Torture and Truth: The Taguba Report and the Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

Mark Danner, Torture and Truth. The New York Review of Books, 10 June 2004. The first of two articles. (The second of the two articles is here.) “Abu Ghraib contained within its walls last fall [2003]—as the war heated up and American soldiers, desperate for “actionable intelligence,” spent many an autumn evening swooping down on Iraqi homes, kicking in doors, and carrying away hooded prisoners into the night—well over eight thousand Iraqis. Could it be that “between 70 percent and 90 percent” of them were “arrested by mistake”? And if so, which of the naked, twisted bodies that television viewers and news paper readers around the world have been gazing at these last weeks were among them? Perhaps the seven bodies piled up in that great coil, buttocks and genitals exposed to the camera? Or the bodies bound one against another on the cellblock floor? Or the body up against the bars, clenched before the teeth of barking police dogs?”

Excerpts from story:

The “methods of physical and psychological coercion” that the Red Cross delegates witnessed at Abu Ghraib were indeed, as the “military intelligence officer in charge of the interrogation” told them frankly, “part of” a “process” that has been deployed by American interrogators in the various American-run secret prisons throughout the world since September 11. What separates Abu Ghraib from the rest is not the “methods of physical and psychological coercion used” but the fact that, under the increasing stress of the war, the pressing need for intelligence, and the shortage of available troops and other resources in Iraq, military policemen like Pfc England, who had little or no training, were pressed into service to “soften up” the prisoners and, as the Taguba report puts it, set “the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees.”…

As for the unusual methods used—“breaking of chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees,” “using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees,” “beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair,” “threatening male detainees with rape,” “sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick,” and the rest of the sad litany General Taguba patiently sets out Sergeant Davis told investigators that he “assumed that if they were doing things out of the ordinary or outside the guidelines, someone would have said something. Also the wing belongs to MI and it appeared MI personnel approved of the abuse.”

Many of the young Americans smiling back at us in the photographs will soon be on trial. It is unlikely that those who ran “the process” and issued the orders will face the same tribunals. Iraqis will be well aware of this, even if Americans are not. The question is whether Americans have traveled far enough from the events of September 11 to go beyond the photographs, which show nothing more than the amateur stooges of “the process,” and look squarely at the process itself, the process that goes on daily at Abu Ghraib, Guantåánamo, Bagram, and other secret prisons in Iraq and around the world.

To date the true actors in those lurid scenes, who are professionals and no doubt embarrassed by the garish brutality of their apprentices in the military police, have remained offstage. None has testified. The question we must ask in coming days, as Specialist Jeremy Sivits and other young Americans face public courts-martial in Baghdad, is whether or not we as Americans can face a true revelation. We must look squarely at the photographs and ask: Is what has changed only what we know, or what we are willing to accept?