New allegations of prisoner abuse in Iraq not only give the lie to the administration’s claims that the Abu Ghraib torture was just the work of “bad apples” like Lindie England, it also reminded me of a column I wrote back then for TIME.com about how these abuses are not at all out of character with the ways in which industrialized democracies have behaved when they send their troops abroad to fight wars against darker-skinned “others”. Here’s an excerpt:
The Indian writer Salman Rushdie once said the British don’t understand their history because most of it happened overseas, and the same may be coming true for the U.S. also. The notion of liberation is an integral part of America’s own image of its mission in Iraq, but the reality experienced by the Iraqis is a classic occupation. The sad fact is that colonialism and the occupation of foreign countries typically produce a disconnect between the self-image of the occupier, and the way he’s seen by the natives. Life in the occupied country has little relation to occupying nation. And when resistance occurs — sometimes in the form of massacres, dismemberings, beheadings and other grotesque acts — it often prompts the occupiers to behave in ways that the folks back home would have trouble recognizing.
At home, Imperial Britain was supposedly all about democracy, the rule of law and morality, fair play and decency. But out in the colonies, the British built the first concentration camps (where 27,000 Afrikaner civilians died after being rounded up in an effort to end the Boer insurgency), pioneered the bombing and gassing of civilian population centers (in among other places, Iraq in the 1920s) and other nasty habits that were — well, just not cricket. A Western nation-state that occupies another typically develops two faces: A democratic one at home, and a harsh authoritarian one in the occupied country.
Many Brits themselves may have been shocked to learn of what was being done in their name. Empire-builders and occupiers typically invent and believe a tale of selfless virtue in which they’re only there to serve the best interests of the locals, and those who fight back are thugs and terrorists at odds with the wishes of the “silent majority.” The “true” leaders are always deemed to be those among the occupied people most willing to say the things the occupiers want to hear. Only once they’re defeated can the colonial powers grant due respect to a “rabble rouser” like Mahatma Gandhi or a “terrorist” like Nelson Mandela. (Mandela has improbably been morphed into a pacifist in the American imagination; he was in fact the proud commander of a guerrilla army who got his own military training in Algeria and saw “armed struggle” as an integral component of his campaign against the apartheid regime.)
France still struggles to accept the regime of torture implemented by its soldiers in Algeria in a vain attempt to suppress the nationalist rebellion in the late 1950s. The French political class has been in denial for decades; they’d prefer to pretend it didn’t happen. Not so the soldiers. The general in charge of counterinsurgency in Algiers, Paul Aussaresses, recently stirred the pot in a memoir in which he explained that torture was essential to achieving France’s goals in Algeria. You sent me to suppress the rebellion, he argued. This was the only way to get it done.
Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld has written extensively on the corrosive effect on Israeli society of maintaining its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Citing the debilitating effect of Afghanistan on the Soviet Union and of Vietnam on the U.S., he argues that an occupation pits a sophisticated high-tech army not against an equivalent foe, but against lightly-armed insurgents hard to distinguish from the civilian population. “As Israel’s own history clearly shows, fighting a stronger opponent will cause a society to unite,” he writes, “but combating a weaker one will cause it to split and disintegrate.”
America’s own worst encounter with a Mr. Hyde side abroad came in 1969, when a young journalist named Seymour Hersh first broke a story about the massacre of scores of Vietnamese civilians at the village of My Lai. The remedy at the time was to blame it all on Lt. William Calley, an officer in charge on the day. My Lai may simply have been a symptom, however, of a war in which American forces were ranged not only against communist insurgents, but against a substantial proportion of the civilian population who supported them. My Lai was hardly the only instance of non-combatants dying by American hands in Vietnam. But back home, the U.S. public had — and still has — difficulty digesting what took place in the steamy jungles of South East Asia four decades ago. Interestingly, it is once again Hersh who has been way out in front of the media pack in breaking the Abu Ghraib torture revelations.
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I’d only add that it’s worth underscoring Van Creveldt’s point about the corrosive effect these events have on the occupying nation. I fear that long after the last U.S. troops have left Iraq, America is going to be paying a heavy price for the psychological brutalization the occupation has inflicted on many of the soldiers who served in it.