Kodak Moments out of a Nightmare
it the twenty-first century Vietnam, or the latest morass
of a land that the US has been struggling to stable its
foot upon, Iraq remains a steamy issue even after more than
one year of occupation. It is even getting steamier, as
missteps of the occupying forces are being scrutinised in
the international media. The latest outburst of information,
courtesy of the images that "illegally got in the hands
of the press" -- as the man at the top, Rumsfeld, The
Defense Secretary of the US, dubbed it during the first
senate inquiry, -- has opened up a whole new frontier. New
in the sense that, so far, the world at large, has been
unexposed to such vile means of torture. The American variant
has certainly carried the shock value in the highest dose.
does a country with a knack for seeing itself as an example
of democracy and liberal practices make it this far? The
issue must be confronted from many directions. One clear
direction would be to ask what price does a nation pay for
playing police to the world? Especially when policing in
today's world that has unwittingly created pockets of resistance,
either in the form of terrorist outfits or in alternative
movements, against the monolithic practice of modernism,
is such a Herculean task. Confrontation with newer forces
is inevitable. Who realised that a man like Moqtada Al Sadre
would become a key factor in Iraq? A force that is showing
no signs of let up even in the face of the fiercest American
not only begets war but also a series of unknown maladies.
And lives are not the only casualty of war. The strange
side of it, an aspect that often remains under wrap, is
that great wars leave both the sides with their human qualities
often snubbed and at times completely effaced. The crusaders
of the mediaeval era often took pleasure in raping and plundering
their enemy. The impact of war on the collective psyche
is something no one has any control over. It is the beast
that unleashes other beasts. After having fought several
wars in foreign lands, Americans are now paying the price.
They are finding it hard going in fighting the demons that
twist and lurch in their own fat belly. What war does to
the combating soldiers' psyche is something that is obvious
and well documented in the West. But that it opens up avenues
to depravities are something that still remains an underrated
issue. The American soldiers in Iraq have changed that.
In the post Abu Ghraib world, it seems, nothing is left
unexplored that has the capacity to jolt.
war against terrorism, like the holy wars of the past, is
no exception in its sinister capacity to spawn psychic disturbances
that lead to more sinister happenings. The war in Iraq,
that started purportedly to quell terrorism and to oust
a dictator, and now pretends to bring the fruit of Western
democracy to the land of oil, finally shows its inner composition.
What went on in the name of interrogation at the Abu Ghraib
prison is a sample of the lowest humans can sink to. The
sheer 'inventiveness' to subject enemies to such physical
degradation is something that will remain a nightmare in
the history of war and will provide scope to study human
behaviour in extreme conditions.
behavioural bankruptcy all pervasive? Or is it a faction
that went berserk and acted badly on their own? Before we
even ponder these questions, one lesson that can be learnt
is that the great powers thrive in things that are brutal
and inexplicable. Meanwhile, the whole affair provides us
with a new ground of anthropological significance -- a whole
new field of study of human behavior now has opened up.
According to the accused soldiers, they were 'simply' engaged
in carrying out orders. But the results were norm defying
for sure, and of-course like fine art -- form braking.
before equating it with the arts and performances that are
also shocking and norm defying, one must seek to contextualise
it. Is it a terminal deformity of our civilisation that
finally brings out the basest of instincts in humans? One
of the soldiers, a woman, whose presence was ubiquitious
in the first batch of pictures, said she was just carrying
out orders. She did not behave any different from her male
counterparts. All the army officials in charge of the interrogations,
including women, looked similar, basking in their army-training
induced maleness. Women personnel looked devoid of their
femininity. Their antics seemed in conformity with the aggressiveness
that they all shared. Even their countenances were masculine,
and their actions bore the brand of depravity marked by
transgressions verging on the fascistic.
striking feature of the images that had been smuggled out
of army hands, both still and moving, is that they bear
a strong resemblance both to art and to movies to pornography
produced by a culture that crossed all conceivable bounds.
At least the index of the last forty years or so illustrates
a dark America, taking a strong liking to, if not immersed
deeply in, sado-masochism and anything that is brutal. The
obsession with the brutish is an aspect that moved many
an artist. The video installations by trail-blazing artists
like Bruce Newman, performances by Cindy Sherman and many
others that followed them in the '90s, as well as the recent
images of torture, are visual indicators of a culture, one
that lost faith in everything.
principle of getting pleasure by shocking others, or by
inflicting pain is an old idiom, with the West it often
marries the expression of art, or should one say anti art
that flourished to address issues of sex, gender, aids and
most of all alienation.
art that tackles brutality has different functions in the
society. But it also reveals, as does the willingness on
the part of the participating US solders, an obsession for
what is base and diabolic. The soldiers surpassed all other
genres with their form. In their hands two intentions melded,
one of staging a live and brutal drama, the other of keeping
a record for posterity. The first usually is the field of
the artists of gore, and the latter is the obsession of
the journalists. The act of the soldiers were two kinds
of expertise rolled into one.
is a confirmation of negating the enemy fully with a vengeance.
The American soldiers surely needed to show it to their
fellow countrymen how they successfully participated in
the piece of the action that aimed to humiliate the enemy
and they felt they needed hard evidence of their deed. How
else would one understand the utility of the photographs
and videos? The act of queuing for photo opportunities alongside
dead Iraqis was the ultimate kick that redefines the relation
between the victor and the vanquished. It also surpasses
all morbid art produced in the West in its shock value;
even those that used neatly composed parts of cadaver as
or what is wrong with a culture, manifests not only in the
arts and the civil lives of a nation, but also in the form
of torture. Even the army operations provide an index. It
is something that comes out in the open all by itself.
the seamy side of American lives has never been a staple
for the international press. They, as well as their lives
have never been scrutinised the way we always scrutinise
the images produced by the artists and, at present, by the
army personnel. The world's safest haven for market economy
is known as the land of opportunity, but one needs to have
an open eye to discover what lies under the veneer of the
beautifully laid out physical environment. We are well acquainted
with the fruits of American democracy, but, it seems, that
the world, to an astonishing degree, simply never took a
good look at the scale of skin bias, domestic violence,
child molestation, and the serial rape and killing that
taint America. And one can always add to that the unholy
interest of the Americans in their serial murderers and
these are not the only stuff that America is made of. But
they certainly correspond to the mindset that in the name
of fighting the worst enemy of this civilisation has actually
done more harm to it. There are a lot of indicators that
point to a million of good things about the average American.
But the pictures taken in Abu Ghraib are an ultimate reminder
of the fact that nationalism, if taken to its extreme, can
take a sinister form.