Despite all their best efforts at covering up the truth, the United States military has been compelled to open a criminal investigation into the acts of abuse, humiliation and torture against Iraqi prisoners, which have now been broadcast on TV screens around the world. Each passing day brings new and more shocking revelations. Now it seems there are a further 1000 digital photographs to be published. As usual, the military only admit what cannot be denied. As we are now learning, these initial pictures represent only the tip of a vast and extremely ugly iceberg.
In George Orwell's 1984, the most frightening place on earth was the Ministry of Love. Within its walls unspeakable acts of physical abuse, humiliation and psychological torment were carried out. This image has been conjured up many times of late – casting Saddam in the role of Big Brother – to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Once the myths and legends of weapons of mass destruction had evaporated, Bush and Blair claimed instead that this was a war to liberate the Iraqi people - to overthrow an unpopular and tyrannical regime and bestow all the blessings of civilization and democracy on the people of Iraq.
That Saddam was a tyrant is beyond doubt. However, the systematic torture of Iraqi prisoners - now exposed for all the world to see - by the imperialist forces of occupation have shocked the world, and demolished the lie that this was a war for the human rights of the Iraqi people. Let us be clear. The shamefaced excuses of British and US government officials that these are the criminal acts of 'rogue elements' or a few bad apples will cut no ice. Each new appalling photograph published demonstrates just how widespread this abuse is. In fact, these are not isolated crimes, but part and parcel of imperialist policy, they are acts of torture.
The invasion and occupation of Iraq was no war of liberation but an act of naked aggression against what was supposed to be a sovereign state, leading to the forcible occupation of a country by foreign troops against the will of the people.
Facing the mounting resistance of the occupied people, a massive use of force is required to maintain control. The response of the imperialists to the attempts of the Iraqi people to liberate themselves is typical. Send in more troops, kill more Iraqis, and torture those you capture.
"Doublethink and Newspeak"
Bush and Blair are past masters of Orwellian Doublethink and Newspeak. Thus the dictatorship of a foreign military invader is translated as 'bringing democracy', and now 'bestowing freedom' is represented by the torture chamber of Abu Ghraib prison – notorious for decades as the execution cells of the brutal Saddam regime - now entering history as possibly the most obscene American military scandal since the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
These atrocities will have a profound impact. They will stiffen the resolve of the people of Iraq in the struggle to free their country from foreign occupation. They will affect the morale of the troops, and public opinion in the west, above all in the US, where opinion is already changing thanks to the sight of coffins draped in the stars and stripes returning home in increasing numbers. It is on these fronts that the struggle against US imperialism now unfolds, a struggle for national liberation in Iraq; divisions within the foreign armies of occupation; and growing opposition to the occupation in the US itself.
In the twelve months since Bush declared victory 677 coalition personnel have been killed in Iraq – 506 more than died in the war. It is probably unprecedented in modern history that the aftermath of a conflict has claimed four times as many lives as the conflict itself. The exact numbers of Iraqi dead are not known. Current estimates claim a figure of around 18,000 to date.
Despite all their best efforts at covering up the truth, the United States military has been compelled to open a criminal investigation into the acts of abuse, humiliation and torture against Iraqi prisoners, which have now been broadcast on TV screens around the world.
CBS broadcast the first pictures, apparently taken last November and December inside the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad where Allied forces were holding hundreds of Iraqi prisoners. One showed Iraqis naked - except for hoods - stacked into a human pyramid, with American military personnel clearly enjoying the spectacle.
Each passing day brings new and more shocking revelations. Now it seems there are a further 1000 digital photographs to be published. As usual, the military only admit what cannot be denied. As we are now learning, these initial pictures represent only the tip of a vast and extremely ugly iceberg.
Daily Mirror photographs
In Britain the propaganda machine has worked overtime to question the authenticity of photographs showing British soldiers engaged in torture. The usual technique is being used: concentrate on the irrelevant detail in order to build up a smokescreen behind which to hide the essential. It is quite obvious that the techniques used by the US military are also known to the British military. Instead of discussing this, we have endless articles and TV and radio commentary on whether the photographs published by the British Daily Mirror were fakes or not. The aim is clear. If they could prove they are fakes or at least cast a serious doubt on their authenticity, then they can achieve another whitewash operation, as with the Hutton inquiry!
From the beginning there has been an attempt by the British media to contrast the 'civilised' behaviour of British troops, with certain criticisms of US methods. A passing knowledge of the history of the British military would be enough to shatter this myth of civilised behaviour. In any case, their smoke and mirrors operation has been completely undermined by the latest complaints of British troops about the torture they have witnessed. The latest scandal surrounding the photographs contained in a film a returning British soldier took to his local chemist to be developed, exposing yet more grotesque and abhorrent scenes of sexual humiliation, and violent beatings of prisoners, has demolished this lie that there is some moral superiority on the part of the British military forces over their US counterparts. Torture is not just the method of US imperialism, but is being used by all the forces of occupation.
In the US faced with overwhelming evidence – evidence it has now emerged that was known to Bush and his administration for months - the line is that this is the work of a few bad apples, this is abuse carried out by sadists. That they are sadistic acts is beyond question. The self-evident truth is that tens of thousands of young Iraqis are being rounded up by the occupying forces without the pretence of a trial, proof of guilt or anything else. They are held at the mercy of their captors who beat, torture and humiliate them.
It has been admitted that the prisoners are interrogated by the CIA, and that the latter has reached a deal with the prison authorities (i.e. the US army) that they must be "softened up" ready for interrogation. The individuals in command of these hell holes boast of quick results. They proudly announce that they can 'break' a prisoner in a matter of days. Now we see how they achieve their 'results'. Breaking the will of a human being, through physical beatings, psychological abuse, and humiliation in order to facilitate their interrogation is the very definition of torture.
Rumsfeld: not torture but "abuse"
This accusation, levelled at the institutions of imperialism and not just a few rogue barbarians, is what Bush and co are trying to dodge. "My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture," said Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defence on Tuesday. "I don't know if it is correct to say what you just said, that torture has taken place, or that there's been a conviction for torture. And therefore I'm not going to address the torture word."
Despite the worldwide furore at developments in Iraq he confessed at this point he had not even read the March 9 report by Major General Antonio Taguba on "abuse" at the Abu Ghraib prison. A few highlights of the report will allow you to judge for yourself. Are these isolated cases of abuse, or systematic acts of torture?: " ... pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape ... sodomising a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick ... "
The same day that Rumsfeld added his contribution to the history of Orwellian statements by high officials, the Senate armed services committee was being briefed not only about Abu Ghraib, but also about military and CIA prisons in Afghanistan. It learned of the deaths of 25 prisoners and two other murders in Iraq; that private contractors were at the centre of these lethal incidents; and that no one had been charged.
Each new shock – and Rumsfeld himself admits there are many more to come – increases the pressure for Rumsfeld to go. Bush may well be called upon to sacrifice his friend to save himself, but this will solve nothing. With their usual cold calculation the level at which those responsible will be scapegoated will be determined by the severity of the crisis. The bigger the crisis, the more significant must be the sacrifice. To begin with, of course, they will confine themselves to prosecuting a few soldiers – those claimed to be the 'bad apples.' As the crisis deepens, some senior officers may be punished and even one or two politicians. Sergeant Chip Frederick, who plans to plead innocent, asserted on CBS that he and his colleagues had had "no proper guidance from commanders" on how to treat the prisoners. Nor, he said, had they been given access to provisions of the Geneva Convention on the proper treatment of prisoners. This is frankly laughable. What normal American man or woman would treat a dog in the way these prisoners were treated? Do we need to have studied the Geneva Convention to know that such treatment constitutes barbarism? Already one or two of the accused have trotted out that most despicable excuse in history, 'we were only following orders.' Whilst this can in no way justify the barbarism of their actions, there is nonetheless some truth in these claims. These are not just despicable acts by individuals, this is an orchestrated policy of oppression and torture. The only immediate solution in Iraq is the withdrawal of all foreign troops.
The Bush administration was well aware of what was going on from the Taguba report, but was more concerned about its exposure than its contents. General Richard Myers, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, was dispatched on a mission to CBS news to tell it to suppress its story and the horrifying pictures. For two weeks, CBS's 60 Minutes II show complied, until it became known that the New Yorker magazine would publish excerpts of the report.
President Bush, Condoleezza Rice and other officials, unable to contain the controversy any longer, scheduled appearances on Arab television to apologise, though Bush himself could not initially bring himself to use the word 'sorry'. The new policy was now to claim that the "abuse" was an aberration. Rumsfeld again distinguished himself and demonstrated the real priorities of Bush and co when he complained to senators in Washington that leaks to newspapers about the torture in Iraq's prisons amounted to a violation of national security. They are more concerned with the damage to their image than the monstrous violations of human beings we have seen in Iraq. The truth is that this torture is not at all rare and is not confined to Iraq.
Torture is widespread
US imperialism has created what is in effect a gulag. It stretches from prisons in Afghanistan to Iraq, from Guantánamo to secret CIA prisons around the world. There are perhaps 10,000 people being held in Iraq, 1,000 in Afghanistan and almost 700 in Guantánamo. The law as it applies to them is whatever the US deems necessary.
On paper US imperialism agrees with the Geneva convention. But the Bush administration has designated those at Guantánamo, for example, as "enemy combatants". Rumsfeld extended this system - "a legal black hole", according to Human Rights Watch - to Afghanistan and then Iraq, openly rejecting all international conventions. As always where these pieces of paper stand in the way of the interests of US imperialism they are rudely trampled underfoot.
Initially in his appearances on Arab TV Bush stopped short of a direct apology. The arrogance of these people is truly staggering. Bush's explanation? "In a democracy everything is not perfect - mistakes are made."
Later, White House spokesman Scott McClellan used the word "sorry" half a dozen times. "The president is sorry for what occurred and the pain it has caused," he said. Finally Bush himself was even forced to say the word "sorry". No-one in Iraq would believe him at the best of times, let alone when this grudging, half baked apology was dragged out of him.
Bush also faces rising anger in Congress at his administration's failure to come forward about the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners. Bush admits that he first learned of the torture claims in early January.
Every day, new details are emerging of yet more 'isolated cases' of abuse by US troops. Pentagon officials are investigating 35 possible instances of abuse by US personnel, and the Los Angeles Times reported that 25 Iraqi and Afghan prisoners had died in US custody in the last 17 months. The phrase "isolated incidents" usually suggests one or two episodes. Surely by the time you get to 35 these incidents are no longer isolated but part and parcel of policy.
Dhurgan Khalid, 21, an art student, said: "I don't believe what Bush has promised. I don't believe the people that did this will go to jail. I don't even believe they will face justice." The senior American commander sent in to sort out US military jails in Iraq will not elicit a great deal of confidence in the Iraqi people.
Major General Geoffrey Miller said: "I would like to apologise for our nation and for our military for the small number of soldiers who committed illegal and unauthorised acts here at Abu Ghraib. There are violations not only of our national policy but of how we conduct ourselves as members of the international community. It has brought a cloud over all the efforts of our soldiers."
In the current circumstances the people of Iraq would be rightly suspicious of the sincerity of this statement whichever US official made it. That it comes from the general previously in charge of the US's infamous military facility at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, only underlines its hypocrisy. He has already defended the use of sleep deprivation as an interrogation aid, adding that although he did not believe it was an effective tactic, it could be employed under certain approved circumstances.
Gen Miller said he had reviewed the US army's list of 53 coercive techniques for questioning prisoners, and had spoken about them to Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the top general in Iraq. Many of the techniques for torturing prisoners reported from Iraq are believed to have been imported from Miller's Guantanamo camp.
As each successive layer of concealment is stripped away from the US military prison system in Iraq, the picture emerges not just of isolated "abuses" by a few bad guys - as Rumsfeld, Bush and co claim - but of a much wider system of degradation and torture which has been deliberately exported to Iraq with an imperial contempt for the coalition's own self-proclaimed values.
Last September, this same General Miller, when he was still in charge of the US concentration camp in Cuba, visited Iraq to offer (as the Washington Post puts it) "suggestions on how to make interrogations more efficient and effective". The basic aim, he recommended, was that military detention centres in Iraq should serve as an "enabler for interrogation" and that the prison guards should "set the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees". And that is what they proceeded to do.
"They [the guards] made them [the prisoners] do strange exercises," says one of the US civilian employees in Abu Ghraib prison, "by sliding on their stomach, jump up and down, throw water on them ... then they handcuffed their hands together and their legs with shackles and started to stack them on top of each other". That is torture by any standard, and equally to the point, a very effective "enabler for interrogation". It is an inevitable consequence too of 'dehumanising' the occupied people. The military occupation is making a prison of the whole of Iraq and making the troops its turnkeys.
Are we to believe that a gang of reservists from Virginia hit on ways of mistreating Muslim prisoners to maximise their humiliation all by themselves? In emails released by his family, Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick, a guard at Abu Ghraib, says military intelligence used dogs to intimidate prisoners, leading to "positive results and information". In one email he wrote: "We have had a very high rate with our style of getting them to break. They usually end up breaking within hours." Sgt Frederick claims to have queried some of the abuses: "I questioned this and the answer I got was: this is how military intelligence wants it done."
The recently leaked army report into the abuses, by Major General Antonio Taguba, said military intelligence, CIA personnel and private contractors "actively requested that guards set physical and mental conditions for favourable interrogation of witnesses". They were meant to soften up detainees before the interrogators got to work.
Part of the interrogating team at Abu Ghraib was from the CIA. No-one should be that surprised, given the history of this organisation, that they use torture freely. A CIA manual dating from 1983, written for use in Honduras, entitled "Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual", states: "The purpose of all coercive techniques is to induce psychological regression in the subject by bringing a superior outside force to bear on his will to resist. Regression is basically a loss of autonomy."
Sgt Frederick says detainees at Abu Ghraib were kept in isolation for up to three days in windowless rooms. According to the CIA manual, "a person's sense of identity depends upon the continuity in his surroundings, habits, appearance, relations with others ... Detention should be planned to enhance ... feelings of being cut off from anything known and reassuring."
Of the Iraqi images, one of the most chilling was the hooded man standing on a box, with wires attached to him. He was reportedly told he would be electrocuted if he moved. Again according to the CIA manual, threatening him with electrocution may have been better than the real thing: "The threat of coercion usually weakens or destroys resistance more effectively than coercion itself. For example, the threat to inflict pain can trigger fears more damaging than the immediate sensation of pain." However, "if a subject refuses to comply after a threat has been made, it must be carried out. Otherwise, subsequent threats will also prove ineffective."
The CIA manual can also enlighten us further about the scandal at Abu Ghraib. The man on the box would have battled exhaustion from having to stand motionless, driven by fear of an electric shock. The torturers' handbook continues, "pain that he feels he is inflicting upon himself is more likely to sap his resistance. If he is required to maintain a rigid position such as standing at attention or sitting on a stool for long periods, the immediate source of discomfort is not the questioner but the subject. After a while, the subject is likely to exhaust his internal motivational strength. Intense pain is likely to produce false confessions, fabricated to avoid additional punishment."
The 1983 CIA manual draws heavily on an earlier 1963 "Kubark manual", named after the codeword the CIA gave itself. It explains what the US military may have hoped to gain by sexually humiliating prisoners. "The effectiveness of most of the non-coercive techniques depends upon their unsettling effect. The interrogation situation is in itself disturbing to most people encountering it for the first time. The aim is to enhance this effect, to disrupt radically familiar emotional and psychological associations ... When this aim is achieved, resistance is seriously impaired. There is an interval ... of suspended animation, a kind of psychological shock or paralysis. It is caused by a traumatic or sub-traumatic experience which explodes, as it were, the world that is familiar to the subject as well as his image of himself within that world. At this moment the source is far likelier to comply."
This appears to be what US intelligence officers at Abu Ghraib have been putting into effect. Specialist Sabrina Harman, one of the accused guards, testified that it was her job to keep prisoners awake, including the hooded man placed on a box with wires attached to his fingers, toes and genitals.
According to the New Yorker, she stated: "MI [military intelligence] wanted to get them to talk. It is Graner [a guard] and Frederick's job to do things for MI ... to get these people to talk." The Kubark manual states that "resistance is sapped principally by psychological rather than physical pressures".
As shocking as all these revelations are – and they are shocking enough to send a shiver down one's spine - in reality, they are exposing something we have seen many times before, in the occupied West Bank under the Israeli jackboot; in Northern Ireland subjected to the tender mercies of British Special Forces; in Algeria under French colonial rule; for that matter, in wartime Europe under the Nazis. It is the normal conduct of a brutal occupying power that seeks to perpetuate its control by a policy of murder and terror. It is state terrorism.
Private contractors, according to the Toguba report, gave orders to US soldiers to torture prisoners. These mercenaries are not subject to Iraqi law or the US military code of justice. They are a law unto themselves. There are an estimated 20,000 of them on the ground in Iraq, a larger force even than the British army.
At last count, more than 1,000 former security personnel from the North of Ireland were reported to be amongst them. First into the field last year were 600 former prison officers made redundant with the closure of Long Kesh prison and the run down of other jails. They have been joined, according to the BBC, by "upwards of 200 former RUC men". Having learned their profession at the expense of many an innocent Irish youth in Belfast and Derry, their experience is now being brought to bear against the skulls of innocent Iraqis.
The pictures from inside Abu Ghraib prison graphically show how Iraqi prisoners are treated by their "civilized" guards. The latest shows a female American soldier leading a hooded Iraqi prisoner around on a leash, just like a dog. This illustrates precisely the way imperialism views the Iraqi people.
The conduct of these representatives of "Christian" western "Civilization" is absolutely typical of imperialism throughout its history. Under the hypocritical pretext of "liberating the Iraqi people", they impose a far worse tyranny than any that the people of that long-suffering country have ever suffered. In their "liberating" fervour, they have reduced towns and cities to rubble, killed thousands of innocent women and children and almost extinguished what was an ancient and proud civilization.
The imperialist powers, and US imperialism chief amongst them, are the modern barbarians. They respect no civilization, religion or culture other than their own. They are bloated with the arrogance of imperial power and hold all other countries – including even their supposed allies - with barely concealed contempt. They consider it their God-given right to interfere in the affairs of any country they choose. This is no exaggeration, as Bush himself has explained, "I also have this belief, strong belief that freedom is not this country's gift to the world. Freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world. And as the greatest power on the face of the earth we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom." This is the Bush Doctrine.
Underlying the ideology of every imperialism is the notion of their own national and racial superiority. The occupying forces regard the Iraqis as inferior beings. This sense of superiority can be variously expressed. In an extreme form it is seen in the abuse of defenceless prisoners. Their captors do not even regard them as human beings, so why bother to respect their human dignity. Racism is, after all, only a by-product of imperialism, and fascism is only the distilled essence of imperialism.
Robert Fisk in The Independent comments on this racism: "Add to that the poisonous, racial dribble of a hundred Hollywood movies that depict Arabs as dirty, lecherous, untrustworthy and violent people -- and soldiers are addicted to movies -- and it's not difficult to see how some British scumbag will urinate into the face of a hooded man, how some American sadist will stand a hooded Iraqi on a box with wires tied to his hands.
"The sexual sadism -- the bobby--sox girl soldier who points at a man's genitals, the mock orgy in Abu Ghraib prison, the British rifle in the prisoner's …
"Indeed, we now depict Arabs in our films as the Nazis once depicted Jews. But Arabs are fair game. Potential terrorists to a man -- and a woman -- they must be softened up, 'prepared', humiliated, beaten, tortured. The Israelis use torture in the Russian Compound in Jerusalem. Now we torture in Saddam's old jail outside Baghdad."
Fisk, a respected journalist, has visited Iraq on several occasions. "The last time I saw Brigadier General Janis Karpinski," he commented, "commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade in Iraq, she told me she had visited Camp X--Ray in Guantanamo and found nothing wrong with it. I should have guessed then that something had gone terribly wrong in Iraq.
"I remember how in Basra, on the eve of a visit by Tony Blair, I visited the British Army's press office in the city to ask about the death of 26-year-old Baha Mousa. The dead man's family had given me British documents proving that he had been beaten to death in custody, that the British Army had itself tried to pay off the family if they would give up any legal claim against the soldiers who so cruelly killed their son.
"I was met with yawns and a total inability to furnish information about the event. I was told to call the Ministry of Defence in London. The officer I spoke to appeared weary, even impatient about my inquiry. There was not a single word of compassion for the dead man."
What will happen now? A handful of sadistic officers will receive a little slap on the wrist. Some soldiers will face jail sentences. The President and his merry men will profess horror. That will probably be the end of it as far as so-called justice is concerned. If the crisis gets worse, as now looks likely, one or two politicians and military officials will probably face the sack. How many and how high up will depend on what Bush and co can get away with. However, this is far from the end of the affair for the Iraqi people, US and British troops and public opinion in the US and Britain. Scandals and outrages of this magnitude can even bring down governments. The mass movement in Spain forced the withdrawal of Spanish troops, a movement on the same scale in the US and Britain could have a profound impact.
The present revelations are acutely embarrassing for Washington and London. They have been beating the drum about liberating the Iraqi people from the inhumane repression of Saddam Hussein. Yes, the Iraqi people suffered terribly under Saddam Hussein - but they did not suffer a fraction of the horrors that are now being daily inflicted on them by their "civilized" guests from overseas.
The American soldiers now standing guard outside Abu Ghraib prison will be under no illusion as to what Iraqis think of them. "Even Saddam didn't do this," Mohammed Ahmed, 37, said last week, as the demonstrators arrived outside Abu Ghraib's main gate, shouting in English: "Down, down, USA".
Mr Ahmed said he had come to try to visit his brother Abdul who was locked up 4 months ago after US troops discovered a Kalashnikov inside his vegetable shop. "He had the Kalashnikov to defend himself from looters," Mr Ahmed said. "I've only managed to visit him once. I found him crying. He was completely broken. He said the American soldiers had forced him to fill bags of sand using a teaspoon."
At a tent camp inside the prison used for detainees with medical conditions, prisoners ran out shouting to an arriving busload of journalists. Some hobbled out of tents on crutches. A one-legged man hopped out, waving his prosthetic leg in the air. "Why! Why!" he shouted in Arabic. "Nobody has told me why I'm here." Another prisoner held up a sign. It complained of "random capturing from the streets", "illogical questions with no relation to reality" and "mental and psychological interrogations for no obvious reasons". The journalists of course were not allowed to talk to any of the inmates.
Asked about claims by many prisoners after their release that they were picked up by mistake Colonel Foster Payne, head of military intelligence at Abu Ghraib, admitted that "some people were in the wrong place at the wrong time", but added: "Clearly everyone [here] is not a farmer." The arrogant contempt for the rights of these people is staggering. Their reasoning seems to be, round up as many Iraqis as you can, interrogate them, torture them, many of them will be innocent, but that does not matter, because one or two of them will be guilty of something!
Of course, it is quite wrong to demonise any people. It would be a serious error to group the entire people of the USA together as if they were "one reactionary mass". It is wrong to think that all Americans are like George Bush. Not all American soldiers think or behave like these thugs in uniform. The present investigation began, after all, when a US soldier from the prison reported the torture and handed over the photographs, which eventually found their way to CBS. This soldier had a conscience and he showed great personal courage. He is not alone. There is a history of both torture and abuse in the US military, and also of acts of courage in opposing them.
Colin Powell and My Lai
Alongside "the Bush Doctrine" there is also "the Powell Doctrine" for the military, which includes a co-opted press and a vigorous attempt to keep things like flag-draped coffins off American TV screens. Powell learned of the importance of propaganda and the power of images of war from his experiences in Vietnam.
On March 16, 1968, units of the Division to which Powell was assigned as a staff officer in Chu Lai, entered a Vietnamese village called My Lai and spent four hours raping women, burning houses, then finally massacring men, women, and children - including infants who dying women tried to shield with their own bullet-riddled bodies. The massacre was stopped by an American helicopter pilot who landed his chopper between the few surviving Vietnamese and the blood-intoxicated soldiers, and ordered his door gunners to open fire on the American troops if they failed to stand down.
A few weeks later, the commanding general in Vietnam, received a letter from a young serving soldier named Tom Glen:
"The average GI's attitude toward and treatment of the Vietnamese people all too often is a complete denial of all our country is attempting to accomplish in the realm of human relations... Far beyond merely dismissing the Vietnamese as 'slopes' or 'gooks,' in both deed and thought, too many American soldiers seem to discount their very humanity; and with this attitude inflict upon the Vietnamese citizenry humiliations, both psychological and physical... Fired with an emotionalism that belies unconscionable hatred, and armed with a vocabulary consisting of 'You VC,' soldiers commonly 'interrogate' by means of torture that has been presented as the particular habit of the enemy. Severe beatings and torture at knife point are usual means of questioning captives or of convincing a suspect that he is, indeed, a Viet Cong...."
Glen's letter found its way to the desk of one Major Colin Powell in Chu Lai. It seems that Powell never followed up by questioning Glen, and instead ended his "investigation" of Glen's allegations after accepting uncritically the claim by Glen's commander that Glen hadn't been close enough to "the front" to have any knowledge of such alleged abuses. Powell then began his career as a damage-control expert in the military by writing a letter, dated December 13, 1968, in which he said, "There may be isolated cases of mistreatment of civilians and POWs... [but] this by no means reflects the general attitude throughout the Division... In direct refutation of this [Glen's] portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent."
When the photographs of the massacre were published, and the American public was confronted with the reality of an entire unit participating in a systematic massacre of civilians, it marked a turning point in the loss of political support in the United States for continued military occupation of Vietnam.
Powell places a heavy emphasis on the government's ability to manage public perception about war as a key element in the "Powell Doctrine." He apparently drew the conclusion that exposure of My Lai and other atrocities were ultimately responsible for the US defeat in Vietnam. There are certain parallels with the war in Vietnam, as we have pointed out before. It could be that these latest outrages will be Iraq's My Lai. They will certainly have a major impact on public opinion in the US. They will affect the army too.
Army a reflection of society
The US army, like all armies, is a reflection of society as a whole. Within the ranks of any army we find hardened thugs and psychopaths who are prepared to carry out any bloody act that is required of them. This section is usually a small minority. However it is precisely this minority which can become a useful tool of reaction and fascism.
At the other extreme there is another minority that is open to revolutionary ideas and is prepared to speak out. In between these two extremes there is the big majority who are neither one thing nor the other, but whose mood and opinions are moulded by circumstances, by experience, and can go one way or another depending on which is the stronger force.
What we have seen in Iraq is evidence of systematic torture. It is not isolated cases of abuse by a few "bad apples". Undoubtedly the most sadistic elements have been given free reign to exercise their personal perversions. However, these acts of barbarism, this kind of inhumanity, once exposed will inevitably have a profound impact on the outlook of many of the ordinary troops. Already there are reports of US troops in Iraq calling for Rumsfeld and co to be sacked and for the troops to be withdrawn. This unprecedented dissent can intensify in the weeks ahead.
Camilo Mejia was the first US soldier serving in Iraq to proclaim himself a conscientious objector. But as disillusion with the war grows among the US army and public, he is unlikely to be the last. For six months last year, Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia led his squad on countless missions through one of the most dangerous parts of Iraq in which to be a US soldier: the town of Ramadi in the Sunni triangle. He survived roadside bombs and mortars, ambushes, firefights and raids.
After leaving Iraq on a two-week furlough last October, the soldier from the Florida National Guard decided not to return to the war and went into hiding. When he surrendered to the military authorities in March, he became the first veteran from Iraq to challenge the morality of the war and proclaim himself a conscientious objector.
"There comes a point when you have to realise there is a difference between being a soldier and being a human being," Mejia told The Guardian. He says he has no regrets over his decision, that he regards the war in Iraq as immoral and illegal. He also accuses military commanders of sacrificing the lives of US troops for vanity, provoking clashes with Iraqis in the hopes of running up their medal tally.
Mejia, 28, has put a public face on what soldiers' advocates say is widespread disillusion among the front-line forces in Iraq and among their military leadership. Since the start of the war, 29,000 troops have called an advice line run by the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors. A sizeable portion, like Mejia, had gone AWOL; a smaller number asked about conscientious-objector status. Almost all wanted out of the military. This remember was before the current crisis began.
"There are probably hundreds of service members who contact us every month who share the same beliefs as Camilo, who are opposed to war in general and this war in particular," says the committee's Teresa Panepinto. Like Mejia, many soldiers took a chance and ran. According to the Pentagon, 600 troops have failed to return from furloughs in the US.
In late April last year Mejia was called up with the National Guard. He was by all accounts a promising soldier, promoted to squad leader in charge of eight other infantrymen. His early days in Ramadi went well. "At first, I loved it. Kids would come out of their homes waving and saying, 'Hello, mister, we love you, mister, hello, hello, how are you?' It was beautiful - until we started getting shot at.
"Then we started getting into firefights, and killing civilians, and people were not so friendly any more. After a while we were still there, there was no electricity, no water, no jobs. There were roadblocks, and curfew, and people were dying, and the attitude changed. The people didn't want us there any more, and we didn't want to be there."
He argues the war was predicated on a lie. The Bush administration's claims about saving the world from Saddam's deadly arsenal, and saving Iraqis from a brutal dictator, were a distraction from its real aim: controlling the country's oil, and gaining a foothold in a strategic location. He also argues that US army officers toyed with the lives of US soldiers and Iraqi civilians, all so that they could bring home medals. In addition, the troops of his own National Guard regiment were short-changed on protective gear and other equipment.
Mejia's commanding officer disagrees vehemently with the charges, and has labelled him a coward, telling CBS television that the sergeant lost his nerve. He accused Mejia of abandoning his fellow guardsmen in the war zone. This was a predictable onslaught.
Growing opposition in ranks of US army
However, there is compelling evidence that the ranks of both the numbers of conscientious objectors and deserters are growing. The Pentagon is loath to publicise desertion figures, but the Marine Corps alone registered 1,113 cases of desertion in 2003, and 384 instances so far this year, according to statistics obtained by The Guardian newspaper. The army recorded a total of 2,731 desertions last year. By the Pentagon's own admission, meanwhile, morale among forces serving in Iraq is perilously low, with three-quarters of troops believing that their superior officers have little concern for their well-being. Meanwhile, US soldiers - like their fellow Americans - are increasingly admitting to grave doubts about the morality of the war.
The mood in the USA is already changing. The latest polls show that a majority now believe that troops should be withdrawn. This will have a major impact on the forthcoming Presidential election in the US. However, it is not even clear that a change of President will be enough to get the troops out. The war will grind on its merciless, blood-soaked way. More "excesses" will follow, as night follows day. People will be brutalised and lose all notion of right and wrong. They will become indifferent to suffering and death. As was the case in Vietnam, a mass movement in the United States is needed and not just a Presidential election in order to get the troops out. In the more recent case of Spain, it was the millions of people who took to the streets that was decisive in putting pressure on the new government to withdraw the Spanish contingent.
Likewise, Blair and co will be considering sending in thousands more troops to replace those that have been withdrawn. This must be met with a mass movement in Britain to oppose the sending of those troops and to demand that the occupation of Iraq is brought to an end.
In Iraq US and British troops are facing uprisings on the part of the entire people. The only response of Bush is to pour in yet more American troops: yet more poor, working class black kids will be sent into the meat grinder; yet more American and Iraqi lives will be shattered.
More coffins will be sent home draped in the Stars and Stripes. Sooner or later the American public will learn the truth about the war in Iraq, just as they learned the truth about the war in Vietnam. My Lai was a turning point in the perception of the Vietnam war back in the US. The latest revelations about widespread use of torture may yet prove to be Bush's My Lai. Appropriately Colin Powell is once again involved. Just as in 1968, they can try to cover up the truth, or claim that it is not general policy to use torture, but the truth is now out and can no longer be kept from the wider public.
Coming immediately after the terrible bombings of Fallujah and Najaf, the latest revelations will serve to further enrage not only the Iraqi people, but all the Arab world and beyond. It will strengthen the resolve of the Iraqi people to continue their struggle until the US and allied forces are obliged to pull out.
Bush, and his friend Blair, are indeed facing a new Vietnam. When we raised this perspective in the early days of the war in Iraq there were many sceptics – "Iraq is not Vietnam", "there is no jungle", "Saddam's regime is not that of the Vietcong", and so on. Yes, Iraq is not an exact replica of Vietnam, but as time goes by the two situations are becoming strikingly similar. Of course it will take time. The US troops are not going to pull out tomorrow morning. But let us not forget that the US were involved in Vietnam for over a decade. They were finally defeated because the Vietnamese people did not want them there, and the opposition in the US reached massive proportions. Today the Iraqi people do not want the US troops in their country. What is most striking is the speed with which the situation has evolved. The difficulties of the US military in Iraq have emerged in a relatively short period of time, much shorter than with Vietnam. So although they may not leave immediately, the US generals – with their British counterparts – are staring defeat in the face.
At the same time, the war in Iraq is having a radicalising effect on the workers and youth of the whole world, just as the Vietnam war did in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The war, with all its atrocities, and the growing resistance of the Iraqi people, will combine with the effects of the general crisis of capitalism, to change the whole mood of the working class, especially in the United States. Already a majority of Americans now believe the war was a mistake. That majority will continue to grow. Bush and Blair will eventually be swept away.
In the short term, US Defence Secretary Rumsfeld may go. British Defence Secretary Hoon could follow. The careers of these individuals, whether they stay or go, does not alter things fundamentally. The horrific scenes we have witnessed in Iraq are not the result of this or that politician being in office, but of the barbarous approach of imperialism to the masses of the world in a new period of history. There will be more of this to come.
We have entered a new epoch, an epoch of intensified class struggle. It will be an epoch in which the ideas of Marxism, for so long relegated to a small minority fighting against the stream, will become the ideas of the mass of the workers and youth. Once that happens no force on earth will be able to stop the workers from transforming society from top to bottom, and finally we will be able to put an end to the barbarous outrages we see perpetrated by this system both in war and in peace, a barbarism which is inseparable from the capitalist system itself. As Marx rightly foresaw 150 years ago the choice before humanity is between socialism and barbarism. The struggle for socialism is the struggle for the future of humanity.