|Torture as pornography
The pictures of American soldiers humiliating Iraqi detainees are
reminiscent of sadomasochistic porn, says military historian Joanna Bourke.
And we should not be surprised
Friday May 7, 2004 The Guardian
A woman ties a noose around a naked man's neck and forces him to crawl
across the floor. Uniformed people strip a group of hooded men, then
laboriously assemble them into a pyramid. Men are forced to masturbate and
simulate fellatio. In the past few days, we have all participated in the
pornographic gaze. The sight of wide-eyed, grinning young men and women
posing in front of their stripped and degraded captives has proved
profoundly shocking. These snapshots tell us more than we may perhaps want
to know about our society's heart of darkness. This festival of violence is
highly pornographic. The victims have been reduced to exhibitionist objects
or anonymous "meat". They either wear hoods, or are beheaded by the camera.
The people taking the photographs exult in the genitals of their victims.
There is no moral confusion here: the photographers don't even seem aware
that they are recording a war crime. There is no suggestion that they are
documenting anything particularly morally skewed. For the person behind the
camera, the aesthetic of pornography protects them from blame.
Indeed, there is a carnivalesque atmosphere to the photographs. The
perpetrators of this sexual violence are clearly enjoying themselves. The
cliche "war is hell" takes on a chilling new vigour in these images. After
all, these photographs are not "about" the horrors of war. Many, if not
most, are part of a glorification of violence. There is no question that
many of these snapshots were taken by people who were pleased by what they
were seeing. Or what they had done. They are trophies, memorialising
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, for some of these Americans,
creating a spectacle of suffering was part of a bonding ritual. Group
identity as victors in an increasingly brutalised Iraq is being cemented:
this is an enactment of comradeship between men and women who are set apart
from civilian society back home by acts of violence. Their cruel, often
carnivalesque rites constituted what Mikhail Bakhtin called "authorised
transgression". After all, there is some evidence to suggest that more
senior military personnel were aware of what was happening in the prison but
turned a blind eye to it, accepting abuse as necessary either in
intelligence-gathering or in providing a safety valve for panicky
individuals living in a country that was turning increasingly hostile.
Furthermore, the pornography of pain as shown in these images is
fundamentally voyeuristic in nature. The abuse is performed for the camera.
It is public, theatrical, and elaborately staged. These obscene images have
a counterpart in the worst, non-consensual sadomasochistic pornography. The
infliction of pain is eroticised.
It is important, however, not to see these sadistic images as unique. After
all, torture and sexual violence are endemic in wartime. In the past, as
now, military personnel tend to simply accept that atrocities, including
sexual ones, will take place. As one British colonel admitted during the
first world war: "I've seen my own men commit atrocities, and should expect
to see it again. You can't stimulate and let loose the animal in man and
then expect to be able to cage it up again at a moment's notice."
Viewed as the inevitable result of men's sexual urges (the "animal in man"),
sexual humiliation and the violation of prisoners of war was viewed as a
military problem only when it directly threatened the conduct of war or the
reputation of an imposing power. As General Patton predicted during the
second world war, "There would unquestionably be some raping." It was "a
little R&R" for the personnel. Factors facilitating other forms of atrocity
facilitated rape. Uniforms provided anonymity. Potential victims were
dehumanised; perpetrators deindividualised. In military conflicts, the penis
was explicitly coded as a weapon.
What is particularly interesting in these photographs of abuse coming out of
Iraq is the prominent role played by Lynndie England. A particular strand of
feminist theory - popularised by Sheila Brownmiller and Andrea Dworkin -
attempts to argue that the male body is inherently primed to rape. Their
claim that only men are rapists, rape fantasists or beneficiaries of the
rape culture cannot be sustained in the face of blatant examples of female
perpetrators of sexual violence. In these photographs the penis itself
becomes a trophy. Women can also use sex as power, to humiliate and torture.
However much the American secretary for state may wish to discourage the use
of the word "torture", there is no other word that can describe these acts.
In torture and other extreme forms of abuse, the infliction of pain and
shame does not necessarily aim at extracting information. Beatings,
humiliating rites and verbal insults are often used to make prisoners
describe acts or reveal names already known to the police or military.
Often, the questions are of little practical value to the torturers and the
regime. The redundant interrogations are frequently accompanied by the
demand that prisoners sign a document, declaring that they have seen the
errors of their ways. The apparent futility of these demands indicates the
nature of the torturers' enterprise. They want to destroy the victim's sense
The evil of torture is not restricted to wanton violence inflicted on the
body. Many types of extreme pain and physical suffering, whether in war,
during acts of religious martyrdom, or simply as a result of poor health,
are endured with dignity and patience. The evil of torture lies elsewhere:
it denies its victim the minimum recognition offered by society and law and,
in doing so, it destroys the respect people routinely expect from others.
More importantly, torture aims to undermine the way the victim relates to
his or her own self, and thus threatens to dissolve the mainsprings of an
individual's personality. Torture is an embodied violation of another
individual. The sexual nature of these acts shows that the torturers realise
the centrality of sexuality for their victims' identity. The perpetrators in
these photographs aim to destroy their victim's sense of self by inflicting
and recording extreme sexual humiliation. As in Jean Améry's description of
being tortured by the Nazis, sexual violation is so devastating not because
of the physical agony suffered so much as by the realisation that the other
people present are impervious to the victim. Torture destroys "trust in the
world . . . Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in
The display of cruel pleasure taken in punishing Iraqi prisoners has
reverberated throughout the world, confirming in many countries the negative
stereotype of westerners as decadent and sexually obsessed. Many people have
questioned the motives and conduct of the war in Iraq, but these
pornographic images have stripped bare what little force remained in the
humanitarian rhetoric concerning the war. In the Arab world, the damage has
been done, and is irrevocable.
Joanna Bourke is professor of history at Birkbeck College London and author
of An Intimate History of Killing (Granta). She is currently working on a
book about rapists in the 19th and 20th century.