The lessons of Abu Ghraib

The images of occupying troops torturing and abusing Iraqi detainees are a challenge to every British and US citizen. These horrors are being perpetrated in our name, and unless we act to stop them we are culpable. But to stop them, we have to understand them, along with the other horrors taking place in Iraq: the collective punishment of Falluja; the shooting of civilians; the raids by US and British troops on Iraqi homes; the detention of thousands of Iraqis without charge or trial; the slow progress in restoring basic services.

June 1, 2004
4 min read


Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.

The abuses in Abu Ghraib prison reflect a policy of humiliation and intimidation that aims to subordinate Iraqi people to the will of the occupying forces. These are not isolated incidents. Nor are they merely the result of Donald Rumsfeld’s crass mismanagement. They stem from the nature of the occupation itself.

The occupiers are not accountable to the people whose land they occupy. The chain of command binds US and UK troops in Iraq not to Iraqis, but to the ruling elites in Washington and London, whose priorities have never included the welfare of Iraqis. This system of governance cannot be turned to benign purposes. It is anti-democratic at the core. There are racist assumptions lurking at the heart of this occupation. When these are allied to unaccountable power, the result is what we have seen in the photographs and videos.

The “handover’ scheduled for the end of June is merely a re-branding exercise. Nominal authority will be assigned to a group of Iraqis selected by the occupiers. Control over Iraq’s economy and military will remain with Washington, which will maintain a huge and heavily armed garrison in the country. It seems that “sovereignty’, like “liberation’, is to be redefined into its opposite.

What’s needed is the immediate withdrawal of British and US troops. Ending the occupation is the necessary precondition for real reconstruction and self-determination.

However, our responsibilities to the Iraqi people do not end there. We have to cancel (not renegotiate) the crippling debt acquired under Saddam Hussein’s regime. We have to pay reparations to the Iraqi people on a scale that reflects the damage we inflicted on them through two wars and a decade of sanctions.

The anti-war movement was successful in mobilising unprecedented numbers against an avoidable and unjust war. Now we have to mobilise the same broad and diverse constituencies against the occupation. We have to ask people to move beyond their anger over the lies that dragged us into war, and to understand the essential injustice and inevitable brutality of the occupation that resulted from that war. We have to explain that in the context of an imperial enterprise, “we’ – the US-British military presence – are not the solution; “we’ are the problem.

Much depends on how the Iraqi resistance (civil and political, as well as military) evolves. For the moment, the photos have brought the horror into the headlines, but the media agenda will shift. It may become all too easy for people in Britain and the US to accept the occupation as a fact of life. It’s our job to remind our fellow citizens at every turn of the horrors being committed in their names, to find ways of bringing the essential injustice of the occupation home, and to rouse the public to demand an end to it.

Last month Red Pepper, along with the National Union of Journalists, Tribune, the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, Ken Livingstone and former minister of culture Mark Fisher, launched the “Charter for the Minority Press’. The charter is a modest but essential set of demands: the right of minority publications to display in every newsagent, as in France, Italy and Greece; properly subsidised press postage, as in the US; and tax breaks for subscriptions to non-commercial publications, as in Scandinavia.

The alternative press has been vital in exposing the truth about the war in Iraq, the occupation and the Iraqi opposition. Without it we would be dependent on the restricted fare offered by outlets dominated by WH Smith, which is only concerned with profit. Rights to information and cultural diversity are too important to be left to corporations. We’ll be campaigning both in and out of Parliament around the demands of the charter. Can you help? Email us at: fiona@redpepper.org.uk


Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry