Mark Danner

Bodies Under Stress

In November 2003, barely six months into the Iraq War, Specialist Joseph Darby returned from leave and asked a fellow soldier at Abu Ghraib prison to tell him what had happened while he"d been away.

Catalog essay accompanying the exhibition “Abu Ghraib: Abuse of Power”: Works on Paper by Susan Crile. The Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery, Hunter College, New York City, September 7 – October 21, 2006


In November 2003, barely six months into the Iraq War, Specialist Joseph Darby returned from leave and asked a fellow soldier at Abu Ghraib prison to tell him what had happened while he’d been away. In answer, Specialist Charles Graner handed him two CDs ““ CDs which contained, as Darby shortly discovered, hundreds of digital photographs, many of them depicting US military policemen and intelligence soldiers abusing prisoners: photographs that have since become the war’s most famous images. “The Christian in me says it’s wrong,”Graner reportedly said, “but the corrections officer in me says, “˜I love to make a grown man piss himself.'”

Sadism is unquestionably part of what soon came to be known as “the Abu Ghraib scandal””“ the sadism of men like Graner who, unsupervised by superiors who cared only for “results,”gave way to an individual cruelty that is as human and familiar as it is appalling. But policy is also a part of it ““ policy made by powerful men and women in offices in Washington who wrote memoranda and guidelines and rules which, soon after the attacks of September 11, 2001, turned the United States from a country that, officially at least, condemned and prohibited torture to one that allowed and encouraged it. Abu Ghraib is only one episode in a much larger story, a narrative that began on a bright, clear September morning in New York and Washington and eventually wound its way not only through prisons in Iraq but through Bagram air base in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and through the so-called “dark sites,”secret prisons for “high value detainees”whose locations are changeable and closely held. That larger story of torture and the war on terror involves thousands of detainees and soldiers and government officials and, as I write these words more than two years after the photographs Darby saw were made public, that story has not ended.

The Abu Ghraib photographs, which are the genesis of Susan Crile’s remarkable works on paper, carry a singular distinction: they made torture tangible, palpable ““ visible. Or, better ““ and all-important for Americans ““ Abu Ghraib made torture televisual. For the first and only time in the nearly five years of the war on terror, torture raised its repellent form from the grey swamp of newspaper reporting and pundit commentary to stand front and center in the American consciousness: shocking, bewildering, disgusting ““ undeniable.

Or so it seemed. In the event, of course, officials of the Bush Administration did deny it. The events depicted were, in the words of one investigator, nothing more than “Animal House on the night shift.”And the outlandish grotesquerie of the images themselves helped make this “few bad apples”argument ““ the traditional defense of nations accused of torture ““ plausible. The piles of naked, hooded men; the naked figures cowering before the teeth of the lunging police dogs; the lines of men grasping their genitals, forced to masturbate: how, after all, could such disgusting things have been ordered?Surely only a handful of sadists, acting without supervision, could have been responsible; and those sadists ““ those foolish enough to let themselves be photographed ““ would be duly punished. After a momentary outcry, and a dozen or more investigations ““ none of which confronted the responsibility of those who made the policies and those who gave the orders ““ the question of torture receded, metamorphosing from shocking revelation to ongoing story. Newspaper reporters went on investigating Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram; published a proliferating series of horrific accounts. Torture endured but it had slipped from our world of images. Torture had survived its exposure.

The photographs remain; around the world, particularly in the Middle East, they have become the instantly recognizable images of the Iraq War. Had Osama bin Laden sought to devise an image embodying the ideas underlying his jihad, that Americans were suppressing, humiliating, disempowering, unmanning Muslims, could he have found one more eloquent, more instantly readable, than that of Lynndie England, the young American soldier, standing, leash in hand, above the Muslim man naked on the floor, body contorted in pain, face clenched in humiliation, leash binding his neck?

For all their power and their ubiquity, though, these images have long since become brittle, impenetrable. Whether one sees in them a regrettable scandal from the past or a state of ongoing oppression, they have been transformed into symbolic essences. We look at them, acknowledge them, but rarely, two years after they entered the public realm, do we see into them. Susan Crile has changed that; for her works bring our eye back to the images themselves and to the humanity of what they represent ““ back to the encounter between human beings that is at their heart. Beyond the narrative of what happened in a distant prison on a distant night, these images reduce torture to its essence: humiliation, degradation, pain. They make clear, in the encounter between the bulky Americans enclosed in their uniforms and gloves and great superfluities of flesh, and the slim and ghostly prisoners, rendered in calm and delicate outline, that the relation here is one of vampire to victim, the powerful sucking humanity from the powerless.

The power of these works, then, lies first in forcing us to look at images that we have long since trained ourselves not to see; and, in looking, to see what is depicted—inevitably, irrevocably—as encounters between human beings: encounters choreographed to assert power and dominance through systematic degradation, humiliation and shame. The torturer exerts his or her power by the forced draining of the power of the other. Hooded, stripped, exposed, the tortured becomes pure object, bereft of control over even the most basic and intimate areas of life. Deprived of sight, shelter, cover, his body belongs to someone else, who is free to manipulate it, strike it, shame it, place it under stress; even his sexuality is wrenched away from him and used as a weapon against him.

In the hands of Crile, these images are about empathy, about the urgency of seeing beyond the clouds of euphemism that the Washington advocates of “extreme interrogation”have thrown up over nearly five years. Such euphemisms ““ “adjustment of environment,””forced nakedness,””use of dogs to induce stress””“ clutter the government memoranda that have emerged in a flood of leaks from the Pentagon and other bureaucracies. What after all could be more anodyne, more precise and scientific, than a “stress position”? When I first cast my eye on Crile’s Panties as Hood (2005), in which a naked Iraqi prisoner is shown shackled to a bed frame ““ one of the favored “stress positions”at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere ““ there came to my mind a passage from the deposition of one Ameen Sa’eed Al-Sheikh, taken down by soldiers of the US Army’s Criminal Investigation Division:

…They stripped me naked. One of them told me he would rape me. He drew a picture of a woman on my back and made me stand in a shameful position holding my buttocks. Someone else asked me, “Do you believe in anything?”I said to him, “I believe in Allah.”So he said, “But I believe in torture and I will torture you. When I go home to my country, I will ask whoever comes after me to torture you.”Then they handcuffed me and hung me to the bed. They ordered me to curse Islam and because they started to hit my broken leg, I cursed my religion. They ordered me to thank Jesus that I’m alive. And I did what they ordered me. This is against my belief. They left me hanging from the bed and after a while I lost consciousness. When I woke up, I found myself still hanging between the bed and the floor. …[O]ne of them stood by the door and pee’d on me. …Then he hung me to the door for more than eight hours. I was screaming from pain the whole night.[1]

In the Pentagon memoranda we read ongoing debates about the number of hours during which such “stress positions”may be imposed: should it be four hours? Five? The language is dry, distanced, clinical, written by men and women in air-conditioned offices, whose notions of “toughness”are drawn from an entirely different world. “I stand for eight to ten hours a day,”Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, working at his stand-up desk, scrawled beneath his initials on one such document. “Why is standing limited to four hours?”

This is the blithe voice of bureaucratic power. Susan Crile depicts the ultimate effect such voices of power can have on the bodies of those without it. In Panties as Hood we see this in its essence: a human being humiliated and in pain, his face draped in a woman’s undergarment, his arms wrenched back, his delicate torso bowed like a harp. There is degradation here, and pain; yet the artist’s hand retrieves from that dark world, insists on retrieving, the essential, the inextinguishable beauty of the human form. If there can be redemption here we must find it in that beautiful line, still throbbing, still vital, amid these overwhelming images of bodies twisted, bodies broken, bodies under stress.

—July 2006

Mark Danner is the author of “Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror”and “The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War’s Buried History”, among other works.


1. See “The Depositions: The Prisoners Speak,”in Mark Danner, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror (New York Review, 2004), pages 221-22. The text has been slightly edited for clarity.