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Whose fault is it anyway? PDF Print Email
By Laura Nathan-Garner
Saturday, May 29, 2004

As Frank Rich so eloquently explains in “It Was the Porn that Made Them Do It” in The New York Times today, we can’t keep blaming pornography and Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl incident for the heinous acts of torture that have befallen numerous Iraqi people at Abu Ghraib. Or rather, we could keep playing this blame game, but that wouldn’t change anything, aside from allowing the blamers to deflect responsibility from individuals and from the military to that amorphous, seemingly omnipresent concept we like to call American culture.

Rich is right, no doubt. But I’m willing to go a step further in his discussion of pornography and question the relevance of culture to what has befallen not just the Iraqis at Abu Ghraib but people all over the world — even in the United States — for centuries.

No sex in your violence

Recently, I interviewed Chrisi Lake, a veteran porn star (the full interview will be published later this summer right here in InTheFray). As Christi revealed when we spoke, there is undoubtedly some misogyny in the pornography industry, and there is undoubtedly some violence. That violence likely both influences and is influenced by its connoissuers and its makers. But Janet Jackson showing a little skin — maybe even a nipple — wasn’t violent; erotic, yes; violent, no.

But even if you disregard Janet Jackson’s alleged influence on our violent culture and just focus on genuine pornography, violent pornography isn’t the norm. It’s not what most people — who make porn and/or consume it are watching — though you wouldn’t know that if you listened to the media or many outsiders who tend depict “the world’s oldest profession” as dangerous and violent in order to deter people from partaking in adult entertainment in one form or fashion. That is, blaming the porn industry and Janet Jackson’s indiscretion for the violence becomes a means to prohibit discussions of sex and sexuality, to keep those issues and images out of the public domain, to “purify” or cleanse the American psyche and maintain order in a time that seems, well, disorderly and chaotic, both inside and beyond U.S. borders.

If only things were that easy ...

But they aren’t. Remember the 1950s? The 1960s? Vietnam? Korea? The onset of the Cold War ensured that the late 1940s and 1950s marked the peak of sexual containment inside U.S. borders (though there can be no doubt that many people secretly transgressed the strict gender and sexual norms of the time). Did those norms keep the U.S. military out of Korea? Stop the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955, or the Vietnam War?

You know the answer to that question as well as I do.

Though there is often a relationship between sexual culture and violence — some pornography is violent, rape is violent, crimes of passion are violent — the solution to the torture occuring in Abu Ghraib isn’t to question sexual culture first. The solution, of course, also does not permit us to disregard the relevance of culture altogether.

No -ism like militarism

This is not to say that we should focus on culture above the individual, thereby ignoring individual responsibility altogether. For it is despicable, painful even, to see the images of torture and abuse, to think that any human being could do that to another who, much like him or her, also has a family, desires, a heart, and a right to dignity.

But to say that we can separate the individual from his culture is problematic. After all, the culture in which we live indeed influences the ways in which we think, the ways in which we act. Is our culture the only thing that influences who we become and what we do? No, biology and uprbringing — if the latter can even be distinguished from culture — certainly who we are, who we become, and the ways in which we behave and stylize our identities. But culture — not just mass culture but also the subcultures in which we become immersed, play an enormous role in our belief systems, our personal politics, and our actions.

And for those who are a part of the military industrial complex, military culture — militarism — a way of thinking and understanding, the disciplinary structure, and even the toll taken on one’s personal life to go to, say, militarism is undoubtedly a subculture that desperately seeks to shape grown men and women into a certain mold. Unfortunately, today that mold seems to be one that permits — even emphasizes — dehumanization of the enemy and attempts to redefine some people as unhuman, as lesser, while defining oneself — and one’s nation and military — as potent, noble, and triumphant. And something about that’s got to change because we will probably never cease fighting wars. But we’ve got to discuss the ways in which they’re fought and the culture in which those who fight them are embedded.

There is a way of thinking, a way of relating to others — and a different way of relating to people from one’s own military versus the way one relates to the “opposing” military — that is in desparate need of re-evaluation.

Lessons from a bad blind date

A brief personal anecdote illuminates some of my experience with this mindset here: Last fall, a friend asked me to join her on a blind date with two guys she didn’t really know. I agreed to go only because I couldn’t think of a good reason not to go. And because the situation sounded a little sketchy, I wasn’t too keen on the idea of letting her go alone.

So we met these two guys, whom I discovered my friend met through Friendster, and as it turns out, they were in town for the evening to get away from their “work” at a military training camp about two hours away. We got to discussing what we do, and though I had some inkling of an idea of what they do, I tried to be open-minded. But once we got down to the nitty-gritty of what they do and what it is that they were going to do in Iraq  later that month, I realized I was going to have a tough time playing it cool.

“Well, my main job is to aim at things and drop bombs on them, you know, to destroy the Iraqis,” one of the guys explained. This, incidentally, was the evening after the United States paraded a captured Saddam Hussein around on television. And what did these guys think about this? Would they really have any reason to continue bombing “things” in Iraq now that Saddam had been captured and the United States had come to realize that there were no weapons of mass destruction to be found in Iraq?

“Well, yeah, I mean, we just take orders — we’ll be bombing things for a while until we’ve cut off their lifelines, you know, make sure they aren’t powerful enough to resist the occupation.”

Despite being the worst so-called date ever, my interaction with these two men that evening made me realize that both the “we’re just doing our job” mentality reigns in the military, enabling individuals like these two to deflect responsibility, to blame their actions on the necessity of warfare and of nation-building and responsibility of one’s own nation against another nation, and to do all of this without ever thinking about the fact that what they were doing was affecting other people who were much like themselves at the end of the day.

It was as if Iraq was this great, wide-open space devoid of life, and it was their job to flatten it out and start all over. And if there were people in Iraq, well, they were those two guys and their buddies; everyone else was a level or two below them on the totem pole.

(Not) always on my mind

There are international laws and agreements, particularly the Geneva Accords, designed to ensure protection of prisoners held in war so that, well, they don’t get tortured, abused, raped, and killed by prison guards. The United States, sadly, has rarely paid these agreements the level of attention and respect necessary to implement them in practice.

But these accords are paper documents with words that obviously cannot alter the minds and actions of those in the military. They can’t stop something that might be analagous to a crime of passion — or crimes of occupation.

Or rather, they can’t alter the mindset of many in the military without reframing the way in which we talk about war. When we fight wars — even when they’re fought in the name of “securing the world against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction” or “overthrowing a tyrant,” there is a peculiar assumption not just that we need to “save” the people inhabiting those countries, but also that we are in some way more human or of a superior type of humanity, that our lives are somehow more valuable, since, “Hey, we’re saving your country for you, aren’t we?!”

And that’s just my understanding as an outsider; I know that it’s much more complicated than that. I know that not everyone in the military is evil. I know that many people join the army so that they can go to school and to support their families, and I respect that. But that’s just one side of the story (even for those individuals). There are many who believe they’re showing some goodwill (like the guys on my bad blind date) even though unconsciously they maintain an aura of superiority or distinguish themselves from the people in the occupied country.

Whatever it is, however you want to explain militarism, it is a culture. It is a way of thinking about one’s relationship to violence and a way of thinking about one’s relationship to other human beings (and at least two different types of beings, mind you — the enemy and oneself), and a way of relating one’s relationships with people with one’s relationship to violence.

I emphasize this rather obvious point because while there are a handful of U.S. military officials in Iraq who will lose their jobs, be demoted, or be punished in some other way for the incidents at Abu Ghraib. Such incidents have been occuring all over the world — at Guantanamo Bay, in brothels on U.S. bases in Japan, Korea, and the Philippines, Afghanistan, and many other places, I’m sure. Such incidents of rape and torture are also not unique to this century or this period in American culture. Such incidents have been occuring for much longer. It just so happens that someone finally spoke up and got attention from the media this time (which could be the result of a combination of a number of things). Perhaps they’ve happened in prisons occupied by countries other than the United States as well.

In fact, the most common factor in all of these cases is not Janet Jackson’s nipple. It is, rather, militarism, enemy territory, and the best excuses of all: “Boys will be boys,” and “I was just doing my job (because I was deathly afraid of the consequences of not doing so).”

In other words, this isn’t about a few jaded individuals. It is about an entire military culture, and I hope that “cleaning house” and getting rid of a few bad seeds in the military who got caught this time doesn’t lead us to believe that the military has become more benign, that it has changed the way the military and people who are part of the miliary industrial complex relate to and treat other human beings.

Am I saying it was the military that made them do it? No — those who tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib probably weren’t given direct orders by Donald Rumsfeld to do what they did. But militarism and the painfully strict disciplinary regime that provides the military’s structure and social order just may have influenced and shaped the perpetrators’ understandings of their positions and responsibilities.

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Being a Jew is like walking in the wind or swimming: you are touched at all points and conscious everywhere. —Lionel Trilling, American critic
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