The Comical Lies We’re Told

There’s a charmingly off-key, surreal logic to the line coming from the British establishment, that any repercussions from torturing people are the Daily Mirror’s fault for telling us it happened. For example, this Colonel Black says, “The decision to publish has played right into the hands of the insurgents. There will be more people prepared to kill the troops.” So it’s not torturing that annoys people, it’s showing photos. Perhaps the people who’ve been tortured will scream, “Oh my God they’ve shown my worst side. I told them my left profile always makes me look chubby when there’s a sack on my head. Now I’m really annoyed.”

Whatever the origins of the photos, none of the figures condemning them seem to dispute that torture is taking place. So the idea must be that the Iraqis would never have known we were torturing them if it wasn’t in the newspapers. They’d think “There is a sharp buzzing in my left testicle consistent with the pain experienced following primitive torture techniques, but there must be some other explanation because I’ve looked in the Daily Mirror and there’s nothing about it at all.”

The Americans are probably regretting they didn’t try a similar tactic, ignoring the issue of torture and contesting the validity of the pictures. They could have claimed it was a fashion shoot, and originally there was a caption underneath that said, “Black cape, chiffon, $ 199.95 from Miss Selfridge – leads, $ 79.95 the pair from Prada (also available in pink or khaki).” Or they were merely passing the time with the traditional game of “pin the electrode on the donkey”, and the Iraqi had never played before so he lost his bearings and clipped the wires to his own nuts.

It may be that the troops involved in these incidents follow the philosophy of one newspaper columnist, who wrote last week that there is hope because the people of Fallujah are learning to fear the occupying troops, and “fear is the beginning of wisdom”.

Look at those photos with that in mind, and we’re doing these blokes a favour. They might have bad dreams for a couple of years, but once they’re over that they’ll have the intuition of a Buddhist priest. They’ll be giving advice such as “Always remember, my friend, the most generous gift is that which cannot be wrapped,” and they’ll owe it all to the firm but fair “increase your wisdom” course in Fallujah barracks. If only we could hear the soundtrack to those photos, we’d know the US soldiers were saying, “This might sting a bit, but it’s for your own good. Believe me, it will hurt me more than it hurts you.”

The frustrating thing for people who run the world’s armies is that this sort of thing keeps happening. The investigation into the My Lai massacre found that hundreds of Vietnamese civilians were murdered, as GIs shouted “Hey, I got another one” and “Chalk one up for me.” Following the Falklands War, a corporal in the Parachute Regiment revealed how his colleagues had bayoneted unarmed prisoners and cut off their ears as trophies, and there are similar examples after every war.

So maybe someone should work out whether there’s a pattern here. If it was discovered that every week a dustman had locked a couple of residents in a wheelie-bin and administered electric shocks to their rectum, local authorities might ponder whether the problem wasn’t just the individuals but something in the nature of the job.

This is one reason why the pleas from people who support the occupation on the grounds that it will help the Iraqis appear increasingly tragic. They implore the Americans to be democratic and truthful and not to electrocute people, in case they spoil the good work done in overthrowing Saddam. But the Americans didn’t overthrow Saddam to create a nicer Iraq, they wanted to secure a Middle-East that served their own interests.

As with most military occupations, the true motives become increasingly evident as time goes on. At first, when the Americans were full of promises, surveys suggested most Iraqis supported the US presence, just as Catholic areas of Northern Ireland greeted the arrival of British troops in 1969 by offering them cups of tea. But military occupations almost inevitably lead to the majority of the population being seen as a threat, and eventually as sub-human, who it would be a laugh to photograph wearing a black cape and jump leads.

So surveys now suggest most Iraqis would rather the invasion hadn’t happened. Maybe that was part of the thinking behind killing hundreds of civilians in Fallujah. They saw they were 3 per cent behind in the polls, and figured if they wiped out the right 3 per cent they’d be back on level pegging.

It also suggests few Iraqis will believe the statement that the occupation forces will “leave no stone unturned” in rooting out the torture. Because during the invasion, the instant response whenever a missile killed a pile of civilians was to suggest that Saddam had done it himself to make the Americans look bad. Perhaps this investigation will go the same way. Donald Rumsfeld will announce that having looked into the matter, it turns out that for propaganda purposes, the Iraqis have set up a self-electrocution torture chamber in a photo booth in Woolworths.

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