Sex and Violence
May 26, 2004
By The Plaid Adder
This week, a whole mess of new photographs of the Abu Ghraib scandal surfaced. We heard that inmates were "fondled by female soldiers," forced to masturbate, and forced to retrieve their food from toilets; we were also introduced to the euphemism "unidentifiable brown substance." Next to the picture of Private Englund yanking her end of the dog leash, we can now juxtapose the image of a naked prisoner covered in shit standing with his arms spread out before his uniformed American tormentor.
All right. Now that I have your attention, let's talk about the wedding massacre.
It has always bothered me that people in America just never seemed to care about the "collateral damage" that we were doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, it bothers me even more to see the immense contrast between the media and Congressional attention that has been devoted to covering the Abu Ghraib scandal and the woefully inadequate response to incidents like last week's bombing at Makr al-Deeb, in which we killed 40 Iraqis in their sleep in order to bring in our glorious haul of - according to the little military rebuttal that ABC News included on its website in order to be 'fair and balanced' - "machine guns, rounds of ammunition, a Sudan Airways plane ticket, medical gear, a Sudanese passport and battery packs associated with improvised explosive devices."
U.S. military sources admit that six women were killed in the attack but as of this writing still do not acknowledge that any children were killed. A Guardian article on the same incident quotes a local doctor as saying that the 42 victims included 11 women and 14 children. Survivors also pointed out that what the U.S. Army had bombed was in fact not a nefarious gathering of sinister terrorists, but a wedding.
Through one of its mouthpieces, Major General Mattis, the U.S. military denied this - in fact, according to Mattis, we would all be "naive" to believe that anyone would hold a wedding out in "the middle of the desert" - until the Associated Press obtained several hours' worth of video of what, sure enough, looked a hell of a lot like a wedding in the middle of the desert, attended by many of the same people who later turned up dead or wounded.
Now, the military has changed its story; according to an unnamed "U.S. official," there might have been a "celebration" of some kind going on before the raid, but it was over by the time we bombed the sleeping wedding guests into tiny tiny pieces.
OK, so the wedding was over before we tried to kill everyone who had attended it. I'm still trying to figure out how that makes it OK.
Well anyway, says Brigadier General Kimmitt, why couldn't this wedding also have been a nefarious gathering of sinister terrorists? After all - and this is a verbatim quote from Kimmitt - "Bad people have parties too."
Well, Kimmitt is right. Bad people do have parties. We're reminded of that every time we read about one of Bush's $2,000 a plate fund-raisers. All the same, that sentence really turned my stomach. I had the same shudder of revulsion, reading it, that you have when you see a giant cockroach scuttle across your kitchen floor. You knew it was probably there; you'd been trying to stamp it out; but it's still just unspeakably disgusting to finally see it crawl out of the shadows and into the light.
First of all, Kimmitt sounds like he's addressing a group of three-year-olds in a sandbox. "Bad people?" All this time I was wondering exactly who it was that made up this organized and apparently multifaceted opposition we were fighting in Iraq - and now I know! It's the Bad People. So is this what they put on their tactical maps? "Areas marked in red indicate territories inhabited by Bad People. Those you can bomb at will. Areas marked in blue indicate territories inhabited by Good People. Try not to bomb those."
"Bad People." It's been over a year since the fall of Baghdad and the U. S. military leadership has apparently learned absolutely nothing. Kimmitt is still talking as if the people who are fighting his forces belong to some kind of distinct and easily identifiable community of evildoers who were all born with a scarlet birthmark on their right shoulderblades that marked them in the womb as Haters Of Freedom. Nobody in Iraq would mind our occupying the country at all were it not for these Bad People whose genetic predisposition to hate all that is good leads them to attack us and our collaborators. Evidently the U.S. battle plan for Iraq is still to identify all the Bad People and then kill them, thus wiping out Bad People forever and ushering in the golden age of Iraqi democracy that we all hear so much about.
What Kimmitt and his fellow mouthpieces are apparently desperately trying never to acknowledge is that our definition of "bad" in this context is strategic rather than ethical. Presumably it is not the U.S. military's responsibility to search the heart of each Iraqi and exterminate those who have beaten their spouses, have robbed their neighbors, have lied to those who trusted them, or have turned the current invasion into an excuse to gouge their customers. These are all bad things; but they do not make someone a Bad Person. A Bad Person is simply someone who is attacking U.S. forces or their collaborators, or otherwise making it more difficult for us to establish control of the country. So let us for once be honest about that: what makes these people Bad is not some inherent predisposition toward evil, but the fact that they are involved in a military campaign against us. These Bad People are not the Satanically appointed Enemies Of Freedom. They are the enemies of us.
But of course in order to be honest about that we would have to face the possibility that America and Freedom are not synonymous; and nobody in Washington wants to do that. They would all much rather delude themselves. Well, fine, that's human nature; but here's the practical problem withat that approach.
These Bad People are not battle droids that were constructed by the evil overlords last April for the sole purpose of bedeviling the U.S. war effort. Some of them indeed may be recent arrivals from neighboring countries; but a fair number of them are people who have lived all their lives in Iraq and have only comparatively recently joined one of the many different resistance groups now organizing against us. That means each of these Bad People has lived most of his life as an ordinary person, with an immediate family, an extended family, neighbors, friends, colleagues, and an extensive kinship network that ties him to even more people. Not all of these intimate ties will be with other Bad People. And that means that each of these Bad People is going to be spending a fair amount of time around Good People - if by Good People we understand women, children, the elderly, and the rest of the uninvolved and nonresisting members of "the Iraqi people" that we are supposedly trying to liberate.
Which means that if your approach to dealing with the Bad People is to fly over a large area with some Bad People in it and bomb it so thoroughly that you have a good chance of destroying all the Bad People, it is quite probable that every time you take out one Bad Person you are going to take out a dozen Good People.
Which brings me back to General Kimmitt and the wedding massacre. So far everyone talks about this as if there are two possibilities: 1) The U.S. military didn't realize that this gathering was a wedding and they killed 40 people there by mistake, whoops. 2) This really wasn't a wedding; it was a strategic gathering of plotting Bad People, in which case the wedding video must just be a cunning fabrication being used by Al Qaeda to destroy support for the glorious liberation just like the witnesses are all highly trained actors being paid by Al Qaeda to pretend to have gunshot wounds and post-traumatic stress disorder.
#2 is ridiculous on its face. I didn't try to argue that the Nicholas Berg beheading video was a CIA mock-up based on a white plastic chair and a gold ring; so I'm not going to take any shit from anyone about how that organ player in the shroud doesn't look like he's REALLY dead. Nor does the fact that the military has changed its story since the video surfaced lend them a whole lot of credibility.
#1, on the other hand, sounds like exactly the kind of thing that probably happens all the time in this war, which began with a completely and wilfully wrong intelligence assessment and has lurched from blunder to gaffe to atrocity ever since.
But to go back to the one thing Kimmitt said that we can say is demonstrably true: bad people have parties too. And this is where the roach frisson thing comes in. Because that comment, and Kimmitt's whole attitude in general, raises a third possibility: that the U.S. military knew perfectly well that there was a wedding going on at Makr al-Deeb, and that was exactly why they bombed it.
After all. If our military's "intelligence" had informed them that one or both of the families involved in this wedding contained some Bad People, then what better chance would they ever have to get all of these Bad People in one fell swoop? This wedding brought two very large extended families - including, as Mattis so gleefully pointed out, more than "two dozen military age males" - into one convenient spot, where they celebrated far into the night and then eventually turned in exhausted to sleep it all off. They're all in an easily identifiable location in the middle of the desert easily accessible to aircraft - and they're all sound asleep. How could you pass that up? Sure, while you're killing the Bad People you're going to be killing their wives, cousins, sisters, children, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, caterers, photographers, and hired musicians - most of whom will be Good People - but what the hell do you care? In war, as Mattis sagely instructed us, "bad things happen," and according to Mattis, being an officer in the U.S. military means that you "don't have to apologize" for making bad things happen to good people.
You find that prospect chilling? So do I. But this is war American-style. We did this all over Afghanistan and now we are doing it all over Iraq. And this is the problem with an occupation: the Bad People are not brightly labeled, nor are they segregated out into well-demarcated areas. These Bad People are Good People who have for whatever reason decided to resist the occupation instead of accepting it. That means they are still sharing homes with Good People in neighborhoods of Good People and doing daily business with Good People. They are attending the weddings of Good People. And indeed they look at first glance just like Good People, which means that Good People often look at first glance just like Bad People, and the result is that a lot of Good People get shot at checkpoints or in pre-dawn raids or blown up at weddings in the middle of the desert.
So, this is what we come to at the end of the day: the day this war began you knew there would be incidents like this, because massive civilian casualties follow bombing raids as surely as night follows day. And as long as our army is there, things like the Makr al-Deeb bombing will go right on happening.
Now that bothers me. But 40 people blown up at a wedding - whether deliberately or by accident - by U.S. forces does not seem to bother most of my fellow-Americans or indeed my Congressional representatives anywhere near as much as the images from Abu Ghraib do. I'm not sure exactly why that is, though of course I have a few crackpot theories. One of them is that we are simply much less tolerant of sex than we are of violence. I remember watching a woman comedian do a routine about the bizarreness of the Motion Picture Association rating system, complaining that in a PG-13 movie, a man cannot touch a woman's naked breast with his hand, but "he can cut it off with a chainsaw." Michael Moore's argument throughout Bowling for Columbine is that America's culture of paranoia has led to such an obsession with self-defense that gun-related violence is now an integral part of the fabric of American life. We have accepted the horrific deaths of uninvolved civilians a justifiable, even 'natural' aspect of war. Rape, sexual assault, and the other bizarre forms of humiliation that have been practiced in Abu Ghraib are more shocking somehow because they seem gratuitously perverse.
As far as I am concerned, the massacre at Makr al-Deeb is exactly as gratuitous and perverse as the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison. Indeed, the entire war is gratuitous; and the claim that we are bringing freedom to Iraq by bombing sleeping children is about as perverse as you could possibly get. Perversion is what this war is all about: perversion of the truth, perversion of normal ethical codes of conduct, and perversion of the meaning of "freedom." And if we as a nation don't get that yet, it's because we are all still buying Brigadier General Kimmitt's load of crap about the Bad People.
A few months ago I showed Francis Ford Coppola's film Apocalypse Now to a group of 18-20 year olds who had for the most part never seen it before. Before I started the film, I warned them that it was a pretty violent movie. As I was watching it, however, I thought, you know what, by contemporary standards Apocalypse Now isn't really that violent. There's a lot of shooting and a lot of death and dismemberment and exploding; but you don't see the effects of this violence at anywhere near the level of detail you get in something like Kill Bill or Braveheart. And yet, as usual, after I turned the film off they were all just sitting there silently in shock.
I asked them why it was that after having grown up on movies that were much more violent, they still found Apocalypse Now so disturbing. I got the answer right away: "In those other movies you always know who the good guys are." It seemed obvious the minute I heard it; but it was also something of a revelation. In my head, you can't be a "good guy" and be a callous mass-murderer at the same time. But in American popular culture, you can. Indeed, it's almost a prerequisite. That's how you know they're good guys: because they're killing bad people. How do you know the people they're killing are bad? Because they're being killed by the good guys.
So this is one problem: a culture whose definition of "good" and "bad" has been flattened and evacuated by the massive disrespect for human life that seems to have permeated it (and I am talking about the lives of the born, now, not the only lives that the Republicans ever seem to be concerned about). But there is something else about the photos from Abu Ghraib - something that was pointed out in a piece by Susan Sontag that has been making the rounds.
There are, after all, photos out there of the civilian victims of our violence. They don't run in the American media, of course; but they are not hard to find on the web, in the Arab media as well as the British and European press. But what those photos do not show is what Sontag identifies as the most distinctive and disturbing feature of the Abu Ghraib photos: the smiling faces of the perpetrators. As Sontag points out, the Abu Ghraib photos bring it home to us once and for all that the people who are torturing the bodies in these photos think that what they are doing is A-OK. There's no remorse, no revulsion, not even a slight shudder of squeamishness. They have embraced this evil as their good; and they're sure that we the viewers will do the same.
Sitting here on the other side of the Atlantic, we can still look at photos from something like the massacre at Makr al-Deeb and imagine that the people who dropped the bombs are as troubled by it as we are - that the pilot is sitting in the barracks somehwere with his head in his hands, tortured with remorse over the lives he has destroyed. And who knows; he may be. But I'll tell you who clearly isn't bothered by it: the two high-ranking U.S. military officers who have publicly shrugged off questions about the number of children who died in this bombing with those chilling platitudes. Bad things happen in wars. Bad people have parties too.
And if we accept that things like the Makr al-Deeb massacre are natural, necessary, and right, then we are all saying it right along with Kimmitt, the torturers of Abu Ghraib, and Satan: "Evil, be thou my good."
Don't worry - I'm quoting Milton's Satan here, the one from Paradise Lost, not the Biblical Satan. I haven't gone evangelical all of a sudden. But I will say that one of the worst things that the Christian right has done to discourse in this country is to capture the language of morality. We secular humanist types now feel as if as soon as we start talking about good and evil we are one step away from frothing about FORRRRRRNICATION! But good and evil are not the prisoners of any one religious system, nor do they require a deity or an eschatology to shore up their meaning. And it is absolutely insane that they have, in our country, become so thoroughly entangled with sexual morality. We spend all this time fighting about whether it is or is not evil for two consenting adults of the same gender to have sex with each other, and we have apparently failed to maintain our grasp on the concept that killing people is wrong. We have spent so much time as a culture obsessing over sex as foul, filthy, and obscene that we have forgotten how foul, filthy, and obscene violence is.
I hope we can get back one of these days to a responsible, honest, and usefully complex understanding of good and evil. I hope, someday, public policy and public discourse will be founded on a shared believe in the value of human life and human dignity rather than one sect's tendentious and self-serving interpretation of one book. I still hope to see us, one day, find our way out of the moral wasteland into which Bush has led this country. And the rest of the world no doubt hopes to see it too, because in our descent into hell we are pulling a lot of the world in after us.
I hope we find our way out of Iraq and that we find it soon. But it will only be the first step in what will be a very long journey home.
The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an equally demented online audience since 1996. More of the same can be found at the Adder's Lair.