Who’s Responsible?

I suppose the shock and horror that has greeted reports of Iraqi prisoners being abused by their American and British captors makes a change from shock and awe: but it is just as hypocritical.


“Shock and awe” was about fighting a war on terror through terror itself.  The massive bombardments of Baghdad were designed not only to dishearten the Republican Guard and the wretched young conscripts that made up the rest of the Iraqi army; they were also intended to strike fear in the hearts of the Iraqi people at large – the very people that Bush and Blair constantly announced they had no quarrel with. (You’re left wondering what on earth they would have unleashed if they did have a quarrel with ordinary Iraqis – though Fallujah and Najaf give you a good idea).


In much the same way, politicians and generals (both now equally fluent in Orwellspeak, the Esperanto of the new world order) insist that the disgraced troops are a tiny minority. And yet these are the same politicians and generals who waged war by treating their opponents as less than human. Is it any wonder that some of their soldiers took them at their (weasel) word?


Schoolyard bullies have long been told that “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But their victims always knew that this was a lie: words have an extraordinary capacity to wound. In the course of the US-led ”war on terror”, words have been used over and over again to put in place what Edward Said used to call “imaginative geographies”. These are ways of dramatising the difference between ‘us’ and â€˜them’, folding difference into distance, so that ‘they’ seem not only quite unlike ‘us’ but even the very opposite of ‘us’.


Imaginative they may be; but these constructions are always more than fictions. They have real substance and force.


Since 9/11, three imaginative geographies have been particularly important.  The first is “locating” – reducing the places and people you are about to bomb to targets, to letters on a map or co-ordinates on a visual display.  Then missiles rain down on K-A-B-U-L, on 34.518611N, 69.15222E, but not on the eviscerated city of Kabul, its buildings already devastated and its population already terrorized by years of grinding war. Newspapers fill their pages with aerial photographs of Baghdad, open circles marking the targets, and updated daily (especially on their web pages). Only when the city supposedly “falls” do the same papers print maps of a city that now magically has neighbourhoods, districts inhabited not by tyrants, torturers and terrorists, as you might have expected, but by ordinary men and women like you and me.


The second is “opposing” – reducing the complex roots of political violence to an opposition between Civilization (always with that imperial capital, and almost always meaning a particular version of the United States as somehow the universal civilization) and the rest, savage, barbarian others.  It’s one of the few tricks that Bush has mastered without dropping the cards: any one in Iraq who opposes the military occupation and repression of their country is declared an enemy of freedom. It’s the same trick that Ariel Sharon and many of his predecessors have been using for years: the Palestinians are terrorists (all of them), ‘barbarians’ hell-bent on sacking the oasis of Civilization that is the state of Israel, and they resist the â€˜liberation’ of “Judea and Samaria” (the West Bank) not because these are their lands but because this is the sort of non-people they are. (This reaches its ludicruous climax in Thomas Friedman’s recent New York Times column, “Are there any Iraqis in Iraq?” Real Iraqis evidently wouldn’t oppose their ‘liberation’ by military occupation. Presumably he’s now writing a second column: “Were there any native Americans in North America?”)


It’s then a small step to the third, even more deadly imaginative geography: â€œcasting out”. Precisely because these non-people are placed outside the pale of the Modern, all of them – not only fighters but also civilians and refugees – are denied the protections and affordances of international law.  Here too Sharon and his predecessors have led the way, defying UN Security Council resolutions and the Geneva Conventions to move hundreds of thousand of illegal Israeli settlers into the occupied territories, imposing endless collective punishments on the Palestinian population at large, and carrying out assassinations at will. Bush has learned the lesson well.  International and national laws are suspended so that ‘enemy combatants” can be transported to Guantanamo Bay, supposedly beyond the reach of any accountable judicial system, or outsourced to compliant regimes for “stress and duress” (torture). Coalition forces maintain that they keep no account of ‘their’ casualties, only ‘ours’ (though, of course, if you’re American you’re not supposed to see them). They refuse to estimate the numbers of enemy troops or civilians killed during their occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that their deaths are not counted because they are deemed to be of no account, what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls homines sacri, the half-human detritus of Bush’s Holy War.


Seen like this, is it any wonder that some British and American troops in Iraq have abused and humiliated their prisoners? They may have disgraced the traditions of the uniforms they wear. But they are only keeping faith with the attitudes inculcated by their political masters.


 *Derek Gregory is Distinguished University Scholar and Professor of Geography at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He is the author of “The colonial present: Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq”, to be published by Blackwell on 27 May.


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