Jan 13 2012 by Sherene Seikaly and Maya Mikdashi
Golden, like a shower, said one of the US marines as he urinated, along with three of his fellow officers, on three dead Afghans. Over the last forty-eight hours this grizzly spectacle has resuscitated the horrific images of US soldiers’ torturing and sexually humiliating men from Abu Ghraib prison to Guantanamo Bay.
Then as now, brown bodies are the raw material through and upon which US soldiers realize their darkest fantasies and their deepest secrets. The pornography that popularized the “golden shower” and the Islamophobia that fuels the War on Terror inspire these scenes. In them, US soldiers feminize Muslim men and demonstrate their power over them. US soldiers can and will sodomize, piss on, and otherwise sexually humiliate Muslim and/or Arab men. And the world will witness this confident hierarchy of masculinity through the dissemination of the torturer’s documentation.
In the face of the standard US official military response to Abu Ghraib—just a few bad apples in an otherwise principled and ethical army—the journalist Seymour Hersh laid out the systematic policy of “Copper Green.” Donald Rumsfeld had approved this clandestine task force, Hersh asserted. It built on the deeply nuanced work of Rapheal Patai’s The Arab Mind. The men and women of this “black op” molded an interrogation technique based on the two codes central, the profound argument went, to breaking the Muslim man. One, he only understands force. Two, his deepest weakness is shame and humiliation.
It would be wrong to assume that strongly held beliefs such as Patai’s were limited to the actions of a few “black ops.” Culturalist arguments have saturated the logic of the War on Terror since its inception. They shaped the US “shock and awe” bombing campaign of Iraq. They informed the stated aim to drain that cultural swamp which breeds terrorism in the Muslim world. They guided the smearing of menstrual blood on a Guantanomo detainee. They inspired the posing of Abu Ghraib detainees in homosexual relations. They underlie the latest subjection of an Afghan’s body to the “golden shower” of the US soldier who may have killed him just before unzipping his fly.
Then, as now, these images unleashed a dastardly slew of military officials’ and pundits’ reflections on how the sole actions of these US soldiers would awaken the deepest cultural alienation among the Arabs and the Muslims. Apparently, the real risk that the Abu Ghraib images revealed was not that brutal sexual torture was routine. The real risk was that US soldiers would now become the targets of Arab and Muslims’ rage and violence.
After all, it is these soldiers’ security that justified the censorship of the most “sensitive” photos that document some of the harshest realities of life at Abu Ghraib. If Arabs and Muslims “saw” American soldiers raping male and female Iraqis, it might unleash their cultural essentialism. Thus US torture has nothing to do with a US military culture of misogyny, violence, and Islamophobia. Instead, it is the Arabo-Islamic culture of misogyny, violence, and hyper-sexism that somehow manages to both inform and challenge US torture!
Last March, Rolling Stone published a full expose of the atrocities that Jeremy Morlock, Andrew Holmes, Adam Winfield, and Michael Wagnon, among others committed. These men formed the “Kill Team” in Kandahar province. They executed the innocent, they hacked off bits of skull and fingers as trophies, they placed severed heads on sticks, and they cheered as they conducted airstrikes on civilians. It was not enough to partake in brutalization, the “Kill Team,” watched themselves again and again through a roving usb that featured all the bloody details. Journalists asserted that the Kill Team operated in plain view of the rest of their company.
Then, as now, the Pentagon confidently explained the exceptional and clandestine nature of these US troops. From the top leadership to the rank and file, the forceful argument was that these actions were “not consistent” with American values nor “indicative of the character” of the US military.
Kill Teams, Piss Teams, and Rape Teams–these are all exceptional, US officials would have us believe. The fact that one in three female US soldiers will experience sexual assault while serving in US uniform is also an abberation of what the military truly stands for.
Yet as Saree Makdissi has pointed out, “the scandal consists in the urination rather than the killing itself.” We are told that this type of violence is extreme and unacceptable. But somehow, the 150,000 Iraqi deaths (estimated at about eighty percent of which are civilian) and the estimated 70,000 civilian Afghan deaths since the launch of the War on Terror is acceptable and normal.
The fact of the matter is that the dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims during the war on terror informs both the impunity with which civilians are killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and the desecration of corpses.
US officials hailed, and continue to hail, the exemplary character of the US army and the great sacrifice of its members just as they fretted, and continue to fret, over the implications that these sole actions would have on the Arab and Muslim world. Indeed, what the depraved actions seemed to indicate more than anything else in the minds of these commentators is the exceptionalism of the Arab and Muslim world.
Apparently, piling naked bodies on top of one another, torturing them into wanton sexual positions, unleashing dogs on exposed genitalia, putting a gun to the head of a bound and hooded man while forcing him to masturbate, and urinating on the dead is ok everywhere else but the Arab and Muslim world.
Other people, not programmed with this culture, would not feel violated, helpless, and enraged at the public demonstration that their lives are worth less than American lives.
If we could just look beyond the pissing, the rape, and the torture and, for those of us who are trying to count as the US army claims it cannot “tell” the combatant from the civilian—the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, we would see that the US military is otherwise a force for good in the world.
Let us step outside the chorus of essentialism and ask: What do these acts of brutalization and depravity say to us about the United States? More still, what does the fact that the broad understanding that it is these acts alone that are brutal, excessive, and unacceptable say about us all?