How American Was Abu Ghraib?

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We look at the Abu Ghraib scandal and don't recognize ourselves. Politicians from George Bush to Hillary Clinton insist that those photos of abuse don't depict their America. The problem, as Jon Stewart quipped, is that the wrong America went to Iraq. But the reality, familiar from many instances where western democracies have sent troops to pacify foreign countries, is that there is almost always an ugly side.

The Indian writer Salman Rushdie once said the British don't understand their history because it happened overseas, and the same may be coming true for the U.S. also. The notion of liberation is an integral part of America's own image of its mission in Iraq, but the reality experienced by the Iraqis is a classic occupation. The sad fact is that colonialism and the occupation of foreign countries typically produce a disconnect between the self-image of the occupier, and the way he's seen by the natives. Life in the occupied country has little relation to occupying nation. And when resistance occurs — sometimes in the form of massacres, dismemberings, beheadings and other grotesque acts — it often prompts the occupiers to behave in ways that the folks back home would have trouble recognizing.

The British Example

At home, Imperial Britain was all about democracy, the rule of law and morality, fair play and decency. But out in the colonies, the British built the first concentration camps (where 27,000 Afrikaner civilians died after being rounded up in an effort to end the Boer insurgency), pioneered the bombing and gassing of civilian population centers (in among other places, Iraq in the 1920s) and other nasty habits that were — well, just not cricket. A Western nation-state that occupies another typically develops two faces: A democratic one at home, and a harsh authoritarian one in the occupied country.

Many Brits themselves may have been shocked to learn of what was being done in their name. Empire-builders and occupiers typically invent and believe a tale of selfless virtue in which they're only there to serve the best interests of the locals, and those who fight back are thugs and terrorists at odds with the wishes of the "silent majority." The "true" leaders are always deemed to be those among the occupied people most willing to say the things the occupiers want to hear. Only once they're defeated can the colonial powers grant due respect to a "rabble rouser" like Mahatma Gandhi or a "terrorist" like Nelson Mandela. (Mandela has improbably been morphed into a pacifist in the American imagination; he was in fact the proud commander of a guerrilla army who got his own military training in Algeria and saw "armed struggle" as an integral component of his campaign against the apartheid regime.)

France still struggles to accept the regime of torture implemented by its soldiers in Algeria in a vain attempt to suppress the nationalist rebellion in the late 1950s. The French political class has been in denial for decades; they'd prefer to pretend it didn't happen. Not so the soldiers. The general in charge of counterinsurgency in Algiers, Paul Aussaresses, recently stirred the pot in a memoir in which he explained that torture was essential to achieving France's goals in Algeria. You sent me to suppress the rebellion, he argued. This was the only way to get it done.

Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld has written extensively on the corrosive effect on Israeli society of maintaining its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Citing the debilitating effect of Afghanistan on the Soviet Union and of Vietnam on the U.S., he argues that an occupation pits a sophisticated high-tech army not against an equivalent foe, but against lightly-armed insurgents hard to distinguish from the civilian population. "As Israel's own history clearly shows, fighting a stronger opponent will cause a society to unite," he writes, "but combating a weaker one will cause it to split and disintegrate."

Our Own History

America's own worst encounter with a Mr. Hyde side abroad came in 1969, when a young journalist named Seymour Hersh first broke a story about the massacre of scores of Vietnamese civilians at the village of My Lai. The remedy at the time was to blame it all on Lt. William Calley, an officer in charge on the day. My Lai may simply have been a symptom, however, of a war in which American forces were ranged not only against communist insurgents, but against a substantial proportion of the civilian population who supported them. My Lai was hardly the only instance of non-combatants dying by American hands in Vietnam. But back home, the U.S. public had — and still has — difficulty digesting what took place in the steamy jungles of South East Asia four decades ago. Interestingly, it is once again Hersh who has been way out in front of the media pack in breaking the Abu Ghraib torture revelations.

There is certain irony in the fact that the Abu Ghraib coincided with the 50th anniversary of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, in which Vietnamese guerrillas routed the French colonial army and took its surrender. Although Cold War considerations prompted the U.S. to get involved, in the end they proved no more adept than the French — or the Chinese hundreds of years earlier — had been in bending Vietnam to foreign will.

General Vo Nguyen Giap, now 93, who orchestrated the victory at Dien Bien Phu and also the political-military strategy that forced the U.S. to withdraw, made a rare appearance before the media to mark the anniversary. Inevitably, the international press wanted to know his thoughts on Iraq. "Any forces that would impose their will on other nations will certainly face defeat," he answered.

America, Washington insists, has no desire to force its will on Iraq. But it's far from clear that the Iraqis see it that way — even a poll commissioned by the Coalition Provisional Authority confirms that a majority of Iraqis now want the U.S. to leave immediately. A growing number of U.S. officers in Iraq are also stepping forward with the blunt assessment that the war can't be won. That's not a conclusion that goes down well at home. Forget the lessons of history; this is America, exceptional, somehow immune. In the end, though every nation that has ever claimed stewardship over another's destiny (including the United States in Vietnam) has claimed the mantle of virtue, usually divinely ordained. The other side seldom saw it that way.

Japan and Germany are often cited as the model of benign selfless occupation, but they may actually have been the exception. In both instances, their populations were under no illusions that their own leaders had started disastrous wars. Elsewhere, however, the occupier's presumption of virtue is seldom affirmed by the occupied. And Iraq has proved no different. However extensive the goodwill toward the Americans for getting rid of Saddam, it has steadily eroded over the past year. The prison abuse photographs outraged Iraqis, but may not have surprised them as much as the Americans. Nor are Iraqis impressed by the Bush administration's explanation that these were the actions of a few bad apples. Which may be why some of the officers on the ground are saying the war can't be won on these terms. Unfortunately, we may have passed this way before.