Mark Danner

Call it What You Like – this is Hell

Author: Peter Conrad


Mark Danner exposes the double speak that underpins Bush’s ‘war on terror’ in Torture and Truth. Peter Conrad on how America’s response to 9/11 unleashed an obscene nightmare.

America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror
By Mark Danner
Granta, 573 pp, £16.99

Five days after 9/11, Vice-President Cheney emerged from the fortified burrow in which he’d been awaiting Armageddon and – glowering as blackly as the oil he no doubt dreams of – explained how the government intended to respond to the terrorists. President Bush was already babbling about a crusade and remembering the ‘dead or alive’ posters that used to be displayed in the Wild West. But Cheney did not invoke the chivalric idealism of Arthurian knights and sheriffs with tin badges. The fictions that helped him to deal with these new political facts were demon-haunted and apocalyptic. He had cast himself as Darth Vader: he therefore explained to an NBC interviewer that the administration from now on would ‘work through, sort of, the dark side’. 

That meant, as it turned out, the suspension of habeas corpus and of the Geneva conventions that regulate the treatment of prisoners of war. Alberto Gonzalez, Bush’s legal counsel (since promoted to attorney general), supplied him with a ‘new paradigm’ for conducting a campaign against rogue killers from failed states who targeted civilians: since terrorists ignored the laws, why should America and its raggle-taggle band of allies bother about humane niceties?

Last year, when the photographs of detainees at Abu Ghraib being sexually shamed or threatened by dogs were published, the ‘dark side’ was placed on view in bright, brash colour. An investigation revealed that torture was being used to obtain confessions. One zealous American soldier, symbolically outfitted in his full uniform, had even sodomised a prisoner; unfortunately the man was too busy screaming to divulge any information of value. Other Americans did their anal interrogating with broomsticks or chemical lights, or brought in dogs to do the job for them.Bush, testily insisting that his henchmen had been instructed to do nothing illegal, said: ‘We have laws on the books.’ What this meant was expensive lawyers were busy devising methods of circumventing those laws. An article in a recent New Yorker describes the vogue for outsourcing torture. Suspects abducted by the CIA are loaded in shackles onto executive jets, and delivered to countries such as Egypt, Syria and Jordan whose secret police have robust ways of asking questions.

Mark Danner – toiling through official reports and transcripts of interviews with prisoners and witnesses, as well as conducting his own investigation in Iraq – has exposed the false piety in disavowals of responsibility by Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, and established official complicity in the abuse.

The moral corruption began, of course, from the obfuscation of language. It’s easy to lie if you muddle up the definition of truth; abominable acts can be made defensible if you call them by another name. No one in Apocalypse Now tells Willard to murder Kurtz. They simply say that the colonel’s command must be ‘terminated’, and when the assassin blinks uncomprehending they add that the termination must occur ‘with extreme prejudice’.

The military bureaucrats on whom Danner eavesdrops employ the same elevated, evasive diction. A colonel justifies the use of ‘sleep deprivation’ at Guantánamo by saying that such measures are ‘probably within the lexicon’. That mental torment thus becomes a mere word, a quaint lexical curio. From there it’s a short step to the paraphrase employed at Abu Ghraib, where keeping cells lit 24 hours a day is called ‘sleep adjustment’, as if it were therapeutic.

The CIA specialises in such neologisms. Beatings, for instance, are glossed as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’: imagine how your life would be enhanced by a battery of fists, whips and cattle prods. Such enhancement is a privilege, lavished only on guests whom the agency classifies as its ‘high value detainees’. Jargon is anaesthetic; it stops your ears to the cries of your victims, and like a beta blocker suppresses whatever humane sensitivity you may still possess.

Thus the torturers, theorising about ‘prisoner-guard interactions’, could describe themselves as artists who competed with each other to devise more ‘creative’ forms of aggression. Danner’s documents reveal what that creativity entailed. It had become banal, when ‘fearing up’ detainees, to see them piss themselves in terror. Such victories were facile, so a prize was awarded to whoever could make a man defecate by threatening him. Detainees were handcuffed together, then ordered them to crawl on the floor while being choked or hosed down or pummelled. The thugs who supervised the revels imagined they were making music: a report on one such session names the soldiers by whom it was ‘orchestrated’.

Latinate terminology is useful because it remains unintelligible. Slang also comes in handy, since it’s a terse shorthand whose precise meaning is unfixed, not yet inscribed in the lexicon. A lieutenant-colonel, taking delivery of four Iraqi generals, ordered a corporal to ‘Strip them out and PT them’. Did stripping out mean denuding them, or placing them in isolation? PT is physical training: did that prescribe gymnastics or a punch-up? The vagueness of the order, as a report concluded, ‘could have led to any subsequent abuse’. But it could hardly be abusive, since its purpose was to ‘soften up’ the detainees. Isn’t softness synonymous with clemency and kindness? Accusations of wrongdoing lose their force because words have been so bled of meaning. A report decides that ‘the use of nudity was sanctioned at some level within the chain of command’. But ‘sanction’ gestures towards sanctity. Used to approve torture, it can’t help sanctifying the torturer.

Half way through 500 pages of such brain-befuddling gobbledegook, Danner inserts eight pages of photographs – the cheery holiday snaps of Private Lyndie Englund and her gloating, sadistic cronies, who have piled up naked Iraqis into pyramids ‘for the fun of it’ or smeared them in shit or paraded them so that their fearfully shrivelled penises can be laughed at.

James Schlesinger, the former defence secretary, disposed of this obscene album by referring to a comic film: Abu Ghraib, he said, was ‘ Animal House on the nightshift’. But these were not the frat-house rampages of John Belushi and his swinish, beer-swilling buddies. Danner prefers a loftier cultural reference, and says that the detainees were put through a ‘Dantesque nightmare journey’.

For me, it all looks less like Dante’s inferno than the coprophiliac hell imagined by Bosch: a pornotopia where bowel movements are the answers to barked questions, and prisoners after being half-drowned in vats of urine are told to lap up meals that have been dumped in the toilet.

The images, foul as they are, come as a relief after so much verbose hypocrisy. Bush may prate about the gospel of freedom, but Danner quotes an Iraqi who says that the American liberators have merely brought ‘the freedom of rape, the freedom of nudity and the freedom of humiliation’. Torture was supposed to extract truth from the captives. Truth, however, was the first casualty of this unending and ineffectual war.