Eighteen years ago today—on April 28, 2004—the first Abu Ghraib photos were made public, exposing to the world the atrocities perpetrated, purportedly, to wage a War on Terror. Though, in the nearly two decades that have since passed, few in America have questioned how Iraqi men, women, and children might describe the torture to which they were subjected while detained in US military custody.
Abu Ghraib Prison has long been synonymous with the most egregious expressions of human depravity, marred by a legacy of torture that began under the regime of Saddam Hussein and continued, uninterrupted, at the hands of the American military forces that deposed him under the Orwellian banner of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Located approximately 20 miles (32 kilometers) west of Iraq’s capital, Abu Ghraib—formally, the Baghdad Central Confinement Facility (BCCF)—came under the control of US and Coalition partners following their March 20, 2003 invasion. According to the official narrative, these forces were detaining and interrogating “high value targets,” including “insurgents and other persons of intelligence interest”—as if their designation under this arbitrary nomenclature somehow made their torture and ill-treatment lawful. Yet even this most basic premise was refuted in a September 2003 Assessment of Department of Defense Interrogation and Detention Operations in Iraq, which reported that “a large number” of individuals being held at Abu Ghraib, “are not believed to be international terrorists or members of [any] international terrorist organization.” According to Hayder Sabbar Abd, who is depicted in one of the most infamous of the torture photos, those detained at Abu Ghraib were, indeed, neither terrorists nor insurgents, but rather “ordinary people.” Military intelligence officers within the Coalition Forces reached the same conclusion in late 2003, conceding that between 70 and 90 percent of individuals deprived of their liberty in Iraq “had been arrested by mistake.”
Of course, the rights violations committed against those held in US military custody were not limited to arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention. On the contrary, the cache of photographs that emerged eighteen years ago portray “numerous incidents” of what Major General Antonio Taguba called “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” that were “intentionally perpetrated” by the military police guard force between October and December 2003. Such abuses, captured in the Abu Ghraib photos and enumerated in Taguba’s 2004 investigative military report, include:
Upon visiting Abu Ghraib in mid-October 2003, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) documented additional “methods of physical and psychological coercion,” such as hooding to disorient prisoners and hamper their capacity to breathe freely; punching, slapping, and kicking, as well as beating with hard objects; threats of rape, insults, and verbal violence; and sleep deprivation. These ‘methods’ resulted in the death of at least one detainee. Others sustained physical injuries and manifested psychological symptoms, including difficulties with concentration, memory, and verbal expression; incoherent speech; acute anxiety reactions; somatoform disorder; and suicidal tendencies.
Yet eighteen years after the Abu Ghraib photos surfaced, accountability remains elusive. Despite the systemic abuses detailed in a multitude of investigations conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Departments of Justice and Defense, only eleven low-ranking US military personnel were criminally convicted.
Such glaring impunity is, in part, the consequence of the messaging that the American government relentlessly espoused throughout the spring of 2004, which cast the photographed abuse as an “exceptional, isolated” incident, the anomalous actions of “a few bad apples” defying orders. George W. Bush echoed this refrain in a May 26, 2004 address at the US Army War College, in which he stated: “Under the dictator, prisons like Abu Ghraib were symbols of death and torture. That same prison became a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values.”
The validity of this claim has since been consistently and methodically dismantled, most notably by the US Senate Armed Services Committee. In its 2008 Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in US Custody, the Committee concluded unequivocally that “[t]he abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own.” Such abuse, the Committee asserted, instead derived from the fact that “senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive [interrogation] techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees.” Far from being atypical, many abusive practices documented at Abu Ghraib—including the use of dogs and nudity, as well as solitary confinement and stress positions—were “imported” from US detention sites in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay. This coordinated exchange between “theaters of operation”—delineated in what are today known as “The Torture Papers”—reveals an elaborate legal and operational network engineered and executed by leading figures at the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense, and the White House, including then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and President Bush. Their objective, as criminal defense lawyer Joshua L. Dratel has outlined, was three-fold: to place prisoners beyond the scope of any court or law; to employ interrogation techniques in contravention of the Geneva Conventions; and to absolve those devising and implementing these policies of any liability for war crimes under US and international law.
As history attests, these aims have essentially been realized without exception. Officials within the Bush Administration not only evaded legal culpability for crafting, authorizing, and overseeing America’s post-9/11 torture program; their crimes were effectively condoned by the American public. Indeed, the reelection of Bush and Cheney—mere months after the release of the Abu Ghraib photos—epitomizes the words of art historian and cultural critic Dora Apel: “[T]orture images do not inherently produce their own undoing—it depends on us.”
The American collective conscience, however, resigned itself to the discourse advanced by the Bush Administration, passively accepting that the “cruelty” exhibited by the US could not be likened to the “evil” meted out by Saddam Hussein, and—by extension—that Abu Ghraib under US occupation was categorically distinct from Abu Ghraib under the Ba’ath Party. This narrative, however—which draws such a comparison in order to argue that the two are incomparable—is not only illogical and counterproductive; it is indicative of the very mentality that enabled the abuse at Abu Ghraib. To fixate on degrees of brutality is to have lost all concept of the fact that torture can never be made ‘more humane.’
In the hope that this principle is remembered, respected, and reflected in policy and practice, the MENA Prison Forum is pleased to feature the work of Iraqi artist Ayad Alkadhi, whose Al Ghareeb (2006-2008), Father of No One’s Son (2007-2008), and Infinity in Blue (2008-2020) collections present deeply nuanced lenses through which to perceive the Abu Ghraib photos and the trauma and loss caused by the torture that these images portray. Though the American government has, for eighteen years, sought to minimize and downplay the suffering that it deliberately inflicted upon the Iraqi people that it imprisoned, Alkadhi’s art implores us to, in his words, “look at the past and draw lessons from it.”