The Pornography of War
by Kim Petersen
May 6, 2004

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We are all sorry when we are found out. The question is what lesson have we learned? The question is, what are we going to do now that we are sorry?

-- J.M. Coetzee, Disgust

The apologies are starting to flow.

At this point in history, much of humanity obviously remains incapable of avoiding the barbarity of war. That savagery was inherent in warfare was assumed in the past. But modern warfare is still replete with human savagery. The moral enlightenment of western warriors -- aside from the question of whether one could ever consider a warrior morally enlightened -- still leaves a whole lot to be desired.

The My Lai Massacre was supposed to be an aberration, but other stories of horrors perpetrated by US soldiers against the Vietnamese percolated through, despite attempts to quash them and cover up the crimes. The crimes were myriad as revealed in the Toledo Blade expose on the atrocities of a rampaging platoon called Tiger Force: “Women and children were intentionally blown up in underground bunkers. Elderly farmers were shot as they toiled in the fields. Prisoners were tortured and executed -- their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs. One soldier kicked out the teeth of executed civilians for their gold fillings.” (1)

As for how many were killed, former Pvt. Ken Kerney said, “We weren’t keeping count.”

“I knew it was wrong,” he admits, “but it was an acceptable practice.” (2)

The atrocities were known at high levels within the government and hushed up. (3)

Even John Kerry admitted to war crimes in Vietnam as a daily occurrence. Back on 27 April 1971 Kerry stated,

“These were not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command. It is impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in Detroit -- the emotions in the room and the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam. They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do.”


“They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Ghengis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.” (4)

Kerry himself was culpable. He confessed to Tim Russert in an interview on Meet the Press, “I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed …” (5)

Things haven’t improved under the Bush regime. There is the miserable fate, chronicled in the film Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death by Jamie Doran that befell perhaps 3000 Taliban prisoners who had surrendered to US ally, the Northern Alliance. They were packed into the rear of container trucks near Mazar-i-Sharif and left to bake in the heat for many days. On the way to the prison in Sheberghan, the men parched and gasping for breath, began beating on the sides of the trucks. The Northern Alliance fighters splayed the containers with machine gun fire. The dead were reportedly unloaded from the trucks in complicity with American soldiers and CIA.

Why should American aggression turn out to be any different in Iraq? The monumental immorality and stupidity at Abu Ghuraib has threatened Bush’s moral crusade. Bush was, however, quick to express a requisite amount of indignation at the “abhorrent” behavior. Did the Iraqis really need Bush to tell them the behavior was unacceptable? No direct apology has been offered so far and this is in keeping with Papa Bush who once ignominiously intoned, “I will never apologize for the United States of America -- I don’t care what the facts are.” But Bush’s press secretary did apologize on Bush’s behalf.

What kind of man relies on his subordinates to apologize for him?

Why should anyone believe that Abu Ghuraib, where tens-of-thousands were jammed into “human holding pits,” is an aberration? A report by Major General Antonio M. Taguba described:

Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape; allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell; sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick, and using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee. (6)

The 18 Tiger Force soldiers in Vietnam were determined to be guilty of war crimes but escaped punishment. It seems that times have changed somewhat. For the crimes detailed in the Taguba report -- the humiliation of stripping Iraqis, forcing them into compromising positions, and photographing them -- six of seven supervisors were given “severe reprimands” and the seventh was admonished by mail. Six lower-ranking enlistees are already charged with crimes. Now if the roles had been reversed would Americans conclude that the punishments fit the crimes? Maytag worker Tami Silico was fired for simply taking photos of flag-draped coffins and her husband was also fired for, presumably, guilt (of what is still uncertain) by association. One wonders about the proportionality of justice and punishment.

The head military figure in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, blamed lax standards: “Their responsibility is to set the standards in the organization. They should have known, but they did not.” Ignorance is bliss and it seems to be in abundance. If only this ignorance could be tapped as an energy source then there would be no need to invade far-flung lands to usurp their energy sources. (7)

One of the Iraqi prisoners defiled by Americans at Abu Ghuraib, Hashim Muhsin, described the sadistic treatment: “They covered our heads with bags, they beat us with the butts of their guns without any fear that we would die of the blows. They made us take our clothes off and they pushed us against the wall. They did things to us that I am unable to talk about.” (8)

Why should we believe Abu Ghuraib is an isolated case when POWs in Guantánamo Bay are tortured and even 9-11 detainees in Brooklyn are reportedly abused? (9) If the corporate media were reporting the news instead of suppressing it then people would realize what was happening in Afghanistan and Iraq. Why the targeting of journalists by US forces? Why the vendetta against the Qatari station Al Jazeera? Why shut down Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s newspaper? Why not refute the stories in their own media? What are the US authorities afraid of? Abu Ghuraib is not an isolated incident.

Those who dig a little deeper and read the news are aware of many other “isolated” incidents:

  • A video that depicts the slaying of an incapacitated Iraqi fighter. (10)
  • The floodgates are now open. French TV station Canal Plus broadcast smuggled images on its of a US Apache helicopter killing three apparently non-threatening Iraqis, one of them wounded. This is not new news and Indymedia Media UK, among other media outlets, had scooped the French station much earlier. (11)
  • Grinning US soldiers who punish a taxi driver for stealing wood by crushing his taxi under their tank, thereby depriving him of his means of making a living. (12) One also wonders how the US military justice meted out to Iraqis compares to the tongue-lashings military superiors received for the sadistic abuse of Iraqi prisoners and at least one death at Abu Ghuraib.
  • Five US soldiers forced two Iraqi youths into the Tigris River at gunpoint. Nineteen-year-old Zeidun Fadhil, who was unable to swim, drowned. (13)
  • There are the circulating series of photos depicting US soldiers engaged in the rape of Arab women. One side is inevitably bound to dispute the authenticity of any photos, videos, or tapes found. Media consumers need be wary of the possibility of deception. Websites with the graphic photos such as www.albarash.net are currently being blocked. (14)
  • There is a photo (below) of US Lt. Cpl. Boudreaux with two young Iraqi boys giving the thumbs-up sign, one of them, apparently unaware, is holding a self-mocking sign. (15)


Sign reads: "Lcpl Boudreaux killed my dad then he knocked up my sister!"

This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list. Significant is not the number of stories but rather the recurring and indisputable theme: the humiliation and slaughter of a people under the absurd pretext of liberating them.

The Americans are not alone in their wretched behavior toward the Iraqis. British troops have had their own wretchedness exposed.

  • The Sun reported on photos of a “petrified” Iraqi suspended from a forklift and other Iraqis forced into sexual poses by British soldiers. (16)
  • The Mirror recently released photos of a hooded Iraqi who was allegedly tortured and thrown off a truck. (17)
  • Early one morning British troops entered the Ibn Al Haitham Hotel, looted it, and took Baha Mousa and five other hotel employees to a British base. A few days later Mousa’s father came to pick up his “bruised, bloodied and badly beaten corpse.” The young man’s father Col Mousa described the extent of the beating:

“When they took the cover off his body I could see his nose was broken badly,” he said. “There was blood coming from his nose and his mouth. The skin on his wrists had been torn off. The skin on his forehead was torn away and beneath his eyes there was no skin either. On the left side of his chest there were clear blue bruises and also on his abdomen. On his legs I saw bruising from kicking. I couldn’t stand it.” (18)

 The Guardian concluded, “The death of Baha Mousa is not an isolated case.”

The Americans are shielded from their actions. The International Criminal Court has no jurisdiction over American citizens. 

Punishment for the crimes may satisfy a need for vengeance, but much more important is the fact that the crimes perpetuate, indicating an institutionalization and tolerance of crimes by the military. A society that embodies such militarism hardly has any legitimate claim to civilization; for it is not so much the trappings of a society that define it but the behavior of the citizens within a society to each other and especially to strangers.

Isolated Cases

Seymour Hersh indicates that higher ups are hiding:

Captain Robert Shuck, Frederick’s military attorney, closed his defense at the Article 32 hearing last month by saying that the Army was “attempting to have these six soldiers atone for its sins.” Similarly, Gary Myers, Frederick’s civilian attorney, told me that he would argue at the court-martial that culpability in the case extended far beyond his client. “I’m going to drag every involved intelligence officer and civilian contractor I can find into court,” he said. “Do you really believe the Army relieved a general officer because of six soldiers? Not a chance.” (19)

Bush administration officials express disgust and simultaneously try to defuse the powder keg of Abu Ghuraib. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt maintains, “This is not representative of the 150,000 soldiers that are over here.” He implores the American people, “Don’t judge your [sic] army on the actions of a few.” (20)

US defense lawyer Gary Myer seeks to exculpate the “small town American soldiers” who became high on the intoxicating “elixir of power.” (21)

US Secretary-of-State Colin Powell reminds Americans of the “small number of troops who acted in an illegal and improper manner.” (22)

Powell, apparently confident of some residual credibility following his discredited WMD polemic before the UN Security Council, pledges to Americans, “I can assure you that no stone will be left unturned to make sure that justice is done and to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.”

US Defense [sic] Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wishfully says, “It is, we hope, an isolated case.” He also assures Americans: “We’re taking and will continue to take whatever steps are necessary to hold accountable those that may have violated the code of military conduct and betrayed the trust placed in them by the American people.” (23)

It’s déjà vu all over again. Dennis Stout, a chronicler for the US military in Vietnam said, “I needed to tell people that My Lai was not an isolated case.” (24) Rumsfeld can hope all he wants. For those who are cognizant of Santayana’s dictum on learning and history, and who scratch a little beneath the corporate media surface, they are likely to get closer to the gory truth. The systemic abuse, acts of humiliation, sexual predation, and killing reveal an institutionalized barbarity in the military that must be solved. There can be no better way than the universal rejection of militarism.

In the meantime -- surprise -- it seems that Abu Ghuraib is only the isolated tip of the iceberg. Two further prisoner deaths have come to light and perhaps 23 other “isolated” killings.

The rotten edifice of militarism is being exposed. When one demonizes the other, one must be careful what it does to oneself.

Kim Petersen is a writer living in Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at: kimpete@start.no.  


(1) “THE SERIES: Elite unit savaged civilians in Vietnam,” Toledo Blade, 22 October 2003

(2) Michael D. Sallah and Mitch Weiss,
DAY 1: Rogue GIs unleashed wave of terror in Central Highlands,” Toledo Blade, 22 October 2003

(3) Ibid

(4) John Kerry, “Vietnam Veterans Against the War Statement by John Kerry to the Senate Committee of Foreign Relations,”
Sixties Project

(5) Tim Russett, “Vietnam 30 Years Later: What John Kerry Said on Meet the Press,” History News Network, 6 May 2001

(6) Cited in Seymour M. Hersh, “Torture at Abu Ghraib,” New Yorker, 30 April 2003

(7) Thom Shanker and Dexter Filkins, “Army Punishes 7 With Reprimands for Prison Abuse,” New York Times, 4 May 2003

(8) Al Jazeera and Agencies, “Abu Ghuraib prisoners speak of ‘torture,’” Al Jazeera, 4 May 2004

(9) Nina Bernstein, “No Plan to Hurt 9/11 Detainees, Ex-Jailer Says,” New York Times, 5 May 2004

(10) Kim Petersen, “Challenging the Justification of Killing,” Dissident Voice, 15 December 2003

(11) “Experts examine Apache Killing Video,” Indymedia UK, 29 February 2004

(12) “Iraqi Taxi Driver Who Stole Wood Gets His Vehicle Crushed by US Troops,” Prison Planet TV, 2 May 2004 

(13) Justin Huggler, “Drowned Iraqi ‘Was Forced into River by Five US Soldiers,’” Independent (UK) available at Common Dreams, 14 February 2004

(14) News, Photos On The Net.. ‘Iraqi Woman Raped,’” Islam Online, May 2004

(15) News Releases, “U.S. Muslims seek Pentagon probe on Iraq photo,” CAIR, 2 April 2004

(16) Eddie Fitzmaurice, “Soldier’s war snaps show British troops abusing prisoners,” Sun Herald, 1 June 2003

(17) Paul Byrne,
Shame of abuse by Brit troops ,” Mirror, May 1 2004

(18) Rory McCarthy, ‘They were kicking us, laughing. It was a great pleasure for them,’” Guardian, 21 February 2004

(19) Seymour Hersh, op. cit.

(20) “World outraged by U.S. torture of Iraqi prisoners,”
Lateline ABC Australia available at Information Clearing House, 29 April 2004 

(21) Ibid

(22) Angus Howart, “Outrage at murder of Iraqi prisoners by US personnel,” Scotsman, 5 may 2004

(23) Ibid 

(24) Michael D. Sallah and Mitch Weiss,
Witness to Vietnam atrocities never knew about investigation,Toledo Blade, 22 October 2003

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