Art, Abuse and the the Army

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You have to hand it to torturers in the American and British armies. They have artistic flare and an eye for imagery.

The US army may have wantonly permitted the looting and destruction of Iraq’s great library and museum. It may have destroyed much of the ancient ruins of Babylon. But its soldiers, and our own, know how to pose a photograph.

In the same way that many self harmers use their own bodies as canvass and raw materials, so these young artists use the bodies of Iraqis. They stack them and spread them, strip them and pose them.

One of the most potent images emanating from the US camp Abu Ghraib was the hooded man. His arms spread wide, his hands attached to electrodes, it called to mind the archetypal image of the crucified Christ. In other photographs naked victims writhed in pain and terror like the violated figures in Hieronymus Bosch’s Hell.

Now from Camp Breadbasket, British army artists present us with more naked souls, violated and suffering. And for the first time a Pieta. But, instead of the dead Christ lying across his mother’s knees, we have a terrified trussed man spread-eagled upon the prongs of a fork lift truck ten feet above the ground. This is perversion in the precise sense of the word.

Tony Blair said in Parliament that the difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is not that bad things don’t happen but that people are brought to account. He and other leaders have seemed to gravely congratulate the army for dealing with what they persist in presenting as isolated indiscipline rather than institutionalised abuse.

Last Wednesday, Jack Straw said: “I am absolutely clear that activity of this kind…was confined to a tiny handful of British soldiers.”

This was despite the fact that all those accused are non-commissioned officers with leadership responsibility in the army. And the fact that just the day before, Col. Nicholas Mercer had told the court martial that after the incidents had come to light, there had been so many other reports of abuse that he had been forced to issue a direct order not to assault civilians (it is not clear whether the order extended to non-civilians).

The fact is that these abuses have come to light, not because of any action by the army, but because of the courage and compassion of two female shop assistants who refused to process film of the abuse. Had they not called in the police, no investigation would have taken place.

The court has accepted that an order was given by a senior officer Major Dan Taylor to “work (the prisoners) hard” although this was illegal under the Geneva Conventions. Yet he does not face trial. And politicians and senior army personnel insist there is no ‘institutional’ problem.

The Chief of General Staff General Sir Mike Jackson has said that “where there is evidence we investigate”. The implication is that the existence of allegations of abuse alone would be insufficient to trigger investigation. This is a terrifying thought.
The assaults at Camp Breadbasket occurred 2 weeks after Bush announced the ‘end’ of the war. The victims were civilians accused of looting. They were not stealing guns or even televisions, radios or fridges. Or the priceless archaeological artefacts which have gone missing while under Coalition ‘protection’. It seems these men were stealing powdered milk.

Iraq was a country ravaged by war and years of sanctions which had taken the lives of many thousands of children. Food was precious. It is possible that these men planned to sell the milk at extortionate rates to poor families. It is equally possible that they intended to take it back to feed their children. There was no investigation and no charges were brought.

What happened, contrary to international law, was that the men were punished – “worked hard”. They were made to run carrying large boxes of powdered milk on their heads. Some were beaten, abused and sexually humiliated. In one of the photographs a man is forced to simulate oral sex. His head, rammed against another prisoner’s groin, is covered in milk powder.

These are not the first allegations of abuse by British troops in Iraq, though each time new allegations come to light the Government responds as if it has never happened before. Each time the British propaganda machine begins to spin, we hear how well liked British soldiers are in Basra. Our approach, it seems, is a civilised one.

However, this comfortable fiction just won’t do. It beggars belief that the one set of photographs which happened to be stopped by a shop assistant, just happened also to be a record of the only incidents of abuse perpetrated by the British troops in Iraq.

Some months ago the editor of the Mirror was sacked for printing fake photographs of abuse. At that time there were widespread allegations of abuse by British troops. Though the photographs themselves were fabricated, there was no evidence that the allegations upon which they were based were incorrect.

It defies reason that a small group of ‘bad apples’ would, by pure coincidence, abuse a group of Iraqi prisoners in such similar ways to those assaulted by the Americans at Abu Ghraib. There must have been knowledge of such techniques and a culture of abuse.

It is alleged that senior officers and civilian ‘trainers’ at Abu Ghraib advised low ranking US soldiers that Moslems would be particularly shamed by stripping and simulated sex acts. We need to ask how it is that British troops began to use the same techniques.

The pervasive influence of the US political and military machines upon our government and army probably ensures that British troops are now substantially guided by the Pentagon’s operational standards.

However, the British army has its own history of malpractice. We should recall the persistent complaints emanating from Cyprus about the conduct of British troops. These have included allegations of persistent drunkenness, violence and rape.

In Kenya, there have been allegations of systematic gang rape of Kenyan women by British soldiers over a number of years. . In some cases, children were assaulted. In others the level of violence was brutal. One woman’s hip was broken in a particularly savage rape.

Only recently have these women – and some of the children whose birth resulted from the assaults – felt able to speak out. They do not believe that serious abuses could have taken place over such a long period of time without the knowledge and collusion of at least some senior officers.

The first response of the military – and Government – was to deny all allegations. However, eventually the weight of complaint became so intense that both were forced to take the women’s complaints seriously.

On recent evidence, there is little reason to believe that officers who oversee the conduct of soldiers in Britain are any more effective or concerned. On New Year’s Eve, Lance Corporal David Atkinson abducted, sexually assaulted and then strangled Sally Geeson. It seems the army had been aware of other allegations – of domestic violence, abduction and sexual assault. Atkinson had been found guilty of ‘false imprisonment’ of an 18 year old.

Described by fellow soldiers as “creepy” and a “weirdo”, at least one colleague warned his wife against contact with Atkinson, because he was known to be dangerous to women. And yet, following his conviction, this sexual predator was allowed to remain in the army and – like the accused of Camp Breadbasket – to serve as a non-commissioned officer.

Newspapers have reported that following his drunken appearance in a Nazi uniform, Prince Harry is to be offered ‘drill practice’ by an NCO before he enters Sandhurst. Palace officials are reported to fear he may be not quite up to the mark as an officer.

They should not worry. There are already complaints of drunkenness, offensive ‘ogling’ of women and violence by Prince Harry. The British army would seem to be his natural home.

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