The Christian Dogs of War
We've heard of the brutality of war before. How US GI's in Vietnam called the enemy gooks, dinks, and slopes. How the marines threw terrified prisoners out of helicopters cruising at 1500 feet and machine-gunned down innocent women and children.
We know US soldiers are trained to hate the enemy through a careful indoctrination in racism. How else could they be persuaded to go against the bedrock moral of "Thou shall not kill"? How else could they be convinced it's okay to embark on a steady diet of murder, decapitating humans with air strikes, smashing brains, severing limbs, burning babies?
We know US society as a whole, whenever a war is in the offing, is indoctrinated with the same racism. How else could good, honest, decent Americans be persuaded to send their innocent sons off to kill and be killed?
We know that it's usual for warriors to bring home trophies. A recent piece in the New York Times mentioned one US soldier who, during World War II, sent a Japanese skull to his sweetie. Later she was photographed by Life magazine as she stared dreamily at this odd gift. (1) This was not a unique event. In the Pacific Islands US soldiers affixed Japanese skulls atop poles at the entrances to conquered villages and mounted them on ruined Japanese tanks. Marines took photos of other marines diligently preparing their skull trophies, boiling off the facial flesh in metal vats. (2)
This barbaric behavior was following in a hallowed colonialist tradition. In 1898, in the Belgian Congo the "natives" resisted their Belgium occupiers. A punitive expedition killed off 21 rebels. Their skulls -- all 21 of them -- were used as a decorative border around the flower garden of a certain Captain Rom. (3)
The GI's in Vietnam had a different favorite trophy: the ears of dead Vietnamese. They were strung onto necklaces or carried around in plastic bags tucked into a pack. The journalist Michael Herring was handed such a collection as a joke. Herring was about to dip into what he thought was a bag of dried apricots when he realized the macabre nature of the bag's contents. (4)
The photos from Abu Ghraib are the trophies of the digital era. They were and presumably still are popular currency. They were "swapped from computer to computer throughout the 360th Battalion" and probably other battalions as well. (5)
Despite fervent protestations to the contrary, we know unleashing attack dogs on prisoners is not a new perversion. Seymour Hersh quotes extensively from Major General Charles Hines, who says, "Turning dogs loose in a room of people? Loosing dogs on prisoners of war? I've never heard of it and it would never have been tolerated." Hines, who previously was head of the Army's military-police school, went on to say, if he'd ever authorized such behavior, he "would have been put in jail or kicked out of the Army." (6) Yet, over 40 years ago in Nam the US was tying up prisoners and unleashing attack dogs on them. (7)
What surprises and disgusts us about the Abu Ghraib scandal are the ghoulish, sexual humiliations, the pornographic, sadistic impulses at work.
For centuries racism has gone hand in hand with sexual abuse. Slavery and rape were constant bedfellows. The long, infamous history of lynching in the South frequently involved castration. Then there are the continuing sexual slurs about African-American men and the sexual harassment of African-American women in the workplace. An example that made it into the courts: the only black woman working on a soap factory's assembly line often found soap in the shape of a penis sliding down the conveyor belt to her station. (8)
Still the Abu Ghraib perversities shock. Forcing prisoners to masturbate, to engage in fellatio, to sodomize themselves, to have sex with one another? We've reached a nadir of sadistic cruelty and torture.
As we struggle with how to bend our minds around the outrage, how to find words to describe these appalling acts, the fervid imagination of the Dutch painter, Hieronymus Bosch, comes to mind. Bosch's triptych, Garden of Earthly Delights, in one panel shows naked figures engaging in orgiastic sex, including anal penetration. In another panel bodies are flayed, burned, speared, chopped up -- and other insults that are, for all eternity, inflicted on those consigned to Hell.
The tortures in Hieronymus Bosch's late medieval world have a similar origin to those taking place in Abu Ghraib and other prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The fundamentalist Christian rhetoric dished out by President Bush and his cronies to promote war against the "axis of evil" has produced a virulent form of righteousness. The blameless and the pure mete out punishment to the damned.
The slurs in previous wars, gook or slant-eye, were nicknames, names that were distant relatives to the appellations school boys taunt each other with at recess. Underneath the taunt there was still the possibility of a human being.
The names affixed to Iraqis are not nicknames. They are qualities - bad guys, evil ones, devils -- qualities that penetrate through and through. Iraqis are not branded as Reds. (A communist has adopted a certain political program and, conceivably, could be re-educated.) If, however, you're evil, you're inhuman or subhuman. You're also unredeemable. You deserve the fires of Hell.
It's odd that Christian fundamentalist theology would end up indirectly promoting sadomasochistic acts. One would expect puritanical Christians to abhor such acts. Yet there's a horrible consistency here. It's as if we've slipped into a time warp.
We're back in 19th century Africa with Christian missionaries primly looking aside as soldiers whipped African children to death and British colonialists punished indigenous peoples for not producing enough rubber - by chopping off their hands. (9) (In all fairness some missionaries protested the barbaric behavior. Their complaints fell on deaf ears just as the protests of the International Red Cross regarding conditions inside Abu Ghraib were also ignored.)
We're back with Christian missionaries who believed the natives should be treated "with utmost severity." We're back in the heyday of European colonization when the brutal necessities of colonization -- burning down of villages, shooting of rebels, torturing of slaves -- were considered "sacred work." We're back steaming up the rivers of Africa with Bible-toting missionaries, armed-to-the-teeth soldiers, and greedy entrepreneurs. And we're back with the pious folk at home lauding those fateful steamers saying they were "carrying the glad tidings of 'peace and goodwill toward men' to the dark places of the earth which are now filled with cruelty." (10)
There are, of course, ethical, conscientious people of all religions, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, who deep in their hearts abhor and despise what's happening in Iraq. Unfortunately, their dismay has not yet reached our pious President.
Can the terrible damage of Abu Ghraib ever been undone? Probably not. But what a difference a few Christian acts would make.
What if the US President went down on his knees and asked forgiveness of his Maker and of the American public for telling the lies he told, deliberately and maliciously, to build support for this illegal war? What if he contritely and humbly went on national TV and admitted there was absolutely no connection linking Saddam Hussein, al-Qaeda and September 11? What if he swallowed his pride and admitted he had never read (or cared about the Geneva Conventions) but now he had and did? What if he told us the truth, that this is not a war on terror, but a war to take possession of Iraq's oil?
What if he called off the Dogs of War?
Mina Hamilton is a writer
based in New York City. She can be reached at
Articles by Mina Hamilton