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| EXPOSURE: The woman behind the camera at Abu Ghraib
|Annals of War
The woman behind the camera at Abu Ghraib.
by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris
March 24, 2008
Specialist Sabrina Harman took hundreds of pictures, she says, to “just show what was going on, what was allowed to be done.” Photograph by Nubar Alexanian.
All that the soldiers of the 372nd Military Police Company, a Reserve unit out of Cresaptown, Maryland, knew about America’s biggest military prison in Iraq, when they arrived there in early October of 2003, was that it was on the front lines. Its official name was Forward Operating Base Abu Ghraib. Never mind that military doctrine and the Geneva Conventions forbid holding prisoners in a combat zone, and require that they be sped to the rear; you had to make the opposite sort of journey to get to Abu Ghraib. You had to travel along some of the deadliest roads in the country, constantly bombed and frequently ambushed, into the Sunni Triangle. The prison squatted on the desert, a wall of sheer concrete traced with barbed wire, picketed by watchtowers. “Like something from a Mad Max movie,” Sergeant Javal Davis, of the 372nd, said. “Just like that—like, medieval.” There were more than two and a half miles of wall with twenty-four towers, enclosing two hundred and eighty acres of prison ground. And inside, Davis said, “it’s nothing but rubble, blown-up buildings, dogs running all over the place, rabid dogs, burnt remains. The stench was unbearable: urine, feces, body rot.”
The prisoners—several thousand of them, clad in orange—were crowded behind concertina wire. “The encampment they were in when we saw it at first looked like one of those Hitler things, like a concentration camp, almost,” Davis said. “They’re in there, in their little jumpsuits, outside in the mud. Their rest rooms was running over. It was just disgusting. You didn’t want to touch anything. Whatever the worst thing that comes to your mind, that was it—the place you would never, ever, ever, ever send your worst enemy.”
The M.P.s of the 372nd were told to make themselves at home in an abandoned prison block, a compound ravaged by looters and invaded by the desert. The sand lay several inches deep in places, mixed with decomposing trash. Moving in meant digging out and sweeping up, and when you’d purged the debris—weird stuff, some of it; for instance, used syringes, which just made you wonder—what you had were bare prison cells. The military term of art for the place where soldiers sleep and bathe and eat on base is L.S.A., which means “life-support area,” and at other forward operating bases around Iraq an L.S.A. meant climate-controlled tents and a mess hall, electricity and hot water, a gym and an Internet café, phones and satellite television, PX shops and fast-food joints. A proper L.S.A. is an outpost of the motherland, and it affirms the sense of pride and tribe that is essential to morale and discipline. At Abu Ghraib, showers were wooden sheds with cold-water drums propped overhead. The unit had no field kitchen, so chow was combat rations—M.R.E.s, meals-ready-to-eat—breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a cardboard box; everything in a polymer packet.
Nobody had expected luxury at Saddam Hussein’s old prison, but morale was low to begin with—the M.P.s just wanted to know when they were going home—and there was something about living in cells at Abu Ghraib that never felt right. “We had some kind of incinerator at the end of our building,” Specialist Megan Ambuhl said. “It was this huge circular thing. We just didn’t know what was incinerated in there. It could have been people, for all we knew—bodies.” Sergeant Davis was not in doubt. “It had bones in it,” he said, and he called it the crematorium. “But hey, you’re at war,” he said. “Suck it up or drive on.”
The autumn nights were getting cold in the desert, down to forty degrees, which felt colder in a concrete box, where the wind blew in through empty window frames. From some of those windows you could look out over the prison’s perimeter wall into the windows of an apartment complex in the city of Abu Ghraib, a sprawling Baghdad suburb long dominated by Saddam’s Baath Party functionaries, and the people in those apartments could look back at you. As the M.P.s unpacked their kit in their new quarters, they were told that snipers sometimes made use of this arrangement to shoot into the prison. The trick was not to make yourself a target: stay away from the windows, keep your lamps dim and covered—don’t cast a shadow.
On her first night at the prison, Specialist Sabrina Harman, a twenty-six-year-old M.P. from Virginia, wrote a letter home to the woman she called her wife:
Its 9:00 pm and we can hear shots—no white lights are allowed to be on at night no leaving the building after dark. I hope we aren’t here long! We drove in and two helicopters were landed taking prisoners off.
I’m scared of helicopters because of the dream. I think I wrote it down before. I saw a helicopter and it looked like the tail was swaying back and forth then it did it again then a huge flame/round shot up and it exploded. I turned around and we were under attack, I didn’t have my weapon (gun) so all we could do was hide under these picknick tables. So back to the prison . . . we get to our buildings and I step out of my truck right in front of a picknick table.—I almost freaked out. I have a bad feeling about this place. I want to leave as soon as possible! We are still hoping to be home X-mas or soon after.—
I love you.
I’m going to get some sleep.
I’ll write you again soon.
Please don’t give up on me!
Like many young reservists, Harman had joined the Army to help pay for college. She had never imagined that she’d see war, and Iraq often felt unreal to her; “like a dream,” she said. Then she had that dream—about a gunman shooting at a helicopter from a date palm while she hid, unarmed, beneath a picnic table—and it was all too real. “And it kind of came true, maybe two or three weeks later,” she said. “Down the road, they started shooting helicopters from date trees.”
That was in Al Hillah, a Shiite town near the ruins of ancient Babylon, sixty miles south of Baghdad, where the 372nd M.P.s had been stationed since they started arriving in Iraq, in May. Having sat out the Shock and Awe phase of the invasion at Fort Lee, in Virginia, they were sent in through Kuwait shortly after George W. Bush, standing beneath a “Mission Accomplished” banner, declared, in May of 2003, that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended”—and in Al Hillah, during that first summer of the war, they had. The M.P.s felt safe walking the streets; they made friends among the Iraqis, played with the kids, shopped in the markets, shared meals at the outdoor cafés. Their headquarters, in an abandoned date-processing factory, were minimally fortified, and were never attacked. Their mission was to provide combat support for the First Marine Expeditionary Force, which controlled the city, and to train local policemen for duty under a new national government. They understood their presence to be temporary, expecting that America would hand over the country to democratically elected Iraqis by summer’s end, then get out of the way.
To Harman, the assignment felt like a peacekeeping mission, not a tour of combat, and she wasn’t complaining. She was known in the unit as someone who hated to see or do violence. “Sabrina literally would not hurt a fly,” her team leader, Sergeant Hydrue Joyner, said. “If there’s a fly on the floor and you go to step on it, she will stop you.” Specialist Jeremy Sivits, a mechanic in the company’s motor pool, said, “We’d try to kill a cricket, because it kept us up all night in the tent. She would push us out of the way to get to this cricket, and would go running out of the tent with it. She could care less if she got sleep, as long as that cricket was safe.” That made Sivits laugh, but he worried that she wouldn’t survive a firefight. Joyner agreed. “As a soldier, you can’t allow your heart to get in the way sometimes, because the moment you do you may get killed or may get someone else killed,” he said. “But with Sabrina, I think she would have made a better humanitarian than a soldier, and I don’t mean that in a negative way.” Sivits couldn’t figure why she had joined the military. “She was just too nice to be a soldier,” he said.
Harman said that she had wanted to be a cop, like her father and her brother, and her idea was to become a forensic photographer. Pictures had always fascinated her. She made an album of the snapshots people took of her: a diapered toddler in a blue knit cap sitting beside a yellow telephone, her mouth wide open with mirth; a little girl with perfectly combed and bobbed bangs, kneeling in an elaborately frilled dress, white stockings, and white gloves, on a green carpet against a studio backdrop of rampantly blooming cherry trees; a girl riding a pony; a teen-age girl with head shorn to a boyish crop, wearing dungarees and boots and a loose oversized flannel shirt beneath a loose black leather motorcycle jacket; a young woman squinting in a sun-blasted parking lot, wearing full camouflage—helmet, flak jacket, cargo pants—and carrying a riot baton. It was an ordinary album except for one thing: the directness with which she met the camera, eye to eye, looking frankly through the lens as if she were the one taking the picture.
She liked to look. She might recoil from violence, but she was drawn to its aftermath. When others wanted to look away, she’d want to look more closely. Wounded and dead bodies fascinated her. “She would not let you step on an ant,” Sergeant Davis said. “But if it dies she’d want to know how it died.” And taking pictures fascinated her. “Even if somebody is hurt, the first thing I think about is taking photos of that injury,” Harman said. “Of course, I’m going to help them first, but the first reaction is to take a photo.” In July, she wrote to her father, “On June 23 I saw my first dead body I took pictures! The other day I heard my first grenade go off. Fun!” Later, she paid a visit to an Al Hillah morgue and took pictures: mummified bodies, smoked by decay; extreme closeups of their faces, their lifeless hands, the torn flesh and bone of their wounds; a punctured chest, a severed foot. The photographs are ripe with forensic information. Harman also had her picture taken at the morgue, leaning over one of the blackened corpses, her sun-flushed cheek inches from its crusted eye sockets. She is smiling—a forced but lovely smile—and her right hand is raised in a fist, giving the thumbs-up, as she usually did when a camera was pointed at her.
“I kind of picked up the thumbs-up from the kids in Al Hillah,” Harman said. “Whenever I get into a photo, I never know what to do with my hands, so I probably have a thumbs-up because it’s just something that automatically happens. Like when you get into a photo you want to smile.” There are at least twenty photos from Al Hillah in which she is in the identical pose, same smile, same thumbs-up: bathing in an inflatable wading pool; holding a tiny lizard; standing at the foot of a wall that bears a giant bas-relief of Saddam (the button of his suit jacket is bigger than her head); fooling around with her best Army buddy, Megan Ambuhl, who is giving her the finger and flashing a tongue stud; holding a tiny figurine of Jesus; holding a long, phallic melon; mounting the ancient stone lion of Babylon at the ruins of King Nebuchadnezzar’s city; leaning over the shoulder of an M.P. buddy who is holding a Fanta can on top of which sits a dead cat’s head; and so on.
The cat’s head was one of Harman’s gags. She had a kitten that was killed by a dog, and since it had no visible wounds she performed a rough autopsy, discovered organ damage, and then an M.P. buddy mummified its head. They gave it pebbles for eyes, and Sabrina photographed it in various inventive settings: on a bus seat with sunglasses, smoking a cigarette, wearing a tiny camouflage boonie hat, floating on a little pillow in the wading pool, with flowers behind its ears. She took more than ninety photographs and two videos of it. The series, in its weird obsessiveness and dark comedy, has the quality of conceptual art. At one time or another, at least fifteen of Harman’s fellow-M.P.s posed for photos with the cat head; several senior officers and a number of Iraqi men and boys also took the time to have their pictures taken with it. The cat head had become a fetish object, like Huckleberry Finn’s dead cat, which Tom Sawyer admires—a scene that Norman Rockwell illustrated in a folksy print captioned “Lemme see him, Huck. My, he’s pretty stiff!”
Much of Harman’s photo album from Al Hillah looks like a fantasy travel brochure for post-Saddam Iraq: here she is, skin aglow, beaming, amid swarms of joyous Iraqi children—children clambering into her lap, throwing their arms around her, mobbing her in the streets; here she is welcomed into local homes by mustached men in dishdashas bearing tiny cups of tea; here she is visiting the antiquities, with a Bedouin and his camel at the ziggurat of Borsippa, and with fellow-soldiers at the Ishtar gate of Babylon; and here she is in camouflage, with her arm around a pregnant woman swathed in black, her hand on the future-full belly, the woman grinning. Harman bought her Iraqi friends clothes and food and toys. She bought one family a refrigerator, and made sure it was stocked. Sergeant Joyner said, “The Iraqi kids—you couldn’t go anywhere without them saying, ‘Sabrina, Sabrina.’ They just loved themselves some Sabrina. She’ll get these kids balloons, toys, sodas, crackers, cookies, snacks, sweet rolls, Ho Hos, Ding Dongs, Twinkies, she didn’t care. She would do anything she could to make them kids smile.”
Still, the welcome in Al Hillah was brittle. The Americans had not brought what they’d promised: a new order. The war wasn’t over, Iraq had no government, the liberators had become occupiers, and the occupation was slapdash, improvised, and inadequate—at best, a disappointment, and more often an insult. So, in the fever heat, month after month of a hundred and ten and a hundred and twenty degrees, alienation set in. Frustration gave way to hostility, hostility gave way to violence, and by summer’s end the violence against Americans was increasingly organized. It was demoralizing. Every Iraqi might be the enemy. What was the point of being there, unwanted? Nobody from the 372nd was killed in Al Hillah, but on patrols there was shooting, in the night there were explosions, and Sabrina had her nightmare. At least the picnic tables had seemed to her fanciful, the random furniture of dreamscapes—until she got to Abu Ghraib, and there they were.
As the 372nd M.P.s arrived at Abu Ghraib, they learned that two Military Intelligence officers had just been killed there in a mortar attack that had left a dozen other soldiers badly wounded, and it didn’t take long before the M.P.s had their own but-for-this and but-for-that stories of near misses. “A few nights after we got here . . . we were sitting in a meeting and heard 3 thumps then explosion,” Harman wrote to Kelly. A firefight ensued. “Next day,” she wrote, “found out it was an IED (bomb planted in a Coke can wired to a clicker) blew up a vehicle (no one hurt) then they chased down the 3 men that did it and killed them.”
It was said that Abu Ghraib was the most-attacked American base in Iraq at the time. The prison made an obvious target for insurgents: immense and immobile and poorly defended, an outpost of the military occupation in its most despised aspect—holding Iraqis captive. At first, the attacks came at nightfall, around the time that the muezzins’ call to prayer was broadcast from loudspeakers atop nearby minarets. “When the mosque was playing, that was mortar o’clock,” Sabrina Harman said. “In Al Hillah it was kind of soothing and relaxing, and when you get to Abu it was completely different. When they were praying, that’s when you knew you were going to get hit at Abu Ghraib.”
With time, the attacks ceased to adhere to such a tight schedule. Mortars began falling by day, and Harman said, “I was more afraid of walking outside or going to take a shower. I pretty much didn’t. I would use baby wipes. I kind of went infantry for the time I was there, maybe shower once or twice a month if I had to. The showers were outside. They were made of wood, and if a mortar hit, you were going to die. If I could’ve peed inside, I probably would have.” She said, “You had to go to the showers and the bathroom with your flak vest on.” At Abu Ghraib, Javal Davis said, even sleep was no refuge. He hated the thought that he could be killed without knowing it: “I always used to say, ‘God, if I go out, if I have to die, don’t take me in my sleep. I want to feel it.’ ”
The soldiers had a drill to follow during an attack: run, grab your body armor, run, crowd into a shelter, and wait. After a while, hardly anybody bothered. “If you get hit, you get hit. There’s really nothing you could do,” Harman said. “If they got lucky, they hit somebody.” For the most part, the mortars fell on empty ground: nobody was hurt, no property damaged. But the randomness and imprecision of the persistent bombardments heightened the sense that no place was safe.
Of course, the prisoners in the tented camps couldn’t move, and as mortars kept falling on Abu Ghraib, prisoners kept getting killed and maimed. These casualties were promptly recorded in Serious Incident Reports on the military security networks. Then the dead were removed and their remains were sent to a morgue, while the wounded were treated at the prison clinic or, if the damage was severe, evacuated to a hospital before being returned to the camps. The Americans running the prison knew that it was their duty to protect their prisoners, and they knew that at Abu Ghraib that was impossible.
The 372nd M.P.s assumed they had been sent to Abu Ghraib because it was dangerous. They were combat M.P.s, trained to support the operations of front-line forces—to conduct route reconnaissance, escort convoys, run patrols, go on raids. They were abundantly armed and travelled with a fleet of heavy vehicles. “We thought we were going to go kick some behind around the prison and help them out,” Sergeant Davis said. “But that’s not what happened. Once we got there, they told our guys, no, we’re going to be prison guards.”
The new assignment—to run one of the overcrowded tented camps and the indoor prison complex known, on account of its concrete-bunker-like solidity, as the hard site—bewildered the company. Combat units don’t run prisons. That is the province of another cadre of M.P.s, known as internment and resettlement M.P.s, who are trained according to the Army’s extensive doctrine on handling all manner of wartime captives and displaced persons. The 372nd M.P.s had no such specialized experience. A couple of them worked as corrections officers back home, but that gave them no exposure to the Geneva Conventions, and the rest of them didn’t know the first thing about prison work. Their company commander, Captain Donald Reese, was a window-blinds salesman in civilian life.
Although they did not know it at the time, the lack of experience and training in handling prisoners in wartime made the soldiers of the 372nd ideally suited to Abu Ghraib, where almost nothing was run according to military doctrine. Since May, 2003, America’s war in Iraq had been waged as a chapter in the war on terror, and the military’s long-standing rules for running prisons in wartime had largely been ignored. By midsummer, the great majority of prisoners of war who were seized during the invasion had been released. Those who remained in captivity—along with all new prisoners seized by the military—were designated “security detainees,” a label that had gained currency in the war on terror, to describe “unlawful combatants” and other prisoners who had been denied P.O.W. status and could be held indefinitely, in isolation and secrecy, without judicial recourse. The great majority of the prisoners held at Abu Ghraib were designated security detainees, and placed under the authority of Military Intelligence officers, who instructed the M.P.s on how to treat them.
Later, when the photographs of crimes committed against Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib were made public, the blame focussed overwhelmingly on the Military Police officers who were assigned to guard duty in the Military Intelligence cellblock—Tiers 1A and 1B—of the hard site. The low-ranking reservist soldiers who took and appeared in the infamous images were singled out for opprobrium and punishment; they were represented, in government reports, in the press, and before courts-martial, as rogues who acted out of depravity. Yet the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was de facto United States policy. The authorization of torture and the decriminalization of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of captives in wartime have been among the defining legacies of the current Administration; and the rules of interrogation that produced the abuses documented on the M.I. block in the fall of 2003 were the direct expression of the hostility toward international law and military doctrine that was found in the White House, the Vice-President’s office, and at the highest levels of the Justice and Defense Departments.
The Abu Ghraib rules, promulgated by Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of ground forces in Iraq, elaborated on the interrogation rules for Guantánamo Bay, which had been issued by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; they were designed to create far more license than restriction for interrogators who sought to break prisoners. The M.P.s at Abu Ghraib were enlisted as enforcers of such practices as sleep deprivation, ***ual humiliation, sensory disorientation, and the imposition of physical and psychological pain. They never received a standard operating procedure to define what was required and what was allowed, but were repeatedly instructed simply to follow the guidance of Military Intelligence officers. An orthodox standard operating procedure leaves nothing to the imagination, and as Megan Ambuhl settled into her job it occurred to her that the absence of a code was the code at Abu Ghraib. “They couldn’t say that we broke the rules because there were no rules,” she said. And by taking pictures of the prisoners on the M.I. block the M.P.s demonstrated two things: that they never fully accepted what was happening as normal, and that they assumed they had nothing to hide.
By way of orientation, the soldiers of the 372nd who were assigned guard duty at the hard site were given a tour of the place. They saw the ordinary cellblocks for Iraqi criminals and the highly restricted M.I. block, where the most “high value” security detainees were held, during and pending interrogation, in single-occupancy cells. “That’s when I saw the nakedness,” Javal Davis said. “I’m like, ‘Hey, Sarge, why is everyone naked?’ You know—‘Hey, that’s the M.I. That’s what the M.I. does. That’s the M.I. thing. I don’t know.’ ‘Why do these guys have on women’s panties?’ Like—‘It’s to break them.’ ” Davis was wide-eyed. “Guys handcuffed in stress positions, in cells, no lights, no windows. Open the door, turn the light on—‘Oh my God, Allah.’ Click, turn the light off, close the door. It’s like, Whoa, what is that? What the hell is up with all this stuff? Something’s not right here.”
A delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross visited the M.I. block of the hard site between October 9 and 12, 2003, and had much the same reaction that Sergeant Davis had. The Geneva Conventions require that I.C.R.C. delegates be given unrestricted access to military prisons, to monitor conditions and interview prisoners in private. At Abu Ghraib, however, they reported that there were “many obstacles” to their mission, “imposed, apparently, at the behest of Military Intelligence,” and what they were permitted to see and hear did not please them: men held naked in bare, lightless cells, paraded naked down the hallways, verbally and physically threatened, and so forth. The Red Cross was not reassured when M.I. officers explained that these abuses were part of the interrogation process; and the delegates were indignant when they were told that they wouldn’t be allowed to see some prisoners. They broke off their visit, and came back two weeks later to complete their inspection. Based on their two visits, the I.C.R.C. reported that the Military Intelligence operation at Abu Ghraib was plagued by gross and systematic violations of the Geneva Conventions—physical abuses that left prisoners rattled by psychological trauma: “incoherent speech, acute anxiety reactions . . . suicidal ideas.”
On occasion, interrogators told the M.P.s to reward a prisoner—give him a better meal or a pack of cigarettes and let him smoke in his cell—as an incentive for coöperation in interrogation. But mostly what interrogators wanted when they asked for “special treatment” was punishment: take away his mattress, keep him awake, take away his clothes, or “P.T.” him—that is, put him through a “physical training” regimen that might range from squat thrusts and low-crawling naked over concrete to being slapped and knocked around while hooded and made to stand on a cardboard box all night.
The M.P.s on the M.I. cellblock never learned the prisoners’ names. Officially, they referred to their wards by their five-digit prison numbers, but the numbering system was confusing, and the numbers told you nothing about a person, which made them hard to remember. So the soldiers gave the prisoners nicknames based on their looks and their behavior. A prisoner who made a shank and tried to stab someone was Shank, and a prisoner who got hold of a razor blade and cut himself was called Slash. A prisoner who kept spraying himself and his cell with water and was always asking for a broom was Mr. Clean. A prisoner who repeatedly soaked his mattress with water was Swamp Thing.
There was a man they called Smiley, and a man they called Froggy, and a man they called Piggy. There was a man with no fingers on one hand, only a thumb, who was called Thumby—not to be confused with the enormous man called the Claw or Dr. Claw, because one of his hands was frozen in a half-clenched curl. The man they called Santa Claus was also called Snowman. There was the man they called Taxi Driver, because he’d been arrested while driving a cab, and there was a gaunt man they called Gus, but nobody knew why that name had stuck, and he was also sometimes called Mr. Burns, after the scrawny villain on “The Simpsons.”
The nicknames made the prisoners both more familiar and more like cartoon characters, which kept them comfortably unreal when it was time to mete out punishment. Hydrue Joyner took credit for many of the nicknames. “It was jail, but, you know, you can still laugh in jail,” he said. Javal Davis, who had spent six years in the Army, “expecting to learn a career field, get some benefits for college, get a step ahead of my peers, get discipline, become a man,” enjoyed gallows humor as much as the next guy. The problem was that when you spend your nights doing nasty things to people you’ve got to endure them yourself. Davis had violence in him, and he found that making life miserable for men toward whom he had no personal animus could work him into a mounting, generalized rage. But aggression could get you only so far before the depression caught up with it. There were many ways to torment a prisoner according to M.I.’s demands, and for the most part there was nothing funny about them.
“Smells,” Davis said. “Put them in a cell where the toilet is blocked—backed up. It smells like urine and crap. That would drive you nuts.” And you could keep shifting a prisoner’s mealtimes, or simply withhold meals. The prisoners ate the same M.R.E.s that the guards ate, but you could deny them the spoon and all the fixings. “If you got Salisbury steak, they got the Salisbury steak, not the rice that comes with it, not the hot sauce, not the snack, not the juice—the Salisbury steak, and that’s it,” Davis said. “They were starving by the time they’d get ready to get interrogated.” At that point, he said, it would be: “O.K., we’ll give you more food if you talk.”
And you could inflict pain. “You also had stress positions, and you escalated the stress positions,” Davis said. “Hand-cuffs behind their backs, high up, in very uncomfortable positions, or chained down. Then you had the submersion. You put the people in garbage cans, and you’d put ice in it, and water. Or stick them underneath the shower spigot naked. They’d be freezing.” It was a routine, he said: “Open a window while it was, like, forty degrees outside and watch them disappear into themselves . . . before they go into shock.”
Javal Davis had joined the Reserve in 1997, when he was in college. He was impressed by the R.O.T.C. drill he saw: “saluting, about-face—that looked kind of sharp, the rank and file, the order and everything.” He thought it was both an honor and honorable to serve his country, and he was willing to die protecting its freedom. “Especially after 9/11,” he said. He was born and raised in Roselle, New Jersey, across New York Harbor from the World Trade towers; he had won trophies in state championships in the hundred-and-ten-metre high hurdle, and he hoped one day to be a Roselle policeman or a New Jersey state trooper. “And to see that happen on my own soil,” he said. “It turned it up a notch.”
But after four or five nights of running the M.I. block of the Abu Ghraib hard site, Davis said, “I just wanted to go home.” He felt that what he did and saw there was wrong. “But it was reaffirmed and reassured through the leadership: We’re at war. This is Military Intelligence. This is what they do. And it’s just a job,” he said. “So, over time, you become numb to it, and it’s nothing. It just became the norm. You see it—that sucks. It sucks to be him. And that’s it. You move on.”
Sabrina Harman also said she felt herself growing numb at Abu Ghraib, yet she kept being startled by her capacity to feel fresh shocks. “In the beginning,” she said, “you see somebody naked and you see underwear on their head and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty bad—I can’t believe I just saw that.’ And then you go to bed and you come back the next day and you see something worse. Well, it seems like the day before wasn’t so bad.”
Harman was a runner on the night shift at the hard site, filling in where help was needed. “I really don’t remember the first day,” she said. “I remember the first day of working in Tier 1A and 1B. The first thing that I noticed was this guy—he had underwear on his head and he was handcuffed backwards to a window, and they were pretty much asking him questions. And then there was another guy who was fully dressed in another cell they were interrogating also, or I guess they had already interrogated. That’s the first time I started taking photos.” The prisoner with the underwear on his head was the one the M.P.s called Taxi Driver. He was naked, and the position he was in—his hands bound behind his back and raised higher than his shoulders, forcing him to bend forward with his head bowed and his weight suspended from his wrists—is known as a “Palestinian hanging,” because it is said to be used in Israeli prisons. Later that evening, Taxi Driver was moved to a bed, and Harman took another picture of him there. Then she saw another prisoner, lying on his bed fully dressed, and she photographed him, too.
As far as Harman knew at the time, nobody else had taken any pictures on Tier 1A, although later she saw one from a few days earlier of a naked man in the corridor, handcuffed to the bars of a cell door. She wasn’t surprised. By the end of Harman’s first night, three of the M.P.s had taken at least twenty-five photographs, and over the ensuing months the M.P.s on the night shift took hundreds more pictures on the M.I. block. The officer in charge of the block at night, Corporal Charles Graner, said that he made a point of showing his photographs to officers higher up the chain of command, and that nobody objected to what they saw. On the contrary, after a month on the job, and after showing scores of photographs of prisoners in torment to his superiors, Graner received a written assessment from his captain, a frequent visitor to the block, who said, “You are doing a fine job. . . . You have received many accolades from the M.I. units here.”
Most of the photographs from Harman’s first night show solitary naked prisoners in stress positions, cuffed to the bars of their cells or stretched and bent, forward or backward, over a bunk bed, with their hands bound to the far railing. Some of the prisoners are hooded with sandbags, some with underpants. One naked man is lying face down on a concrete floor. Several photographs show a row of prisoners in orange jumpsuits doing pushups in the hallway, and in one Staff Sergeant Ivan (Chip) Frederick—the night-shift officer in charge of the whole hard site—can be made out, in the background. Nobody in these photographs appears to be aware of the camera, and the pictures have the quality of stolen glimpses of men rendered into hellish statuary. Harman said that she began photographing what she saw because she found it hard to believe. “If I come up to you and I’m like, ‘Hey this is going on,’ you probably wouldn’t believe me unless I had something to show you,” she said. “So if I say, ‘Hey this is going on. Look, I have proof,’ you can’t deny it, I guess.” That was the impulse, she said. “Just show what was going on, what was allowed to be done.”
On the same night that she started shooting pictures at the hard site, Harman wrote home:
The days are long here, 12 hour shifts. The prison has been quiet for the past two nights. The night before that another IED went off. No one was killed but it destroyed another Hmvv.
None of our unit has been in the mix of the mortars or IEDs. Not yet. Im afraid to leave the prison to go south to use the phones, they plant those IEDs on the roads and set them off as you pass. The sound is unforgettable. . . .
The prisoners we have range from theft to murder of a US soldier. Until Redcross came we had prisoners the MI put in womens panties trying to get them to talk. Pretty funny but they say it was “cruel.” I don’t think so. No physical harm was done. We’ve even got Sadams sons body guard here. . . . Boy did he fail his job. It sucks working with the prisoners because they all have something wrong. We have people with rashes on their bodies and who-ever is in the cell with them start to get it. . . .
I spoke too soon, its 3am, there’s a firefight outside. Its never going to be calm here! We have guys with TB! That sucks cause we can catch that. Some have STDs. You name it. Its just dirty!
The food sucks. I live off cup o noodles, that’s my meals. The meals they serve are T-REX which is out of a box. If I do come home, boy am I going to eat!
The next night, Harman was back on duty with Charles Graner on the M.I. cellblock, and she wrote again:
October 20, 03—12:29am
The lights went out in the prison so here we were in the dark—in the prison. I have watch of the 18 and younger boys. I hear, misses! Misses! I go downstairs and flash my light on this 16 year old sitting down with his sandal smacking ants. Now these ants are Iraqi ants, LARGE! So large they could carry the family dog away while giving you the finger! LARGE. And this poor boy is being attacked by hundreds. All the ants in the prison came to this one boys cell and decided to take over. All I could do was spray Lysol. The ants laughed at me and kept going. So here we were the boy on one side of the cell and me on the other in the dark with one small flashlight beating ants with our shoes. . . . Poor kids. Those ants even Im scared of.
So that was the start of my shift. They’ve been stripping “the ****ed up” prisoners and handcuffing them to the bars. Its pretty sad. I get to laugh at them and throw corn at them. I kind of feel bad for these guys even if they are accused of killing US soldiers. We degrade them but we don’t hit and thats a plus even though Im sure they wish we’d kill them. They sleep one hour then we yell and wake them—make them stay up for one hour, then sleep one hour—then up etc. This goes on for 72 hours while we **** with them. Most have been so scared they piss on themselves. Its sad. It’s a little worst than Basic training ie: being naked and handcuffed. . . .
But pictures were taken, you have to see them! A sandbag was put over their heads while it was soaked in hot sauce. Okay, that’s bad but these guys have info, we are trying to get them to talk, that’s all, we don’t do this to all prisoners, just the few we have which is about 30-40 not many.
The othernight at 3, when I wrote you, the firefight . . . 3 killed 6 injured—Iraqis. . . .
Its time to wake them again!!!
And later that same day, on her next night shift, Harman wrote:
Oct 20, 03
Okay, I don’t like that anymore. At first it was funny but these people are going too far. I ended your letter last night because it was time to wake the MI prisoners and “mess with them” but it went too far even I can’t handle whats going on. I cant get it out of my head. I walk down stairs after blowing the whistle and beating on the cells with an asp to find “the taxicab driver” handcuffed backwards to his window naked with his underwear over his head and face. He looked like Jesus Christ. At first I had to laugh so I went on and grabbed the camera and took a picture. One of the guys took my asp and started “poking” at his dick. Again I thought, okay that’s funny then it hit me, that’s a form of molestation. You can’t do that. I took more pictures now to “record” what is going on. They started talking to this man and at first he was talking “I’m just a taxicab driver, I did nothing.” He claims he’d never try to hurt US soldiers that he picked up the wrong people. Then he stopped talking. They turned the lights out and slammed the door and left him there while they went down to cell #4. This man had been so ****ed that when they grabbed his foot through the cell bars he began screaming and crying. After praying to Allah he moans a constant short Ah, Ah every few seconds for the rest of the night. I don’t know what they did to this guy. The first one remained handcuffed for maybe 1 ½-2 hours until he started yelling for Allah. So they went back in and handcuffed him to the top bunk on either side of the bed while he stood on the side. He was there for a little over an hour when he started yelling again for Allah. Not many people know this shit goes on. The only reason I want to be there is to get the pictures and prove that the US is not what they think. But I don’t know if I can take it mentally. What if that was me in their shoes. These people will be our future terrorist. Kelly, its awful and you know how ****ed I am in the head. Both sides of me think its wrong. I thought I could handle anything. I was wrong.
Nobody called Sabrina Harman Mother Teresa at the Abu Ghraib hard site. But even on the Military Intelligence block she retained her reputation as the blithe spirit of the unit, obviously not a leader and yet never a true follower, either—more like a tagalong, the soldier who should never have been a soldier. In her letters from those first nights, as she described her reactions to the prisoners’ degradation and her part in it—ricocheting from childish mockery to casual swagger to sympathy to cruelty to titillation to self-justification to self-doubt to outrage to identification to despair—she managed to subtract herself from the scenes she sketched. By the end of her outpourings, she had repositioned herself as an outsider at Abu Ghraib, an observer and recorder, shaking her head, and in this way she preserved a sense of her own innocence.
Harman said that she had imagined herself producing an exposé—to “prove that the US is not what they think,” as she wrote to Kelly. The idea was abstract, and she had only a vague notion of how to see it through or what its consequences might be. She said she intended to give the photographs to the press after she got home and out of the Army. But she did not pretend to be a whistle-blower-in-waiting; rather, she wished to unburden herself of complicity in conduct that she considered wrong, without ascribing blame or making trouble for anyone in particular. At the outset, when she photographed what was being done to prisoners, she did not include other soldiers in the pictures. In these images, the soldiers, or the order they serve, are the unseen hand in the prisoners’ ordeal. As with crime-scene photographs, which show only victims, we are left to wonder: Who done it?
“I was trying to expose what was being allowed”—that phrase again—“what the military was allowing to happen to other people,” Harman said. In other words, she wanted to expose a policy; and by assuming the role of a documentarian she had found a way to ride out her time at Abu Ghraib without having to regard herself as an instrument of that policy. But it was not merely her choice to be a witness to the dirty work on Tier 1A: it was her role. As a woman, she was not expected to wrestle prisoners into stress positions or otherwise overpower them but, rather, just by her presence, to amplify their sense of powerlessness. She was there as an instrument of humiliation. The M.P.s knew very little about their Iraqi prisoners or the culture they came from, but at Fort Lee, before being deployed, they were given a session of “cultural awareness” training, from which they’d taken away the understanding—constantly reinforced by M.I. handlers—that Arab men were ***ual prudes, with a particular hangup about being seen naked in public, especially by women. What better way to break an Arab, then, than to strip him, tie him up, and have a woman laugh at him? Taking pictures may have seemed an added dash of mortification, but to Harman it was a way of deflecting her own humiliation in the transaction, by acting as a spectator.
Her letters to Kelly functioned in the same way. “Maybe writing home was a release, to help me forget about what was happening,” she said. Then, moments later, she said, “I put everything down on paper that I was thinking. And if it weren’t for those letters, I don’t think I could even tell you anything that went on. That’s the only way I can remember things, is letters and photos.” The remarks sound contradictory, but Harman seemed to conceive of memory as an external storage device. By downloading her impressions to a document, she could clear them from her mind and transform reality into an artifact. After all, she said, that was how she experienced the things she did and saw done to prisoners on Tier 1A: “It seems like stuff like this only happened on TV. It’s not something you really thought was going on. At least I didn’t think it was going on. It’s just something that you watch and that is not real.”
Real or unreal, participant or bystander, degrader or degraded, overstimulated or numbed out—Harman may have meant no harm but she seemed to understand that in the malignant circumstances of the M.I. block she could not be entirely harmless. Unable or unwilling to reconcile her most disturbing and her most appealing actions and reactions, she equivocated. When she wrote of “both sides of me,” she said, “It was military and civilian—the tough side and the non-tough side. You battle out which one is more stronger, I guess. . . . You’re trained to be tough. I was right out of basic, and you’re just trained to do what you’re told, and to not let things affect you. You’re supposed to set all emotions aside, because this is war. I think it’s almost impossible. It is emotional.”
Megan Ambuhl, who was Harman’s roommate at Abu Ghraib, regarded her as a little sister, in need of protection. “She is just so naïve, but awesome,” she said. “A good person, but not always aware of the situation.” Harman called Ambuhl “Mommy,” and accepted the verdict of naïveté with equal measures of solace and regret. Harman wanted to be tough and she wanted to be nice, and she said, “I shouldn’t have been there. I mean obviously I didn’t do what I was supposed to. I couldn’t hit somebody. I can’t stomach that ever. I don’t like to watch people get hit. I get sick. I know it’s kind of weird that I can see a dead person, but I don’t like actual violence. I didn’t like taking away their blankets when it was really cold. Because if I’m freezing and I’m wearing a jacket and a hat and gloves, and these people don’t have anything on and no blanket, no mattress, that’s kind of hard to see and do to somebody—even if they are a terrorist.” In fact, she said, “I really didn’t see them as prisoners there. I just saw them as people that were pretty much in the same situation I was, just trapped in Abu Ghraib.” And she said, “I told them that we were prisoners also. So we felt how they were feeling.”
It was easier to be nice to the women and children on Tier 1B, but, Harman said, “It was kind of sad that they even had to be there.” The youngest prisoner on the tier was just ten years old—“a little kid,” she said. “He could have fit through the bars, he was so little.” Like a number of the other kids and of the women there, he was being held as a pawn in the military’s effort to capture or break his father.
Harman enjoyed spending time with the kids. She let them out to run around the tier in a pack, kicking a soccer ball, and she enlisted them to help sweep the tier and distribute meals—special privileges, reserved only for the most favored prisoners on the M.I. block. “They were fun,” she said. “They made the time go by faster.” She didn’t like seeing children in prison “for no reason, just because of who your father was,” but she didn’t dwell on that. What was the point? “You can’t feel because you’ll just go crazy, so you just kind of blow it off,” Harman said. “You can only make their stay a little bit acceptable, I guess. You give them all the candy from the M.R.E.s to make their time go by better. But there’s only so much you can do or so much you can feel.”
On Tier 1A, Harman liked to sneak cigarettes and doses of Tylenol or ibuprofen to prisoners who were being given a hard time. These small gestures gave her comfort, too, and it pleased her that prisoners sometimes turned to her for help. But Harman was generally as forgiving of her buddies as she was of herself. When toughness failed her, and niceness was not an option, Harman took refuge in denial. “That’s the only way to get through each day, is to start blocking things out,” she said. “Just forget what happened. You go to bed, and then you have the next day to worry about. It’s another day closer to home. Then that day’s over, and you just block that one out.” At the same time, she faulted herself for not being a more enthusiastic soldier when prisoners on Tier 1A were being given the business. When she was asked how other M.P.s could go at it without apparent inhibition, all she could say was “They’re more patriotic.”
One night in the first week of November, 2003, an agent of the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division—an agency sometimes described as the military’s F.B.I.—came to the M.I. block to interrogate a new prisoner, an Iraqi suspected of involvement in the deaths of American soldiers. The story, as the M.P.s understood it, was that the prisoner kept giving a false name and insisting that he was not who the C.I.D. said he was. He was given the nickname Gilligan and subjected to the standard treatment: the yelling, the P.T., the sleep deprivation. Graner, who took charge of Gilligan’s harassment, gave him a cardboard box—an M.R.E. carton—which he was ordered to carry around or to stand on for long stretches. Gilligan was hooded, and normally he would have been naked, too, but, because of the cold, Graner had cut a hole in a prison blanket and draped it over him like a poncho. Staff Sergeant Chip Frederick later told Army investigators that he asked the C.I.D. man—whom he identified as Agent Romero—about Gilligan, and that Romero said, “I don’t give a **** what you do to him, just don’t kill them.”
Frederick said that he took Romero’s words “like an order, but not a specific order,” and he explained, “To me, Agent Romero was like an authority figure, and when he said he needed the detainee stressed out I wanted to make sure the detainee was stressed out.” Frederick found Gilligan where Graner had left him, perched on his box in the shower room of Tier 1A. “There were a lot of detainees that were forced to stand on boxes,” he said. Behind Gilligan, he noticed some loose electrical wires hanging from the wall. “I grabbed them and touched them together to make sure they weren’t live wires,” he said. “When I did that and got nothing, I tied a loop knot on the end, put it on, I believe, his index finger, and left it there.” Frederick said that somebody then tied a wire to Gilligan’s other hand and Harman said, “I told him not to fall off, that he would be electrocuted if he did.”
Harman had been busy for much of the night, keeping awake the prisoner they called the Claw, and attending to another one they called Shitboy, a maniac on Tier 1B who had the habit of smearing himself with his feces and hurling it at passing guards. She was taking a break when she joined the others in the shower room, and although Gilligan understood English, she wasn’t sure if he believed her threat. Besides, the whole mock-electrocution business had not lasted more than ten or fifteen minutes—just long enough for a photo session. “I knew he wouldn’t be electrocuted,” she said. “So it really didn’t bother me. I mean, it was just words. There was really no action in it. It would have been meaner if there really was electricity coming out, and he really could be electrocuted. No physical harm was ever done to him.” In fact, she said, “He was laughing at us towards the end of the night, maybe because he knew we couldn’t break him.”
Once the wires were attached to Gilligan, Frederick had stepped back, instructed Gilligan to hold his arms out straight from his sides, like wings, and taken a picture. Then he took another, identical to the first: the hooded man, in his blanket poncho, barefoot atop his box, arms outstretched, wires trailing from his fingers. Snap, snap—two seconds—and three minutes later Harman took a similar shot, but from a few steps back, so that Frederick appears in the foreground at the edge of the frame, studying on the display screen of his camera the picture he’s just taken.
These were not the first photographs taken on the block that night, or the last. That afternoon, when the night shift M.P.s reported for duty at the hard site, their platoon commander had called them to a meeting. “He said there was a prisoner who had died in the shower, and he died of a heart attack,” Harman said. The body had been left in the shower on Tier 1B, packed in ice, and shortly after the session with Gilligan somebody noticed water trickling out from under the shower door.
As Harman entered the shower room, she snapped a picture of a black rubber body bag lying along the far wall. Then she and Graner, their hands sheathed in turquoise latex surgical gloves, unzipped the bag. “We just checked him out and took photos of him—kind of realized right away that there was no way he died of a heart attack because of all the cuts and blood coming out of his nose,” she said, and she added, “You don’t think your commander’s going to lie to you about something. It made my trust go down, that’s for sure. Well, you can’t trust your commander now.”
Translucent plastic ice bags covered the dead prisoner from the neck down, but his battered, bandaged face was exposed—mouth agape as if in mid-speech. Harman, the aspiring forensic photographer, shot him from a variety of angles, zooming in and out, while Charles Graner swabbed the floor. When he was done, he took a photograph of Harman posing with the corpse, bending low into the frame, flashing her Kodak smile, and giving the thumbs-up with one gloved hand; and she used his camera to take a similar shot of him. After about seven minutes in the shower room, she zipped the body bag shut, and they left.
“I guess we weren’t really thinking, Hey, this guy has family, or, Hey, this guy was just murdered,” Harman said. “It was just—Hey, it’s a dead guy, it’d be cool to get a photo next to a dead person. I know it looks bad. I mean, even when I look at them, I go, ‘Oh Jesus, that does look pretty bad.’ But when we were in that situation it wasn’t as bad as it looks coming out on the media, I guess, because people have photos of all kinds of things. Like, if a soldier sees somebody dead, normally they’ll take photos of it.”
Harman might more accurately have said that it’s not unusual to take such pictures. Soldiers have always swapped crazy war stories—whether to boast or confess, to moralize or titillate—and the uncritical response of other soldiers at Abu Ghraib to the photographs from the night shift on the M.I. block suggests that they were seen as belonging to this comradely tradition. Javal Davis took no photographs there and he appeared in none, but he said, “Everyone in theatre had a digital camera. Everyone was taking pictures of everything, from detainees to death.” He said, “That was nothing, like in Vietnam where guys were taking pictures of the dead guy with a cigarette in his mouth. Like, Hey, Mom, look. It sounds sick, but over there that was commonplace, it was nothing. I mean, when you’re surrounded by death and carnage and violence twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, it absorbs you. You walk down the street and you see a dead body on the road, whereas a couple months ago, you would have been like, ‘Oh, my God, a dead body,’ today you’re like, ‘Damn, he got messed up, let’s go get something to eat.’ You could watch someone running down the street burning on fire, as long as it’s not an American soldier, it’s ‘Somebody needs to go put that guy out.’ ”
The pictures of Harman and Graner with the corpse may have been taken as a gag—“for personal use,” as Frederick said of his photos of Gilligan—but they are starkly at odds with Harman’s claim of a larger documentary purpose. By contrast, her grisly, intimate portraits of the corpse convey her shock at discovering its wreckage; and later that evening Harman returned to the shower with Frederick to examine the body more carefully. This time, she looked beneath the ice bags and peeled back the bandages, and she stayed out of the pictures.
“I just started taking photos of everything I saw that was wrong, every little bruise and cut,” Harman said. “His knees were bruised, his thighs were bruised by his genitals. He had restraint marks on his wrists. You had to look close. I mean, they did a really good job cleaning him up.” She said, “The gauze on his eye was put there after he died to make it look like he had medical treatment, because he didn’t when he came into the prison.” She said, “There were so many things around the bandage, like the blood coming out of his nose and his ears. And his tooth was chipped—I didn’t know if that happened there or before—his lip was split open, and it looked like somebody had either butt-stocked him or really got him good or hit him against the wall. It was a pretty good-sized gash. I took a photo of that as well.” She said, “I just wanted to document everything I saw. That was the reason I took photos.” She said, “It was to prove to pretty much anybody who looked at this guy, Hey, I was just lied to. This guy did not die of a heart attack. Look at all these other existing injuries that they tried to cover up.”
The next morning, after nearly thirty hours in the shower, the corpse was removed from the tier disguised as a sick prisoner: draped with a blanket, taped to an I.V., and rolled away on a gurney. Hydrue Joyner was reminded of the Hollywood farce “Weekend at Bernie’s,” in which two corporate climbers treat their murdered boss as a puppet, pretending he’s alive to avoid suspicion in his death. “I was thinking to myself, Un-freaking-believable. But this came from on high,” Joyner said of the charade with the I.V. “I took it as they didn’t want any of the prisoners thinking we were in there killing folks.” Joyner referred to the dead man as Bernie, but Army investigators soon identified him as a suspected insurgent named Manadel al-Jamadi. He was alleged to have provided explosives for the bombing that blew up the Red Cross headquarters in Baghdad a week before his arrest, and he had died while under interrogation by a C.I.A. agent. Within the week that followed, an autopsy concluded that Jamadi had succumbed to “blunt force injuries” and “compromised respiration”; and his death was classified as a homicide.
Jamadi’s C.I.A. interrogator has never been charged with a crime. But Sabrina Harman was. As a result of the pictures she took and appeared in at Abu Ghraib, she was convicted by court-martial, in May of 2005, of conspiracy to maltreat prisoners, dereliction of duty, and maltreatment, and sentenced to six months in prison, a reduction in rank, and a bad-conduct discharge. Megan Ambuhl, Javal Davis, Chip Frederick, Charles Graner, and Jeremy Sivits were among the handful of other soldiers who, on account of the photographs, were also sentenced to punishments ranging from a reduction in rank and a loss of pay to ten years in prison. The only person ranked above staff sergeant to face a court-martial was cleared of criminal wrongdoing. No one has ever been charged for abuses at the prison that were not photographed. Originally, Harman’s charges included several counts pertaining to her pictures of Jamadi, but these were never brought to trial. The pictures constituted the first public evidence that the man had been killed during an interrogation at Abu Ghraib, and Harman said, “They tried to charge me with destruction of government property, which I don’t understand. And then maltreatment for taking the photos of a dead guy. But he’s dead. I don’t know how that’s maltreatment. And then altering evidence for removing the bandage from his eye to take a photo of it and then I placed it back. When he died, they cleaned him all up and then stuck the bandages on. So it’s not really altering evidence. They had already done that for me. But in order to make the charges stick they were going to have to bring in the photos, which they didn’t want, because obviously they covered up a murder and that would just make them look bad. So they dropped all the charges pertaining to the guy in the shower.”
As for Gilligan, the Criminal Investigation Department determined that he was not, after all, who he had been suspected of being during his ordeal. “So all of that, and the poor guy was innocent,” Harman said. He remained on Tier 1A and soon became one of the M.P.s’ favorite prisoners. Gilligan was given the privileged status of a block worker, and was regularly let out of his cell to help with the cleaning. Megan Ambuhl called him “pretty decent,” and said she had a picture of him sharing a meal and a smoke with Charles Graner. Sabrina Harman said, “He was just a funny, funny guy. If you’re going to take someone home, I definitely would have taken him.”
Under the circumstances, Harman was baffled that the figure of Gilligan—hooded, caped, and wired on his box—had eventually become the icon of Abu Ghraib and possibly the most recognized emblem of the war on terror after the World Trade towers. The image had proliferated around the globe in uncountable reproductions and representations—in the press, but also on murals and placards, T-shirts and billboards, on mosque walls and in art galleries. Harman had even acquired a Gilligan tattoo on one arm, but she considered that a private souvenir. It was the public’s fascination with the photograph of Gilligan—of all the images from Abu Ghraib—that she couldn’t fathom. “There’s so many worse photos out there. I mean, nothing negative happened to him, really,” she said. “I think they thought he was being tortured, which he wasn’t.”
Harman was right: there were worse pictures than Gilligan. But, leaving aside that photographs of death and nudity, however newsworthy, don’t get much play in the press, the power of an image does not necessarily lie in what it depicts. A photograph of a mangled cadaver, or of a naked man trussed in torment, can shock and outrage, provoke protest and investigation, but it leaves little to the imagination. It may be rich in practical information, while being devoid of any broader meaning. To the extent that it represents any circumstances or conditions beyond itself, it does so generically. Such photographs are repellent, in large part because they have a terrible, reductive sameness. Except from a forensic point of view, they are unambiguous, and have the quality of pornography. They are what they show, nothing more. They communicate no vision and, shorn of context, they offer little, if anything, to think about, no occasion for wonder. They have no value as symbols.
Of course, the dominant symbol of Western civilization is the figure of a nearly naked man, tortured to death—or, more simply, the torture implement itself, the cross. But our pictures of the savage death of Jesus are the product of religious imagination and idealization. In reality, he must have been ghastly to behold. Had there been cameras at Calvary, would twenty centuries of believers have been moved to hang photographs of the scene on their altarpieces and in their homes?
The image of Gilligan achieves its power from the fact that it does not show the human form laid bare and reduced to raw matter but creates instead an original image of inhumanity that admits no immediately self-evident reading. Its fascination resides, in large part, in its mystery and inscrutability—in all that is concealed by all that it reveals. It is an image of carnival weirdness: this upright body shrouded from head to foot; those wires; that pose; and the peaked hood that carries so many vague and ghoulish associations. The pose is obviously contrived and theatrical, a deliberate invention that appears to belong to some dark ritual, a primal scene of martyrdom. The picture transfixes us because it looks like the truth, but, looking at it, we can only imagine what that truth is: torture, execution, a scene staged for the camera? So we seize on the figure of Gilligan as a symbol that stands for all that we know was wrong at Abu Ghraib and all that we cannot—or do not want to—understand about how it came to this.
|Sun Mar 23, 2008 7:07 am
Forum Family Member
|Joined: 19 Jul 2007
|Yup i got noticed those before an year or so... she was having some pics of those grab Muslims & of some terrible punishments.....
" Aashiqi se milega a Zahid !!!
Bandgi se Khuda nahi milta ... !!! "
|Sun Mar 23, 2008 5:28 pm
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