P.O.V. No.20 - Terrorism and Film

The idea of "war against terror"
and the exhibition of tortured bodies

Bodil Marie Thomsen

In Jean-Luc Godard's television series Histoire(s) du cinema (1A & 1B, 1988), he criticizes the desire for fictional cinema and American entertainment in the 20th century. He points out that the media not only lost its innocence due to the two World Wars but also lost significant artistic potential in the presentation of reality because of the dominance of Hollywood cinema. In this accusation reverberates Godard's avant-garde ambition to intertwine fictional stories with real history. Theodor W. Adorno's question as to how poetry and art based upon well-known topoi of (European) aesthetics and philosophy could be made after Auschwitz also seems to play a role for Godard. The obvious answer for many artists, including Godard, has been to fight oblivion in recalling the terror of the war and its aftermath: the mass societies of the Western world.

Godard considers Hollywood's fabrication of myths and fictional stories to have ruined the possibility for cinematically developing the documentation of reality. His accusation has become strangely contemporary in our confrontation with the images of torture and humiliation from the Abu Ghraib prison. Today, documentaries, blogs and moblogs on every topic imaginable are sent and seen everywhere through the global Web or television distribution. The real-time images of today raise a somewhat different question in regard to the interrogations of Godard and Adorno, which belong more or less to the tradition of negative dialectics. The question concerning contemporary art and media might be: Could any image or text (fictional or documentary, artistic in its ambition or not) of torture and terror keep us from forgetting? This is the question I wish to address here by relating it to various contemporary debates in the aftermath of the war and terror in Iraq.

Methods of torture, methods of reporting
It's easy to agree that torture is often due to a neglect of human respect. Whenever someone is identified as a Jew, a Muslim, a Negro, a woman and so forth, individual traits can be disposed of in the name of a collective grouping of people. An individual in a group can be treated as a number or nailed to certain political, religious or other opinions. We have often seen this stripping of individuality in the killing of numbers - what comes to mind first is of course the Jews in World War II.

Recently, new material concerning the stripping of individuality in Iraq has been published. Mark Danner's book Torture and Truth (November 2004) provides evidence for the argument that the political decision to take action in a "war on terror" made in Washington D.C. immediately after 9-11 led directly to the methods of interrogation and torture of prisoners carried out in Afghanistan, Guantánamo and Iraq. Various websites bear evidence that those methods of torture were not random and ›invented‹ by accident in this action against terror. On the contrary, they have been practiced in American prisons for years (see Anne-Marie Cusac: "Abu Ghraib, USA"). The opposition over the last years towards another war fought on behalf of American democracy launched a growing awareness in America that being economically superior does not necessarily imply superiority in democratic skills. In fact, the reality of gaining power over one of the world's biggest oil fields is beginning to appear behind the poor but efficient rhetorical excuses for attack (i.e., the notorious statement about the existence of "weapons of mass destruction").

While American soldiers are still stationed in Iraq and are being sent home in coffins one by one, the debate on the role of the press in the war is slowly growing. Michael Massing's book Now They Tell Us, on the lack of first-hand knowledge and will to bring evidence of what was really going on behind the lines in the whole "war on terror" is striking reading. Journalists who neither spoke nor read Arabic were installed in luxury hotels and mainly got their news from the American or British military press. As potential targets they had to be protected by Marines if they tried to explore the area on their own. Al-jazeera and the European and Arabic-speaking press with years of insight into Middle Eastern politics got much more material about the war along with different versions of what happened on a day-to-day basis. The American press operated independently. Massing offers an explanation for this on June 30, 2004:

In the current climate, of course, any use of Arab or European material - no matter how thoroughly edited and checked - could elicit charges of liberalism and anti-Americanism. The big question is: have US news organizations achieved the necessary independence and nerve to withstand it? (Massing: 90)

Reading the collections of documents by Massing and Danner while living in Seattle (spring 2005) almost a year after the war was declared over but with no peace in Iraq, I still found the "human interest" stories on losses within local communities and the tales of soldiers being heroes fighting for their country far more dominating in the news media than real stories and documents of struggles and daily life 'over there'. War in Iraq seems so far away in an American everydayness.

Being a Dane with the sitting government so closely allied with President Bush in war as well as in politics, I do not feel comfortable when witnessing the Danish press coverage of the events in Iraq. Although Denmark is closer to Iraq, the television coverage of what is going on in the White House and at no. 10 Downing Street has been just as important as bringing news from Iraq. The stories told to the American public are imbedded in national interests, and so are many of the stories told in Denmark. And although the Danish casualties are on a much smaller scale, the stories are similar. The real stories from the battlefield and from the work of the UN soldiers are filtered through a selection layered with such ideas as what it means to be a good soldier. For that reason the raw quality of the Abu Ghraib images had a huge impact in the press in the spring 2004. But it had no real impact on the re-elections of Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Denmark and President Bush in the U.S. in November 2004. And the question is indeed whether the images and stories of the media have any provable impact on the minds of people in society. Michael Schudson, Professor of Communications and Sociology at the University of California - San Diego, considers that only the economic reality can make people change their minds (cf. DR 2 News, August 23, 2005). One might add that other forces such as sudden death or other strokes of the Real in life might also make people change their minds.

The war on the meaning of words
If this is true it's easier to understand the ongoing struggle over the meaning of words in today's politics. In a speech entitled "Illegal but legitimate - A Dubious Doctrine for the Times" at the University of Washington on April 20 2005, Noam Chomsky referred to the American bombing of Kosovo in March 1999 determined to be "illegal but legitimate" by an UN investigation after the deed. The phrase sanctioned the attack. This is also the case in Iraq where, according to Chomsky, the Bush-Blair invasion referred to "weapons of mass destruction" without evidence, hoping to produce evidence after the fact. When no evidence was found the whole rhetorical emphasis had to be put on the idea of "bringing democracy to the people" - as if this was something you could actually bring to people, like the chewing gum and nylon stockings the American troops brought to Europe in 1945.

It was Chomsky's point that the rulers of this war on Iraq - namely, the strategic and economic interests in the oil fields - declare democracy as good as long as it comes in a top-down form and is consistent with those interests. He ended by saying, "the policy is functional for the rulers, not the people," meaning 1) the majority of Americans do not agree with this policy and 2) American people cannot use their democratic power to get rid of the person who declared war - as they actually did in Spain. Chomsky then summed up his statement by referring to Kosovo, where the allied forces "had to bomb in order to maintain credibility". Maintaining the credibility and the rhetoric of leaders in order to secure the economic power of the opulent minority is, according to Chomsky, actually more important than the ultimate doom: the obliteration of the human race, an ecological catastrophe and so on. And although he does not blame the media, he actually says that democracy does not really function in the U.S.; only economic arguments rule.

Another commentator on the political situation right now, Thomas Franck, held the media responsible. The rhetorical skills of the Republicans up to the November election in 2004 made all the difference (Seattle television channel, May 2005). It was significant, he said, to notice how Democrats' and leftists' viewpoints were always pinned down as "elitist" by the right-wing press. This is worth noticing for two reasons: 1) The real elite covers its trail by referring to topics every democratic soul can agree upon (like bringing democracy to Iraq) and refers to the democrats as the cultural or intellectual elite, who are bothered by words rather than real actions, real people, real wars. 2) The exact same rhetoric was used up to and after the Danish election in November 2004, where intellectuals and journalists were scolded for being elitist in their ambition to relate to people's cultural values - so-called "cultural radicalism". At the same time, the elitist ambition to create a canon of "what literature to read" - a bluffer's guide to Danish literary classics - was promoted by the same right-wing minister of culture, Brian Mikkelsen.

The actual war is in other words a war on the meaning of words, established by long-term democratic structures beginning to fade as a result of a new global world order where international corporations rule. We are witnessing the performative strength of the very rich classes in the world trying to enhance their power. More than ever we need journalistic ethics and the ability to move beyond the political and rhetorical spin in order to understand the new, globalized world.

The lack of reliability of the American press during the war in Iraq really had an influence on the world press, since the news feeding chain was disrupted. When journalists do not meet the standard of a free democratic press, we all become hostages. As explained, the journalists in Iraq were restrained, but that does not explain the lack of communication between journalists of the Western world - or does it? According to Massing, the lack of real communication is not just the nightmare of prisoners but of journalists as well. He cites the correspondent Pamela Constable's report on a night's experience of attacks from "helicopter gunships, high-flying bombers, and insurgent mortar rounds" in a deserted factory sheltering seven journalists and a Marine battalion:

I strained to listen for signs of humanity in the darkened city. I imagined holocaust - city blocks in flames, families running and screaming. But the only sounds were the baying of frightened dogs and the indecipherable chanting of muezzins, filling the air with a soft cacophony of Koranic verse (Massing: 79-80).

What she was really hearing was quite different, writes Massing, according to a report from one of Al-Jazeera's independent journalistic eyewitnesses inside the city:

[T]he US bombings were causing hundreds of civilian casualties plus extensive physical destruction. As for what Constable took to be the Koranic chantings of the muezzins, Arabic speakers could tell that these were actually urgent appeals for ambulances and calls on the local population to rise up and fight the Americans (Massing 80-81).

Massing ends this story by concluding, "So while Arab viewers were getting independent (if somewhat sensationalized) reports from the field, Americans were getting their news filtered through the Marines" (Massing: 81). You could also add - along the lines of Godard's argument - that Pamela Constable's report is in fact an imagined and fictionalized story that has nothing to do with what really happened. It seems to me that this might be the real challenge to news media journalists today (as it was and remains to the cinema). The battle of the meaning of words like "democracy" or "elitist" is very central to the development of real wars, real terror. If everything that really happens is almost always filtered through a fictional structure in order to give it a meaning for everyone to understand, we lose our ability to wonder. The mere rhetorical trick of indicating that a (clean) "war against (unclean) terror" can take place in a world of real bodies should bother any television viewer - but it is a very good example of how fiction takes over reality even before the fact (CNN had this ›banner‹ on the screen for months: right after 9/11 and even before the attack on Afghanistan).

I am convinced that the reason why the real-time showing of the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and the uncensored pictures of Abu Ghraib make such a strong impression is that they were NOT fictionalized. The editing room and military censorship were momentarily surpassed. In both cases we - the viewers - were forced to see with our own eyes, to be shocked, and to wonder about what was actually shown on the screen. Journalists of today have got competition from all the professional spin in politics and for that reason they must try more than ever to avoid fiction - i.e., they must document what they see and hesitate to interpret right away. They must give the viewers time for reflection, time for sensing, time to be affected.

The war as manifested in the torture of bodies
The fights that Pamela Constable was trying to report took place in early April 2004. During the same month the journalist Seymour M. Hersh obtained a fifty-three-page report on torture in Abu Ghraib, written by Major General Antonio M. Taguba. This report very clearly states the nature of the torture, and Hersch makes an inventory of it in his already famous book, Chain of Command. The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib:

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 (Hersh: 22).

The list nevertheless did not report that this was going on at night - often many nights in a row. In the daytime detainees were treated with dignity, getting back their clothes and mattresses. Reading the fear and terror of this treatment in the sworn statements from the prisoners in Danner's Torture and Truth gives a nightmarish impresssion that is altogether different from Pamela Constable's account. This impression comes from the words chosen to describe what the prisoners witnessed done to their own bodies and the bodies of their fellow prisoners. In the daytime they were treated as if the night's torture never happened. And this was - to me - one of the most terrifying experiences I had reading those documents. In giving their statements, many former prisoners underline that this is the truth, that this actually happened, giving their oath in the name of Allah. Many had counted the number of nights and the number of guards, and some of them even refer to the photographic negatives, since they remember that pictures were taken. They also express a kind of relief at finally being able to talk about what happened during the night shifts.

Reporters working with witnesses commonly experience victims willing to speak of all the horrors they have experienced even though they know that their situation will not improve by speaking to a journalist. To the victim it is a relief to finally be able to tell the truth from the perspective of the individual experience. Witnessing is, as it were, speaking from outside society and very often from outside "normality". By speaking the truth as a witness they are trying to find a voice for what happened, and this actually means making the huge and almost always impossible demand that society widen its borders to what is considered normal and what can be expressed. A victim has very often lost the sense of being someone. Some have even temporarily lost the ability to speak. But they all have a clear idea of somehow being dangerous to the myths of their society.

What happened here were the offences of seeing another man naked, of being forced to eat during Ramadan, of heterosexuals being exposed as homosexuals, of being raped, and so forth. On top of this, it is a disgrace to the individual prisoner to have this photographically documented with the help of raw neon light, the images now distributed on the World Wide Web for everyone to see in the future. The pictures cannot be erased. In fact, Hersh reports there is evidence that people wished to commit suicide or insisted on being killed after release, in compliance with their code of honor: "Innocent lives will be lost [so] their families can survive the shame" (Hersh: 44).

As reported by Hersh, the loss of dignity was central to a study of Arab culture and psychology entitled The Arab Mind (1973), by Raphael Pitai, who died long before the war (in 1996). According to this analysis, the connection between power, humiliation, and sexual display is obvious. Hersh quotes Pitai:

"The segregation of the sexes, the veiling of the women…and all the other minute rules that govern and restrict contact between men and women, have the effect of making sex a prime mental preoccupation in the Arab world," Patai wrote. Homosexual activity, "or any indication of homosexual leanings, as with all other expressions of sexuality, is never given any publicity. These are private affairs and remain in private" (Hersh: 39).

This knowledge was of course used in the torture, as this book and its notion - "that Arabs only understood force and […], that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation", according to Hersh - was well known and quoted amongst Washington Conservatives before the invasion. According to a government consultant who is one of Hersh's informants, "the purpose of the photographs was to create an army of informants, people you could insert back in the population" (Hersh: 39). The fear of being exposed was thought to motivate information gathering in the U.S. forces. And this is the actual story behind the official military story of randomly acting and brutal guards from the Virginia countryside. This strategy was indeed a result of manipulative brains, based on an American book on Arab culture from 1973, rather than on experience with Arab people of today. This explains how an American soldier could reduce an Arab prisoner to an animal amongst other animals - becoming one himself in this deed and maybe going to prison for it, ridding the military system of suspicion by this very trial.

Images of reality
Massing wonders why the close-up images of war in Baghdad, the injuries of real bodies, the screaming and so forth, were not presented by American journalists. Apart from the fact that journalists risked taking a politically dangerous stand for themselves and their paper, Massing suggests there might be more to it:

American movies feature scenes of people being blown up and gunned down; American TV programs show women being slashed and men being shot in the face. But television executives believe that when it comes to real war, Americans cannot bear to see bullet-ridden bodies and headless corpses. If they were shown, moreover, the effect might be to weaken support for the war. (Massing: 23)

Massing does not comment further on this, but in my opinion this is one of the main keys to understanding this fear of real bodies, real tears, real flesh, real wounds and terror. Godard - in the above-mentioned series - also just touches upon the similarity between Hollywood's (symbolic) control and the American (real) military control over the world, criticizing how the Hollywood storyline is held straight in praising happy endings, romantic solutions to cover up for pain, and so on.

As regards the somewhat altered world of today - where the web distributes day-to-day blog and moblog diaries, where fictionalized self-portraits and real personal traumas appear side by side with no indication of the truth level of what is communicated - I want to stress just one level of the (unintended) meaning of the Abu Ghraib photographs.[1] The Abu Ghraib documentaries were clearly produced in order to document some sinister activities. Whether these documented activities were produced on behalf of the military command or as part of a well-known method to break down the resistance of the detainees (as documented by Anne-Marie Cusac) is still uncertain. It is unlikely, though, that the images were produced only on behalf of a few minds gone astray to document war actions (the war trophy theory).

What strikes me is that these images are poorly produced fictional settings. It is rather noteworthy that the violent or sexual activities are ambiguous in most of the images. We clearly see bodies in different states of humiliation, which is what we (as relatives or friends of the prisoners) are meant to see. The images were produced for the purpose of someone to witness the act, which might also explain the blindfolding of the prisoners (apart from creating instant fear). The photos are indeed part of the act of terror. Putting prisoners in humiliating situations (real or fictional) supports the above-mentioned reports cited by Hersh: "the purpose of the photographs was to create an army of informants, people you could insert back in the population" (Hersh: 39).

The photographs were only meant to be used to infiltrate the Iraqi opposition. But although the target recipient of those photographs and the TV documentary of a humiliated Saddam Hussein were different, their common fictional ambition was stultification. Somehow - it seems to me - they did not succeed, since we do not believe in their fictions. The images of Saddam Hussein's tongue being examined were too exultant, too triumphant. Transmitted through the non-controlled media of the web, the dilettante setting of the images from Abu Ghraib were much more convincing in attributing reality to the scene. These settings, meant to humiliate Muslims, did indeed function as a boomerang. The setting of the scenes emphasized the ›reality effect‹ of the images. We - the viewers throughout the world - were really puzzled as to what we saw. We were and remained shocked and bewildered by the Abu Ghraib photographs, which are just as indelible as the sight of two towers collapsing real-time in the New York skyline. But again: this was not enough to impede the re-election of George Bush.

Finally, I shall provide my answer to the question raised at the beginning of this article: No image of or text on torture and terror can keep us from forgetting, but some images and texts witnessing reality (intended or not) can make us feel and sense a connection to the realities of this world. The few documentary images from World War II concentration camps can indeed touch us, as well as the few images from the bombing of Hiroshima. This sense of the real can certainly be produced on a fictional level in new digital media, but our push for reality cannot be disputed today. Godard's version is as follows:

It took nearly 50 years of darkness for men of dark minds to burn the imaginary to warm up reality. Now reality takes its revenge and demands real tears and real blood. (Histoire(s) du cinema 1A, 1988).

1 In an essay written in Danish entitled "Real-time interface - om tidslig simultanitet, rumlig transmission og haptiske billeder" (Aarhus 2005 (in press)), I explore the Abu Ghraib photos from the perspective of real-time transmission.


Cusac, Anne-Marie: "Abu Ghraib, USA": www.progressive.org/july04/cusc0704.html

Danner, Mark (2004): Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror. New York Review Books: New York.

Hersh, Seymour M. (2004): Chain of Command. The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib. Harper Collins Publishers: New York.

Massing, Michael (2004): Now They Tell Us. The American Press and Iraq. New York Review Books, New York.

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