Friday, March 21, 2008

"One of those Hitler things"

No lighthearted posts for Easter, I'm afraid, my dears.
In preparation for the release of Standard Operating Procedure, the new Errol Morris film about Abu Ghraib, The New Yorker has an article by Morris and Philip Gourevitch, about Sabrina Herman, the soldier who took the infamous pictures at that horrid jail. This article should be required reading for every citizen of the US. It provokes, besides untenable outrage, several very interesting topics for pondering.
It's hard for me to write about this without flying into a shapeless rage, but I will attempt:
The writers concentrate on the power of the photographic images to make a larger point about this dark episode in the history of the US. When one of the national guardsmen attempts to describe the state of that jail when they first got there, he calls it "one of those Hitler things".
This is a kid who, like many others, joined the National Guard primarily to get money for college, so one supposes he had not read Hannah Arendt on the banality of evil. If it wasn't for the photographic documentation the Nazis, and later on, the liberating armies, took of the German extermination camps, this poor dude would not have a frame of reference for the hellish conditions he encountered in Abu Ghraib. This is why getting people acquainted with the infernal images of the Holocaust (or any other gross human misconduct) is essential. It opens our eyes and minds to the historical precedent of human evil. One would hope it gives us a moral compass; the images are so brutal and inhumane, one reacts with shame and disgust. One knows this is wrong. One refuses to debase oneself to that level.
But if you are soldier at war, trained to obey orders, if you are given orders that come from high levels and that nobody seems to question, what do you do? Reading the testimony of Sabrina Herman and others involved, I extrapolate that this is how many Nazi rank and file must have coped and lived with themselves after executing their daily duties of humiliation, torture and murder of other human beings. The Nazis invented a sophisticated apparatus of dehumanization to help themselves achieve their goals more efficiently, and the criminals of the US military intelligence, in their own modest way, did exactly the same thing. They deliberately sent to Abu Ghraib National Guard soldiers who were untrained in the handling of prisoners, who were not aware of the laws of the Geneva Convention, whose job description never mentioned enforcing torture in jail. They sent these poor, ignorant kids, who joined the National Guard to get ahead in life, perhaps with a sense of patriotic duty enhanced by 9/11, to do the dirty job for them. These kids paid with court martials and suspensions and demotions and the loss of their jobs and military careers, while the people who gave them the orders are still running around with not a care in the world, including Donald Rumsfeld, Satan himself (Dick Cheney) and even the president of this country, who has condoned and defended all of this.
As much as I abhor torture, I can't help wishing it, excruciatingly and until the end of eternity, on these gargoyles.
We all have been appalled by the photographs of the abuse at Abu Ghraib. The pictures Sabrina Herman took of herself smiling in front of Iraqi corpses are equally, if not more shocking. They provide an interesting parallel to the recently unearthed pictures of Nazis having a good time in Auschwitz. How can you sing songs and smile under the circumstances? What process has taken hold of your psychology that allows you to function emotionally in such conditions?
If you see the pictures without reading the article, you feel a sense of revulsion for this woman. She seems to be mocking the dead. She embodies the arrogant ignorance of America. But there is a story behind the photos. The article explains how a sane, young American woman can end up abetting torture and trying to live a "normal" life in the process. By making the conditions in Abu Ghraib commonplace, her superiors turned those kids into sadists. Into little Nazis.
So this is the other outrage of Abu Ghraib: American soldiers were brazenly abused by their own superiors (going all the way up to their Commander in Chief). They were demoralized with terrible living conditions, asked to perform orders that were not in their field, they were debased, mistreated and lied to. And then, when the scandal broke, they were publicly humiliated and disposed of.
If I were these people I would sue the Army, the government, The Axis of Weasel, God, someone.
I doubt that they have any recourse.
It is not easy to forgive someone like Sabrina Herman and her buddies. One is loath to exculpate people who perform cruelties in the line of duty, because then anything goes. "Oh, poor Nazis, they were just trying to cope". No. However, one must remember that before he even touched one Jew, Hitler abused, debased and sacrificed his own people by making them do his bidding (that many of them were happy to comply should be a warning for our own complicity and complacency).
In trying to destroy the Jews, he also destroyed the Germans. So when America engages in these criminal behaviors, under the pretext of national security, we need to remember that American soldiers and citizens, all of us, are victims too.
One would like to think that in Sabrina's shoes, one would act the Hollywood hero and refuse to follow orders, the Army be damned. But it is not so easy. Instead, these soldiers detached themselves from the prisoners, and some took their wartime frustrations out on them. Just as the prisoners were dehumanized, so were their captors, as they became numb to the humiliation and the abuse they had to mete out.
Sabrina, knowing there was something very wrong with this picture, took pictures.

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