May 15, 2004 | Unknown

Women, Men and Images from Abu Ghraib

Wars often produce pictures that become emblematic and etched in our minds long after hostilities have ceased.
While depictions of heroism and camaraderie are preferred because of the positive things they say about a people, ugly representations inform of our less salubrious qualities, regardless of whether we’re men, women, from the United States, the Middle East or wherever.
America probably hoped the destruction of the statue of Saddam Hussein would turn into the icon of the incursion into Iraq; however, the event is being challenged by photographs from the superpower’s stewardship of the Abu Ghraib jail, particularly those featuring Private Lynndie England, who’s seen in one staring detachedly at the naked and prone male prisoner she has on a leash.
England’s femaleness and apparent, or location specific, fondness for degrading and dominating captives has made her the focal point in a controversy fuelled by many such images. Of course, some Iraqis have apparently said they want to capture American female military personnel and use them as slaves, while the oppression of women native to that country shouldn’t be forgotten.
As for the accused prison guards, including English, they seemed to have believed they were making sadistic reality television or a pornographic magazine and not acting as humane agents of a force that sees itself as a liberator.
For The Sydney Morning Herald’s Catharine Lumby, the guards’ motives for documenting their behaviour was more prosaic than base, “the truly shocking thing”, she argues, “is that people took these photographs with the apparent intention of showing them around…. they are in some primal sense, a bizarre inversion of all those smiling partygoers and contented couples who populate billboards advertising the joys of having a camera in your mobile phone”.
Central to the horror for some has been the involvement of women in committing acts of aggression, which is less expected than their being victims of them. This focus bespeaks much about our understandings of gender and the position of women in the general community and the military, where they’re only around 15% of recruits in the United States.
Joanna Burke in The Australian sees England’s “prominent role” as “particularly interesting”, evidently due to the way it contests radical feminism’s belief in men’s natural proclivity towards sexual violence, and presumably women’s lack of this tendency.
Burke fails to acknowledge that the sort of thinking that believes some attributes are masculine and others feminine came into existence long before radical feminism arrived in the 1970s. It has been traditionally supported by institutions like the military in the interests of reinforcing the status quo and ensuring a supply of men willing to fight.
That some behaviours, unfortunately, can be exhibited by any human in certain circumstances, such as when a group has power over another and there’s little to moderate, guide or inform on how that should function. It’s unpalatable but Lumby has a point when she states that “we would do well to remember that (the photos) show ordinary people behaving under the extraordinary pressures of war. In this sense, these images implicate us all”.
The brutal actions of the guards and the decapitation of Nicholas Berg in supposed revenge for them may not be equal in their depravity (a presumption based on seeing only the photographs published in the newspaper), but in a sense they’re on the same continuum and teach us that the line between civilisation and barbarism is thinner than many of us would like to think.
Whatever your opinion of the war, a welcome rejoinder to all this inhumanity came from First Lieutenant David Sutton, who refused to keep the activities at Abu Ghraib secret, when he said, “it’s not rocket science. It’s basic how you treat human beings – you don’t do certain things to them”.

Posted by Unknown at 11:40 am | Comments (2) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. Good article. I think you went too light on the radical feminists. I’m sick and tired of people telling me that if women ran the world things would be much more peaceful than if men did. Maybe they are all my own age and younger feminists don’t parrot such biologically challenged rants.
    Another issue is with Cath Lumby. Is it really the “extraordinary pressures of war” at work here, or is it just another manifestation of Lord Acton’s dictum “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”? Don’t we all know Lindy Englands and aren’t some of them doing damage in Australia?
    Seems to me that what makes us civilised is not that our human nature changes – Lindy is following in the footsteps of her predecessors who ran this jail under Saddam Hussein – but how we deal with our human nature in an institutional sense – giving power to David Sutton and other whistleblowers is part of what civilisation is all about.

    Comment by Graham Young — May 15, 2004 @ 3:28 pm

  2. The Beheading: tit for tat?

    The video of the beheading of Nick Berg (reputedly by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has links to

    Comment by Public Opinion — May 17, 2004 @ 2:46 pm

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