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.


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