Is Abu Ghraib the military version of reality TV?

Those pictures of US soldiers abusing Iraqis are snapshots of our degenerate culture at home.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Men and women humiliating other people and themselves on camera. Smiles and laughter amid scenes of appalling physical, mental and sexual degradation. The media presenting the images like pornography, with a mixture of outrage and titillation. Millions watching, horrified but fascinated by this voyeuristic glimpse into the dark recesses of somebody else’s psyche.

Yes, Big Brother is back on Britain’s television screens. But add in some beatings and we could just as easily be talking about the infamous photographs of smiling American soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison. Perhaps on reflection this is the best way to make sense of those pictures. They are a violent, military version of reality TV, a product of exporting the West’s degenerate contemporary culture into a foreign war zone.

Many observers have struggled to fit those Abu Ghraib pictures into past examples of torture and atrocity in times of war. There is a history of purposeful military torture, deliberately designed to speed up intelligence gathering; examples include the French military’s torture of Algerian insurgents in the 1950s (graphically depicted in the film Battle of Algiers), or the British army’s abuse of IRA suspects in the early 1970s. There is also a grim history of what we might call demoralised military torture, atrocities committed by forces who sense that all is lost and lash out at anybody who comes to hand. Think of the Nazis’ scorched earth policy during the retreat from the Soviet Union, the Italian fascists’ torture orgies during Mussolini’s last stand in Northern Italy, or American soldiers brutalising Vietnamese civilians as in the My Lai massacre of 1968.

What happened in Abu Ghraib was not purposeful torture. There was clearly something of the character of demoralised torture about it; soldiers finding themselves isolated in that hell-hole, fighting an unpopular war for an uncertain cause, taking it out on the nearest Iraqis. But there was also something very different about Abu Ghraib. Those American soldiers were not just beating up Iraqis in secret, behind the closed doors of the detention centre. They were posing themselves and their victims for the cameras, grinning and pointing and giving the thumbs up, revelling in the degradation for all to see. Those pictures were not hidden-camera exposes. The torture was not meant to be secret. It was intended to be captured and circulated via the ubiquitous mobile camera phones.

After the shock of seeing detainees being abused so graphically, the question that came to mind was: why would these soldiers allow themselves to be exposed like that? Why would anybody do that, not only to their victims, but to themselves? It is the same question one might ask (albeit in less outrageous circumstances) when people volunteer to be humiliated in public on those countless reality TV and makeover shows, or when those caught up in tragedies offer up their most personal emotions to be dissected in the papers and on the news.

In Western culture today, the line between the private and the public has been all-but erased. It is now expected that every event and emotion must be put on display, exposed to the public gaze. There no longer seems to be any real sense of self-consciousness or shame about putting oneself on show and ‘revealing all’. (For a full examination of this powerful trend see Frank Furedi’s Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age.)

At the extremes, the blurring of the line between private and public means that perverse fantasies can be played out, and inner-most thoughts and feelings confessed, all before an audience. Indeed exposure is not only allowed, it is positively encouraged in a society which takes such a low view of the human condition that it often imagines a dark and damaged psyche must be our ‘real’ state of mind. We are all expected to be both emotional exhibitionists, and voyeurs into other people’s private lives and thoughts.

This is how we arrive at a situation where soldiers will happily show themselves brutalising detainees, not just posing for pictures in the act of abuse but apparently staging the degradation for the camera.

As the American writer Susan Sontag has noted in a perceptive essay in the New York Times (since reprinted around Europe), those pictures are unlike most atrocity pictures we have seen before. German soldiers did take photos of their dirty work in Poland and Russia during the Second World War, she notes, but they did not normally include themselves in the snapshots. Sontag sees the only comparable pictures as those old photographs, taken between the 1880s and the 1930s, which show groups of respectable white Americans smiling next to the mutilated bodies of black lynching victims. But the difference is, she observes, that those lynching pictures were taken by photographers as trophies to be kept in albums. By contrast, the pictures taken by the soldiers themselves in Abu Ghraib were ‘less objects to be saved than evanescent messages to be disseminated, circulated’ (1).

Posing for those pictures and sending them around gave those soldiers their moment of exposure in the spotlight, and thus gave them an identity in today’s confessional, reveal-all culture. The subsequent broadcast of the pictures across the global media seems like a natural extension of the process. Indeed, some of the most striking images were reportedly given to the media by the families of the soldiers involved.

It is fashionable to blame Abu Ghraib on the ‘white trailer trash’ who were acting as guards there and who make up much of the US military. But these people are among the most powerless and marginalised sections of American society. The real responsibility for this state of affairs lies with our social and cultural elites. They are the primary movers behind the blurring of the public and the private in the West, and the promotion of emotional incontinence. They run a society where we are all constantly watching one another, and being watched. They have endorsed a relativist worldview marked by an extreme reluctance to say that anything (apart perhaps from violent paedophilia and Islamic terrorism) is unacceptable. They have removed the distinction between the famous and the infamous, instead lumping everybody from crooks to cooks together in the amoral category of ‘celebrity’.

Reality TV programmes like Big Brother have become the showcase for this culture. The people who appear on such dire confessional shows as Jerry Springer and its imitators in the States, or Trisha in the UK, may often fit the ‘trash’ caricature. But the people behind these programmes, who create the formats, choose the participants and script the degrading spectacles, are the powerful producers and programme-makers who think that it’s ‘cool’.

The line leading from reality television to real-life degradation becomes clear in something like the controversial video Bumfights. White middle-class kids in America are apparently taking ‘humiliation TV’ programmes such as MTV’s Jackass to a logical conclusion, by filming themselves having fights and attacking unsuspecting passers-by, or (as in Bumfights) paying homeless people to have a punch-up or take a crap in the street while they film it. British television executives will not, of course, show Bumfights. Instead they have just put on a salacious ‘documentary’, showing clips of the video but only, you understand, in order to discuss how disgusting it all is. Meanwhile this year’s UK Big Brother house will apparently have glass walls in the bathroom, following the much-praised South African BB’s ‘shower hour’ when contestants had to wash in front of the watching millions, while sponsors try to bribe BB contestants to ‘bonk’ live on air.

So yes, of course it is shocking to see smiling American soldiers covering Iraqis in shit, making them masturbate and fake sex for the camera, and giving the snapper the thumbs-up over a prisoner’s dead body. But then, why should we expect somebody who has absorbed this top-down degenerate culture at home to act any differently in Iraq? The difference is that, in a warzone, all restraints are off.

Getting into the spirit of things, many in the media seemed to treat the Abu Ghraib pictures like a kind of prison porn, seeking simultaneously to shock and titillate their audience with the promise of ‘even worse to come’. One result of this fetishisation of the photographs has been effectively to divorce outraged reactions to them from any broader criticism of the real Iraq war. Thus people’s shock at seeing those images did little to alter their apathetic attitude to the bigger issues. When the BBC’s current affairs flagship programme Panorama was brought back to prime time for a special on the political fallout from the pictures scandal, BBC 1 slumped to almost its lowest-ever share of viewers. An atmosphere of ‘Big Brother in the house’ that reduces people to passive voyeurs of other people’s nasty habits is not one to encourage serious political engagement.

Publicity for the new UK Big Brother boasts that this is the year BB ‘gets evil’, with the contestants facing nastier ordeals and more close-up humiliations than ever. Speaking of what wannabes have put themselves through in a bid to gain access to the carnival of degradation, a Big Brother executive declared: ‘It’s amazing the lengths that people will go to.’ But surely we should not really be surprised by whatever depths these shows sink to. After all, we have already seen the nadir of reality TV culture in the pictures from Abu Ghraib – at least, that is, until somebody makes the first series of a show called ‘Celebrity Atrocities’.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

Read on:

Leaking self-doubt, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) What have we done?, Susan Sontag, Guardian, 24 May 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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