstream and alternative media, I was made uncomfortable with the voyeurism of the media, even as they condemned the pictures they flashed across television and computer screens around the globe. In the presentation of these images there was little effort to understand how xenophobia, homophobia, ideologies of masculinity, and racism were integral to the actions of all involved in the discourse of torture. These people, under the rationale of self-defense, agreed to the use of pain as a means to penetrate the bodies and minds of the “other”; much as the twin towers had been penetrated.

 it must be kept secret, or at least operate as a public secret.[3] Furthermore, as Lisa Silverman comments, “[i]n the modern world, torture is secret because of the contemporary conviction that it is only testimony that is given voluntarily that is true” (2001, 89).

            Secondly, torture cannot appear to be applied willy-nilly: it must be encircled in such a way as to inhibit its spilling over outside the room of its application. Toward this end torture is rationalized by the rules of its application, while its application is enclosed by a ritualization of pain. The ritual enclosing of torture provides a (illusory) sense of control so that such actions are deemed sane rather than insane, shapes pain so that it is a tool and a path to something rather than pain in and of itself, and demarcates the real and imagined space between those who torture and those who are tortured.

            Pain as deployed in torture and torture as the ritual application of pain (clearly evinced in legalized use of torture throughout human history) is a means by which to penetrate the body of the “other” marked as enemy, traitor, witch, heretic, slave, and in this instance the masculine, Middle Eastern, Islamic other. The body of the tortured is the place of penetration wherein the body is   Those men (and women) who succumbed to torture either by “spilling their guts” or dying signified their lack of proper (white, Eurowestern, and elite) masculinity.

Persian Wars, 8.110 in DuBois 1991, 25).

1″>            Proper men, then, do not succumb to torture. Proper men’s flesh might be physically penetrated, but that which marked them as men in the Eurowest, their minds, cannot be penetrated and this would signify their feminine leanings (Just as male homosexuality signifies femininity and so the standing rule is “don’t ask, don’t tell”). They were trained to adhere to masculine domination by resisting being dominated by another man (even more so a woman) and trained not to break under torture. To break under torture is to be absolutely penetrated and thereby feminized. Men who did (do) not succumb were seen as inherently masculine without either homosexual or feminine tendencies and therefore properly masculine.

            Proper US masculinity is also an unraced masculinity. As unraced, masculinity is of necessity white since in the racist social body of the United States white operates as an unmarked category. There are of course other masculinities in the United States, black, indigenous, Latino, but these are marked by race and therefore problematic in greater and lesser degrees. Black and Latino masculinities are represented as a hypermasculinity insofar as they are seen as excessive: black masculinity is too aggressive both physically and sexually, hence the over-representation of black men in the US prison system, and Latino masculinity too male oriented so that homosexuality is seen as a potential aspect of this kind of masculinity. Race linked to masculinity ensures that said masculinity is questionable and signifies as problematic if not aberrant.

            Finally, a Protestant Christian aspect of masculinity further contributes to the construction of a proper (white) US masculinity. The Protestant Christianity engaged is not a specific form such as Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, and the like; rather it is an abstracted US Christianity definable in some measure by what it is not. Therefore it is not highly emotive as in Black US Baptist Churches nor is it dogmatic and oriented toward literalism such as seen in the Southern Baptist Convention; it is a rather diluted and broad-spectrum Protestantism,[4] something that might be seen to lean toward I.E. Bailey’s (1997) concept of implicit religion or Max Weber’s “ascetic Protestantism” (2001, xiii).

            Raising Weber allows also for the introduction of capitalism, or at least its spirit, and brings to mind important defining aspects of the heroic capitalist who is normatively white and masculine: hard working, successful, determined, humorless, and morally righteous. This “ascetic Protestantism” works in tandem with whiteness, which refers us to the notion of those unmarked by race in a racist social body, and a properly sealed or impenetrable masculinity referring us to the proper positioning of femininity as different from and indeed oppositional to masculinity. The class operative in this ascetic Protestantism is middle class so that the good life is depicted as owning a home (with wife and children), car or cars, money for trips, desired goods, and a comfortable retirement. To acquire the good life requires competitiveness, toughness, single-mindedness, conviction, self-sacrifice, (tempered) loyalty, and a sense of comradery. “Ascetic Protestantism,” whiteness, and an impenetrable masculinity come together to form the ideal of the manly man, a dominant masculine ideal operative in the United States.    If this is a generic US masculinity, how does US militarized masculinity intersect with it? US generic masculinity (white and Protestant) is found wanting once young men and women enter their training period, and this masculinity must be shored up with a more “robust” masculinity, one that will produce “strong” (however strong is defined) but obedient soldiers. Independence of thought, at least among enlisted personnel, must be squelched while discipline and respect for authority deployed through hierarchical structures normative to the military must be engendered. As Cynthia Enloe has convincingly argued, the militarized version of the US masculine ideal is a central aspect to the ideology of militarism and the sociopolitical process of militarization (2004, 219). There is a tendency to think that there is a natural and normative link between masculinity and militarism, and this tendency is reinforced daily in media, war museums, film, story, image, speech, the list is endless. Enloe comments that “men are on most war museums’ center stage because war is imagined to be a masculinized process…” (2004, 196).

Legal, political, and military discourses on torture

            The efforts to normatize the use of torture in the United States by the hegemonic parties involved producing a variety of discourses by which to signify torture as an unavoidable and unfortunate necessity (even if there is a fair amount of prurience attached)  in order to protect one’s country from unseen and diabolical dangers. These discourse act to suggest several things, for example that the torture has been discussed and rationally thought through, that torture is the last avenue rather than the first, that torture is only used against those who are diabolical, or that torture is used only against men and not women and children. In US popular culture, for example, Fox’s television series 24 (first aired November 6, 2001 while in its seventh season) and [5]) jump to mind. In 24 pain in the form of torture is used to force the truth from the bodies of adult male “terrorists” who are seen to succumb to pain and thereby provide “intel” and “actionable intelligence.”[6] Indeed, in season four torture was presented as necessary and unavoidable if men (properly masculine US men) are to save their nation (and their women and children). In The Passion, however, we see a different signification of pain, it is the means by which the proper masculinity of Jesus was demonstrated (they did not break him) and furthermore was the signifier of the ultimate truth of his person, as the son of God.

            But what of non-fiction narratives such as those developed by lawyers like Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, politicians like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President G.W. Bush, and senior military persons such as General Geoffrey Miller and Lt. General Ricardo S. Sanchez? In legal discourses, documents were examined and interpreted in such a way as to lay legal, and therefore rational, ground for the use of pain to ferret out the truth from the bodies of those branded as terrorists.

            First, Iraqi men (and some women) thought to have links to terrorists were not specified as enemy prisoners of war since they then would come under the protection of the Third Geneva Convention:

            However, it could not have been clear who was or was not a terrorist, and therefore a regime of pain, carefully and methodically applied, became a means to penetrate the Iraqi male (regardless of age) to reveal the “darkness” inside; a darkness that not only held the “truth” of his “terrorist” identity, but also the “truth” of his “kind” (Middle Eastern Islamic male). To access the truth in the recesses of the Iraqi male body, John Yoo, parroting Jay S. Bybee, argued that (Jaffer, et al. 2007, 14):

            The ground laid for torture by legal counsel to the White house, governmental officials Rumsfeld and Bush not only requested legal justification of the internment and torture of “Middle Eastern terrorists” (aka Taliban and al Qaeda) but themselves endorse it arguing that under current circumstances, the so-called “new paradigm”, line-height:115%;font-family:” times=”" new=”">[7] the gloves must come off. Rumsfeld putting General Michael E. Dunlavey in place to oversee interrogation at Guantánamo indicated that “the Defense Department ‘had accumulated a number of bad guys’ and that ‘he wanted a product and he wanted intelligence now’” (Jaffer, et al. 2007, 6).

1″>            Equally, the US military was also involved in the use of pain to control and subjugate persons marked as Middle Eastern Islamic terrorists. General Geoffrey Miller went to Abu Ghraib in August 2003 to assess interrogation methods. He felt that interrogators were hampered because they did not have complete control of prisoners’ lives at all times. Therefore he gave “military leaders in Iraq the list of interrogation methods that Rumsfeld had approved for use at Guantánamo” and recommending that “interrogators should make more aggressive use of military dogs” (Jaffer, et al. 2007, 23–24). Such endorsement of ritualized pain allowed Lt. General Ricardo S. Sanchez, at that time commander of coalition forces in Iraq, to encourage interrogators to …“go to the outer limits” to obtain information, and “Headquarters” pressed interrogators to “break” the prisoners (Jaffer, et al. 2007, 31). Although with some small resistance from fellow lawyers, politicians, and military personnel, there was a deployment of discourses from the three sites of law, politics, and the military (among others such as the media) that rationalized and endorsed the use of torture to acquire the truth. But these discourses did not just rationalized and endorse torture, they assume without question that torture and truth are linked, a position similar to that of pre-eighteenth century French legal courts. However, after the late 1750s the French government and legal system rejected torture as barbaric and unreliable (Silverman, 2001).  Indeed, Jaffer et al. noted that the FBI questioned the used of torture arguing that it was “ineffective and counterproductive” (Jaffer, et al. 2007, 17).


1″>            The spaces appointed to enclose torture were called “hard sites” or “black sites” and were shrouded in secrecy known only to the fully initiated: torturers and tortured. In this space, prisoners, primarily male and of a variety of ages, are set apart from the rest of the prison population and are designated as those who must participate in a “ritual of truth.” Here we see the first segment of the rite, as per Arnold van Gennep’s theory of rites of passage (1960), “initiates,” or “ghost detainees” as they were called in Abu Ghraib, were set apart and “softened up” as seen in the Abu Ghraib images leaked to the media in 2004. Humiliation and the use of emotional pain was an aspect of this softening up and it consisted of stripping “initiates” and forcing them to parade naked, sometimes in front of female interrogators, to wear women’s undergarments on their heads or bodies, to publicly masturbate, to wear dog leashes; to pantomime (or perform?) fellatio, and to do dog tricks. This was what the interrogators termed a variant of “pride and ego down” and used to “‘set the conditions’ for fruitful interrogations…” (Jaffer, et al. 2007, 27).

1″>            Bound within the ritual of torture, there was a deflowering of the terrorists, a deflowering that made apparent not only the truth of his lie (that he was not a terrorist), but also the truth of his inherent femininity forced from the recesses of “his” line-height:115%;font-family:” times=”" new=”">[9] body by the masculine hand of the torturer. This deliverance of pain is ritually enacted and moves through three moments, as per Arnold van Gennep’s model (1960): separation, or the removal of the “initiate” from their normative space in society to a space demarcated proper to the ritual; liminality, wherein they are betwixt and between neither combatant or non-combatant; and reintegration wherein they take on the new identity whatever that identity may be. Each segment can be a rite in itself while all three segments come together to produce the ritual, in this instance the ritual of truth.

            The first phase of the ritual of truth are actions that would be frequently repeated as “initiates” were subjected to further torture in the interrogation room; the ritual space wherein the second phase, or liminality, of the ritual of truth was enacted. In the interrogation space, a prescribed manner of torture was engaged. The “initiate” was fully introduced to pain in the form of beatings with blunt force objects, often handcuffed in a stress position with hands behind the back to cell window bars. In some instances they died in this fashion as in the case of Abed Hamed Mowhoush (Jaffer, et al. 2007, 27). Included with the pain of bruised and battered flesh was dousing with cold water and then subjection to cold temperatures or the infamous water boarding. The kinds of torture could vary, but the use of pain to access some truth was a constant. Interrogation went on for hours, in some instances twenty hours out of every twenty-four for many days (Jaffer, et al. 2007, 7).

            The interrogations of the second phase of the ritual of truth were (are) a relentless and insistent movement toward its third and final phase, incorporation, wherein the initiate takes on the identity proffered to him: in this instance, the feminized other, or the subjugated Middle Eastern Islamic male. The pain tore away all other edifices of identity to reveal an innate femininity; a femininity demonstrated by his tumbling words given over in desperation, or in his death when he did not acquiesce to the truth determined in the ritual. I conjecture death also as a proof of femininity, and therefore otherness, based on the images of Abu Ghraib wherein on November 24, 2003 pictures were taken of an Iraq male who died during an interrogation. His body was placed in the shower area at the hard site whereupon the body bag was opened so that CPL Charles Graner and SPC Sabrina Harman could take pictures of the dead man. In one picture SPC Harman is shown leaning over the dead man giving a thumbs up gesture while she smiles into the camera held by CPL Graner (Scherer and Benjamin 2006). Clearly this image speaks of domination and power in the hands of those, Graner and Harman, who are seen clowning with the dead body. As Bruce Lincoln notes: It is their intent to demonstrate dramatically and in public the powerlessness of the image and thereby to inflict a double disgrace on its champions…” (1989, 120). Those who succumbed to pain, either through speaking the “truth” or dying were (are) gathered up under the sign of feminized other that is made to speak of subjugated and powerless Middle Eastern Islamic masculinity —even if that speaking was a fiction (much as President Bush’s 2003 “Mission Accomplished” photo-op was a fiction).

            The third phase, operating within van Gennep’s model, brings the ritual to a close with the incorporation of so-called Middle Eastern Islamic terrorists under the sign of an abjected and defeated masculinity. A boundary is drawn, and each act of interrogation redraws that boundary in the flesh of the “other” through the application of pain. Pain acts to establish the boundary between those who suffer the pain and those who apply the pain, but even as the boundary is established it is broken down, for the two are intimately bound: the boundary too is but a fiction, and because of this it must be redrawn again and again to give it the credence of materiality. In the ritual of truth the strong are established through the application of pain to the body of the other, while the weak are established as other through the unwilling reception of, and response to, pain. In this ritual “play”, pain speaks power, and in particular pain is made to speak of white US masculine power as the dominant masculinity both locally and globally. Breaking the bodies of those who dared to penetrate them was deemed evidence of such.

            In many ways, the ritual use of pain speaks of a return of the repressed; the repressed as erotic desire expressed through pain encapsulated and justified in ritual. Inquisitors of the medieval and early modern periods of the Church worked with other governmental, ecclesiastical, and medical officials to expose and pry the falsity of belief from the bodies of those considered heretics, and later, witches and sorcerers. They were the experts who determined those who would be subject to a ritual of truth.

            However, the ritual use of pain, indeed the use of ritual itself, is in general an anathema to Protestantism. Ritual spectacle is an “idolatry” of the Catholic Church (and Orthodox Christian Churches), an idolatry rejected in the past and a current reminder of the boundary between Catholics and Protestants. Protestants in general understand themselves as their own masters since the 1″>            For me however, the “hows” are as (or more) interesting as the “whys”. I am interested in how ritual and pain were (and continue to be) brought together and enacted on the body to signify the errant masculinity of the other. In the ritual of truth pain is the mirror by which femininity was exposed in the bodies of the penetrated other, while absence of pain of the unpenetrated torturer made apparent the properness of white, US, Protestant masculinity. When, as I earlier noted, the twin towers were penetrated, this penetration signified the vulnerability of white, American, Protestant, capitalism (they were the trade towers after all). Furthermore as towers that marked US military and economic hegemony, they also signified as the twin phalli, both declined, of course, in the masculine. From this event arose the effort to reassert and emphatically pronounce U.S. masculine hegemonic power. This assertion came in the form of war while its emphatic pronouncement came in the form of standing above the law, all law. The ritual use of pain, then, become one means by which to demonstrate who is defining this war (not anyone but us), a way to make apparent one’s position above the law (when all others are held accountable to the law), and ultimately the rightness and righteousness of one’s position; and since one’s position is right and proper so too one’s masculinity. The penetration of the marked body (brown, Islamic, non-western, non-Anglo, etc) through torture allows for the reclamation and reassertion of the masculinity put at risk by the attack on the twin towers in 2001.           Equally, as suggested above, there is a metaphysical play as well since deity is regularly brought into the picture by all the players in this game of military dominance. In the so-called “war against terror” fought on the soil of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Christian deity of the US and the Islamic deity of the Middle East are sign-symbols made to speak the power, truth, and righteousness of national boundaries and masculine identities. In this struggle to locate and fix those who are “evil doers” and those who fight them, the ritual use of pain allows representatives of the United States to etch the mark of evil onto the bodies of the other, much as the word “rapist” was etched on one of the bodies of the detainees. By inscribing the masculine flesh of the other as the site of evil (and through them their deity) the un-inscribed masculine flesh of the “same” (ipseity) stands as the site of good (and through them their deity). US dominance, in the twisted minds of some, is once again proclaimed to be true.

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[1]. For example in early modern France, the viability of torture as a means to secure the truth was vociferously challenged by numerous writers. Augustin Nicolas président of the parlement of Dijon wrote that torture produced false confessions or Sonnenfels who wrote “[i]n the critical instance in which sensibility is pushed to the extreme, pain triumphs over the accused: but what is the cry that it tears from him? That of truth? What error!…It is really that of weakness, that speaks in a man tortured in this way” (in Silverman 2001, 161, 173). Equally the FBI responding to the use of torture to gain information at Guantánamo wrote in a memo that such techniques “were not effective or producing (i)ntel that was reliable” (quoted in Jaffer and Singh Amrit 2007, 10).

[2]. According to Jaffer and Singh (2007, 29) “a report issued February 2006 by Human Rights First found that nearly one hundred prisoners had died in US custody since August 2002 and of these deaths thirty-four had been classified by military investigators as suspected or confirmed homicides.”

[3]. A public secret is one shared by the majority of people, but never spoken of. See Michael Taussig (1999) for a discussion of the public secret.

[4]. According to the 2007 US Census fifty-one percent of US citizens consider themselves to be Protestant (na 2008, np).

ftn5″ href=”file:///C:\Users\Darlene\Documents\Articles%202009\Penetrating%20the%20body%20of%20the%20masculine%20other.rtf#_ftnref5″ name=”_ftn5″ title=”"> line-height:115%;font-family:” times=”" new=”">[5]According to Mark Kermode, who reviewed the film in 2004: “Crucial to the movie’s success in America has been the mobilization of Christian groups who have block-booked screenings for their followers and orchestrated widespread congregational support. In Dallas, Christian businessman Arch Bonnema reserved an entire 20-screen cinema to play The Passion to more than 6,000 viewers on its opening day” (2004, np).

ftn6″ href=”file:///C:\Users\Darlene\Documents\Articles%202009\Penetrating%20the%20body%20of%20the%20masculine%20other.rtf#_ftnref6″ name=”_ftn6″ title=”"> 115%;font-family:” times=”" new=”">[6]. Both these terms are derived from language adopted by US interrogators. See Jaffer, et al. 2007.

[7]. According to Jane Mayer writing in the New Yorker, “the New Paradigm… rests on a reading of the Constitution that few legal scholars share namely, that the President, as Commander-in-Chief, has the authority to disregard virtually all previously known legal boundaries, if national security demands it. Under this framework, statutes prohibiting torture, secret detention, and warrantless surveillance have been set aside” (2006, np).

[8]. Page duBois comments that in classical Athenian legal system, evidence from a slave could only be received if acquired through torture since the slave, due to his/her servile status, could not be trusted to speak the truth (1991, 35–36). During the witchcraft and sorcery trials of the early modern period of France there were, “cultural beliefs that supported the practice of torture — that the truth was embodied and that pain might free it from its carnal location…” (Silverman 2001, 83). Something akin to this is operating in the logic of the ritual of truth.

ftn9″ href=”file:///C:\Users\Darlene\Documents\Articles%202009\Penetrating%20the%20body%20of%20the%20masculine%20other.rtf#_ftnref9″ name=”_ftn9″ title=”"> line-height:115%;font-family:” times=”" new=”">[9]I have intentionally used the singular “his” because those men (and some women) marked as “terrorists” although varying in general morphology will reveal through pain the sameness that resides beneath the surface. 



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