One had to feel sorry for U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during his attempt last week to explain to Congress the fine points of photography. On a selfish level, from an antiwar stance, watching Rumsfeld apologize for photos of abused Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad was a delicious exercise. The arrogance so much a part of the administration vision of the war and its aftermath did not survive. The image of the Iraq conflict as a battle of good vs. evil (the kind of conflict that some evangelical Christians tout as prelude to the Rapture prophesied in Revelation) cannot endure when placed against images that seem better placed in an S/M magazine than as poster art for the forces of good.
The photographs accost the American project in Iraq on several levels. First, the photos provide the kind of pornographic images that suffuse our culture, not least because Bush's brand of free-market economics which supports the amoral free market (and then allows the evangelical right to condemn it), but even more because technology now makes everyman (and woman) a budding pornographer. No industry has burgeoned so, with the advent of digital cameras, as the broadly defined skin trade. In fact, the yearly take by the porn industry -- ≠running now into hundreds of billions of dollars yearly≠ -- is one of the few money trees that could pay for this ruinous Middle Eastern war.
Digital photo technology also reflects the new emphasis on speed and fragmentation that characterize our postmodern culture. As Rumsfeld admitted, U.S. soldiers, security agents, and hired civilian guns running around Baghdad with digital cameras are individual versions of the network and cable cameras≠decentralized entrepreneurs who can≠ in nanoseconds≠ transmit images anywhere on earth.
In taking shots of detainees, the photographers at Abu Ghraib were doing what Americans (and Canadians) do at home≠shooting photos and sending them to friends anywhere, immediately, via computer. There is instantaneity (new word, William Safire!) here, no middle man, no need to go to Camera Baghdad to get the pictures developed ("ready tomorrow at 4"), in short, no need to wait. If there were a need to go to the camera shop, the offensive photos would never have made it to the public domain.
So the digital camera takes its place alongside the camcorder, which a decade ago provided the world a similar flash point of cultural significance. In 1991, in Los Angeles, a citizen with a camcorder filmed police beating an African American, Rodney King, after puling him off the road on suspicion of drunken driving. This filmic event, no doubt repeated (but unseen) in many American venues, day and night, became a catalyst for the Los Angeles riots that followed release of the photos of King. This violent revolt the local minority lumpenproletariat, lasting six days, resulted in 54 deaths, 2388 injured, 13,212 people arrested, and over $200 million in property damage in LA county. The point here≠there would have been no riots at this time without the camcorder and the film of King^“s beating.
Digital cameras of all varieties, of course, are now best known as the technological fulcrum of the new Federal Surveillance, deemed indispensable in the wake of 9/11. As Hugh Segal observed in these pages recently, Canada has embraced Attorney General John Ashcroft's call for better and more numerous cameras as a part of emerging continental security arrangements. Recent events in Baghdad might give pause to this benign view of the American way.
In Abu Ghraib, the camera became both an instrument of bondage and bonding. On one level the photo sessions no doubt reflected popular culture tastes in North America, photographers transformed inmates into subjects in their own reality shows, violating international rules of war as they "softened them up for interrogation," debasing and abusing them in a step further than Survivor and Fear Factor could ever do.
The photos, different in degree but not in kind, fit nicely with the current reality culture that dominates American television, with its quasi-pornographic qualities. The mixing of sexes among the jailers≠ -- look, there's Lynndie England with a whip!≠ -- ups the sexual ante, and no doubt furthers the bonding process that this sort of activity fosters. On a primitive level, women involved become "one of the boys". And, as we know from scholarly work on the U.S. military, fraternities everywhere, and Junior A hockey, rites of passage, of "belonging" often involve the abuse and debasement of newcomers and "others".
So all of this is no aberration. The tendency to dominate and abuse is rooted deeply in military culture. That is why we have Geneva conventions and international courts≠ to check this tendency toward brutality. When fighting men (and women) become frustrated, bad things happen. My Lai proved this in 1968, and Abu Ghraib reprises the theme. But frustration cannot be an excuse here≠ -- there are more powerful demons at work.
One detects irony here. During the Iraq war, which "ended" a year ago, the Bush administration "embedded" journalists and photographers with the U.S. military, ostensibly to allow them access to the front, more important, to vet outgoing dispatches and photos. Now, a year after the president heralded his "mission accomplished", we see that technology commands a power of its own, a power that cuts in unexpected and unpredictable ways.