ALAN RM JONES
Recalling Abu Ghraib
The late 19th, early 20th Century French philosopher Henri Bergson contended that there were two types of memory. On the one hand, there is what he termed ‘habit-memory’, which was what we relied upon in daily life. It serves as our auto-pilot, allowing us to fulfill many daily tasks – which bus to take to get to work, where the sugar bowl is kept and so on. Contrasted to habit-memory was true or ‘recall-memory’. Recall-memory, according to Bergson, serves as our archive of experiences. It’s our hard drive of what we are about – the essence of who we are as a civilisation.Another Frenchman – as it happens – former L’Express editor and distinguished essayist, Jean-Francois Revel, argued that Bergson’s memory ‘duality’ was analogous to modern Western liberal civilization. In the bad old days of the Cold War, in the West, communism’s past was located in habit-memory, while capitalism’s was found in recall-memory.
‘As things are now,’ Revel lamented in his survival manual for the Cold War, How Democracies Perish, ‘it seems only the West’s failures, crimes and weaknesses deserve to be recorded by history.’ The Great Depression, domestic anti-communist excesses (even legitimate action against subversion is recalled as McCarthyism) or the overthrow of Salvatore Allende (‘the other September 11’), for example, are each
recalled as an ‘indelible stain’ upon liberal democratic capitalism generally, and the US in particular. No Western enterprise, however just and heroic, escapes this snare. (Only last week, I involuntarily spat my morning coffee all over a story about my local mayor, Peter Macdonald, who took it upon himself to apologise on behalf of Manly residents for the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima – a brutal and unnecessary act he claimed.)
Meanwhile, the deaths of tens of millions of innocent people at the hands of Soviet Communist dictators barely registered in the West’s hazy historical consciousness. Revel maintained that liberal capitalism’s memory ‘duality’ not only accustomed the West to accept profoundly desperate approaches toward human economic development and political freedom; it cloaked communism’s crimes while maintaining the West under a kind of perpetual indictment.
The West won the Cold War despite Revel’s grave concerns. But have we learned? Two current examples demonstrate that we have not.
I watched a recent CNN report from Iraq highlighting the bravery and increasing effectiveness of US Marines in coping with so-called roadside IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), planted by Saddamite holdouts and their terrorist blow-in allies. The Marine platoon, followed by CNN correspondent Alex Quade, had improvised their own counter-IED tactics to protect themselves and to kill those that planted them. But plenty of guts were still required to get the job done.
Over the previous two weeks, Gunnery Sergeant Jeff Von Daggenheart and his comrades had hit 22 IEDs. ‘I took some shrapnel in the leg, and thank God for gear, because I took a piece here, then in my holster and then I got shrapnel across my leg. It’s healing up now. It’s all good. My helmet, you can see my helmet, my eyes through here’, he said nonchalantly.
On one patrol, Daggenheart’s platoon encountered an abandoned car by the side of the road, which bore all the hallmarks of an IED. Believing the car to possibly contain a bomb, a marine gingerly attempted to push it off the road using his armour plated Humvee, when the car exploded. The Humvee was a write-off, but the Marine emerged a little shaken but unscathed.
The report was a welcome, if uncommon, counter to the daily dirge of coalition and civilian casualty reports, often cued with graphic enemy supplied home movies with the familiar pre-detonation ‘Allah Akbar’ whispered voiceover. For a moment, it seemed, the media were clueing in to the public’s demand for an end to negative, biased reporting.
But my budding optimism was itself detonated at the end of the story when the reporter signed-off from ‘near Abu Ghraib prison’. Near Abu Ghraib prison? I was confused. Where exactly is Abu Ghraib prison?
Call me ignorant if you want because I don’t have a clue where the infamous prison of American sado-sexual depravity and stupidity is. Oh sure, I knew it was in Iraq, and somewhere near Baghdad. Well, if you’re not exactly sure yourself, I’ve since checked. It’s about 30 kilometres west of Baghdad – roughly equivalent to Sydney’s outer west.
If the CNN reporter had merely said ‘near Baghdad’, would you have been less informed? The answer is no, and you wouldn’t have been left wondering. But as it was left, one could have no doubt what purpose the infamous landmark reference was intended to serve.
Still not sure? Peter Cosgrove’s recent news-making interview with Andrew Denton, on ABC Television’s Enough Rope should make it clear. Denton wastes no time cutting to the chase with the retired defence force chief.
DENTON: You became Commander in Chief of the Defence Forces in 2002. And big issues started landing on your desk. We’re talking Iraq, we’re talking Abu Ghraib, the US alliance. You’d trained all your life as a solider, now this was a political game…Were you ready for it?
Cosgrove merely points out that, the mission which made him most famous, East Timor – skipped over in Denton’s rush to the juicier end-of-career highlights – gave him a first class honours education in political soldiering. Not satisfied, Denton circles back again to… Abu Ghraib.
DENTON: Of course with these other issues, like the US alliance and Abu Ghraib, highly politicised issues within Australia. Not the same thing and you had to step through that minefield.
Cosgrove expressed his regret but said the low point for him was the Sea King tragedy, during the Tsunami relief effort, when 9 Australian service men and women lost their lives. In fact, Abu Ghraib didn’t begin making headlines until mid 2004 – the third and last year of Cosgrove’s command, and it had virtually nothing to do with the Australian Defence Force. To say, as Denton did, that it was one of the ‘big issues’ that ‘started landing’ on Cosgrove’s desk is a bit of a stretch.
Denton, for whom I have a lot of time (about an hour or so Monday nights on ABC), might have remembered that not only did the Tsunami relief effort factor huge in Cosgrove’s responsibilities, politically and otherwise – as compared to the sadistic and apparently bored buffoons running the night shift at Abu Ghraib – but there was that other minor event still ongoing when Cosgrove took command: the liberation and democratisation of Afghanistan.
Australian SAS and other troops were still in action (having deployed in December 2001) when SAS Sergeant Andrew Russell was killed in action only three months earlier, in February. And, in March, the SAS was involved in rescuing downed US Special Forces from behind enemy lines, in Operation Anaconda. But hey, the ABC can blame the Howard Government for that oversight. How much research can you expect on a meagre $750 million budget?
Having obtained Cosgrove’s agreement that Abu Ghraib was a ‘low point’ in the war on terror, Denton goes for the ‘T’ word – and no I don’t mean ‘Terror’, banned by public broadcasters the world over.
DENTON: In war, is torture a legitimate…
PETER COSGROVE: No, absolutely not.
ANDREW DENTON: Never?
PETER COSGROVE: No, you don’t descend to that level…
Well, good thing Denton cleared that up. Because, you know, most Australians, no doubt, were probably wondering if Cosgrove and the Australian military brass condoned torture. The sexual
humiliation – much of it not much worse than what passes for ‘entertainment’ on New York public access television – at Abu Ghraib was outrageous, but the drumbeat of the Left and its media champions is irrational and disproportionate.
You won’t hear much in the media about what went on in Saddam’s ‘prisons’ before Iraq was liberated. Abu Ghraib held tens of thousands of Saddam’s political prisoners. They were subject to torture, many were used as guinea pigs in Saddam’s WMD programs and perhaps as many as 4,000 were executed (not including the 300,000 uncovered in mass graves throughout Iraq. But that is ancient history. What does it matter? Who can remember what happened at Abu Ghraib under previous management?)
Abu Ghraib – the ‘Animal House’ version – will be repeated ad nauseam in the media in one form or another long after those responsible have been investigated, prosecuted and punished, to remind us that the West is inherently culpable for all that is bad or in bad taste. It has been hard wired into the West’s recall-memory; what happened there before and the bravery, innovation and tenacity of Sgt.Von
Daggenheart’s Marine platoon, to habit-memory, which sadly is to say, to oblivion. In that sense, no matter what the US and its coalition partners ultimately achieve, the dateline will always be, ‘somewhere near Abu Ghraib’.