The horrors carried out during the last three months of 2003 by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison are shockingly familiar and, at the same time, oddly remote. The torture photographs that were published when the prisoner-abuse scandal first exploded have lost their power to shock. We have all seen the pictures repeatedly: a pyramid of unclothed prisoners; a naked detainee cowering in front of snarling dogs; captives wearing punitive hoods that seem borrowed from a medieval inquisition; American soldiers grinning over Iraqi dead bodies and, always, that chillingly ironic thumbs-up sign.
Eventually this visual repetition numbs the senses. All these ghastly images have been viewed so often that they seem to belong to a different war conducted by a different superpower in a different century. Yet the photographs that news organizations have so far published represent only a partial sample of the government’s chilling documentary record from Abu Ghraib.
When Salon’s national correspondent Mark Benjamin obtained the never-before-released photographs that accompany this essay, we had to both establish their authenticity and to answer the basic question of our justification for publishing. The images themselves partly answered the why-publish question for us. Speaking for myself, I remain haunted by one of the more seemingly banal pictures in this new collection from the dark side. Taken on Dec. 6, 2003, the photograph shows a uniformed and seemingly untroubled Army sergeant leaning against a corridor wall completing his paperwork. All routine, except standing next to the sergeant is a hooded and naked Iraqi prisoner. Just another day of methodical record-keeping at Abu Ghraib.
The other compelling reason for publishing these pictures is that the system itself broke down over Abu Ghraib. Beyond the collapse of military discipline and adherence to the basic rules of civilized behavior, Abu Ghraib also symbolized the failure of a democratic society to investigate well-documented abuses by its soldiers. After an initial flurry of outrage, the Republican-controlled Congress lost interest in investigating whether senior military officers — and even Pentagon officials — created a climate in which torture (yes, torture) flourished. In similar fashion, the Army still seems intent on ending this shameful story by jailing the likes of Lynndie England and Charles Graner. At least after the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, Lt. Calley was convicted.
Abu Ghraib cannot be allowed to fade away like some half-forgotten domestic political controversy, which may have prompted newsmagazine covers at the time, but now seems as irrelevant as the 2002 elections. Abu Ghraib is not an issue of partisan sound bites or refighting the decision to invade Iraq. Grotesque violations of every value that America proclaims occurred within the walls of that prison. These abuses were carried out by soldiers who wore our flag on their uniforms and apparently believed that Americans here at home would approve of their conduct. Rather than hiding what they did out of shame, they commemorated their sadism with a visual record.
That is why Salon is willing to publish these troubling photographs, even as we are ashamed to live in a country that somehow came to accept that torture and prisoner abuse were simply business as usual — something that occurs while a sergeant catches up on his paperwork.