What the Abu Ghraib images really tell us about war

US soldiers who posed next to hooded inmates in the Baghdad prison 10 years ago revealed the ‘banality of evil’, explains Sean Willcock.

In June 2003, as Iraq was descending into a climate of brutal violence following the Anglo-American invasion of the country a month earlier, United States Army reservist Sabrina Harman was taking photographs. ‘I saw my first dead body,’ she wrote in an excited letter home to her father, adding – ‘I took pictures!’ Within a year, Harman’s exclamatory thrill over photographing figures in extremis was known to the world, her beaming smile cropping up in photos next to the dead, tortured and abused bodies of Iraqi detainees being held in a notorious Baghdad prison: Abu Ghraib.

It has now been a decade since the first media reports emerged about the sensational Abu Ghraib photographs. Taken by Harman and her fellow guards (left) over a period in 2003 and first made known to the public in media reports in late April 2004, the photographs still make for highly shocking and genuinely disturbing viewing. They show captives who have been stripped naked except for the sinister hoods used to blind them, captives smeared in what looks like blood and shit, captives cowering, slumping and recoiling under the pains and pressures of stress positions, snarling dogs, and the myriad pornographic humiliations dreamt up by their US captors: enforced public masturbation, simulated sex positions, unclothed bodies piled into a horrific human pyramid.

‘I'm talking about people having a good time, these people. You ever heard of emotional release?’ This was the assessment of the conservative American radio talk-show host, Rush Limbaugh, who described the behaviour shown in the images as ‘no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation’ for privileged undergraduates at Yale University – a mere hazing ritual.

Photography has long been used to amplify the psychological effects of violence

This notion that Abu Ghraib was just good ol’ high jinx also lurks in the internet meme ‘Doing a Lynndie’, which saw people uploading photos of themselves striking the infamous thumbs-up pose that another US Army reservist, Lynndie England, had adopted in photographs when pointing at the genitalia of her naked, hooded captives in Baghdad. Scenarios here range from the strange – children ‘Doing a Lynndie’ at their dog – to the sinister, in which unconscious men and women are ‘Lynndied’ by a passer-by.

If the ‘Doing a Lynndie’ meme comes across as facile posturing, it does capture something important about the Abu Ghraib imagery, for it is precisely the puerile complacency of the smirking guards in these photographs that really sticks in the craw. In an article published shortly after the release of the images, the prominent American intellectual Susan Sontag captured their impact when she wrote that ‘the horror of what is shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the horror that the photographs were taken with the perpetrators posing, gloating, over their helpless captives.’ Sontag pointed to early 20th century American photographs of lynching as an unsettling precedent for the Abu Ghraib imagery, but in reality the entanglement of the camera with a cruel and aggressive triumphalism goes back much further.

The earliest photograph of wartime dead ever to have been taken shows the hooded and bound bodies of suspected insurgents hanging from a British gallows outside of Lucknow during the Indian ‘Mutiny’ of 1857-58.

According to Lieutenant Arthur Moffat Lang, a British colonial present at the hanging, the author of this grisly image, Felice Beato – an Italian-British photographer with a penchant for macabre subject matter – had run up to the swinging Indian figures and clasped their feet to ‘steady the bodies, when life was extinct, to be nicely photographed!’ A delighted Lang, his lust for ‘revenge’ against the Indian rebels stated in his diaries, believed ‘the photographing must have impressed additional horrors on the scene’ for the crowd of Indians who witnessed it.

So, photography has long been used to amplify the psychological effects of violence; for Lieutenant Lang in 1858, the camera was not a neutral documentary tool, but something that participated in the horrors of war, a fact that prisoners in Abu Ghraib would surely recognise. Note, too, Lang’s exclamation-marked excitement over the photographer’s morbid intervention in the scene – an excitement that, 145 years later, Sabrina Harman would channel in a letter to her father.

The torturer who comes for us may be a smirking, callow, and all-too-human-looking prankster

In other words, the Abu Ghraib photos were not, as some critics claimed at the time, the product of the moral torpor of young Americans addled by a pop culture immersed in Hollywood violence and pornography. They emanate, primarily, from an older system of thought that 19th-century British colonials were also well versed in: one that pits (western) ‘civilization’ against (eastern) ‘savagery’. Those in the former group are extended the status of people – ‘grieveable’ lives, as cultural theorist Judith Butler puts it – while those in the latter are only accorded the status of things, denied agency, rights, or bodily integrity. Mere props.

Look, for example, at the mountain of naked Iraqi men (above) behind which Sabrina Harman smiles alongside her colleague, Specialist Charles Graner (considered the ringleader among the abusers and given the longest sentence: 10 years imprisonment, of which he served only six). See how carefully composed they are: twisted, slumped, exhausted, but meticulously stacked anonymous bodies.

Some of these photographs are not only striking for the abuses they document: they are visually arresting compositions, often staged quite artfully by the smug captors. Arguably, it is precisely this aesthetic power (and yes, that phrase does come awkwardly) that exploded these images into public consciousness so irrevocably.

Who, for instance, can recall a photograph from the more recent ‘Kill Team’ atrocities in Afghanistan, which saw occupying soldiers murdering civilians for pleasure and taking trophy shots of their victims? These remarkably underreported photographs from 2011 document a practice that could be considered even more malign than what went on in the Baghdad prison in 2003, but the imagery has failed to circulate to nearly the same extent. Whereas who doesn’t know the ‘hooded man’ of Abu Ghraib, his Christ-like pose (left) now an enduring anti-war icon?

Ten years on, these images from Abu Ghraib continue to haunt the discourse about the Iraq War. The smiles of Sabrina Harman and her colleagues as they preside over a miserable hell that has brought home with piercing clarity what Hannah Arendt famously termed ‘the banality of evil’, showing that the torturer who comes for us may not be the grim and alien figure that lurks in our imagination, but a smirking, callow, and all-too-human-looking prankster.

These photographs taught us that the soundtrack to unbearable anguish could be the routine clicking of the camera’s shutter, and the juvenile giggling of people ‘having a good time’.

The three images are all from Wikipedia Commons and are ineligible for copyright.

Sean Willcock teaches the history of photography and imperial visual cultures at the University of York.