Monday, February 13, 2012

What Falls in the Frame: Torture Images

I think that the four assignments we had this week – the three readings and radio show – interact in very interesting ways. Due to our class discussion and focus on photography, gazes and framing in the past couple of weeks, it is impossible not to approach the topic of torture without our established “viewing” framework in mind.

Though none of the texts lay this out explicitly except maybe the Sontag article, torture is a form of objectification and the creation/performance of symbolism (as photography inevitably is as well) beyond the mere means to an end. Sontag went in depth into comparisons that highlight this fact, for example the thematic crossover between torture images and pornography. Although the example both she and Brody use, Abu Grahib, was captured on film, I think it is important to understand the symbolism and humiliation that would have been present even without a camera there to snap the picture.

I would take issue with one of the claims Sontag makes in her article in particular: she suggests that whereas photographs used to be collected as “trophies” to be stored, now they are “less objects to be saved than messages to be disseminated, circulated.” I think that though she may be right about the difference in the impact of photographs, that “in our digital hall of mirrors, the pictures aren’t going to go away,” these images were still taken as trophies. And it is the very fact that such actions were considered by soldiers on the ground to be trophy-worthy that suggests the structural realities of the military (discussed in Phillips) that would lead soldiers to conduct and defend such practices.

Phillips’ argument leads us to understand that our lens of analysis is too narrow when attempting to understand the experiences and actions of American soldiers on the ground. He even mentions Abu Grahib in his introduction, saying that we hone in on this isolated incident and on the level of the individual soldier without adequately scrutinizing the system. This tendency, literally and figuratively, takes the government structure and the military higher-ups out of the chain of blame – it takes them out of our frame of analysis, shielding them as the eye of the camera and the public turns us elsewhere. Brody argues a similar claim, saying that “true accountability requires that those at higher levels who approved or tolerated crimes against detainees also be brought to justice.”

I think that our tendency to focus on the individual rather than the system is not one that emerged with photography, just as the collection of obscene trophies did not stop or start due to advancements in photography and the idea of justice in war cannot end with a “war on terror.” These ideas are all longer-standing, more permanent, but are molded in the present day based on the media we have access to. Perhaps this does nothing concrete to further my claim, but I found it fascinating how drawn inI was to the first chapter of Phillips and to “This American Life.” I found them interesting because they were the stories of individuals, they were relatable but distant from my being. Structures, systems and hierarchies, on the other hand, work largely invisibly but affect us all daily. This is a harder place to look, where the lens never falls. I’m just wondering, is there a way to get at this bigger picture through a lens pointed at the individual?


  1. Bekah, I love where you're going with this. I'm all over your Sontag argument. I completely agree with you.

    I have an anecdote to illustrate the idea of objectification. This is something I don't believe in, but see as a possible reasoning for this level of objectification. When I was in Korea last semester, I became friends with a some guys who had already completed their mandatory military service. I told them I was attending a fundraiser for a school that taught North Korean refugees the basics of school and also how to integrate into South Korean culture. The men were immediately and utterly concerned. They warned me not to go, insisting that "North Koreans were bad." I tried explaining that these were just high school kids, but they protested, "No, North Koreans are very bad." They refused to hear anything I said to the contrary.

    In order for people to carry out these levels of torture against others, the others must be seen as less than human. They have to be othered to the degree of animals, or else I don't believe this sort of mistreatment, whether in Abu Ghraib or the mentatlities of South Koreans, could take place. In order for those men to serve in South Korea's military, with the threat of open warfare against North Korea always imminent, they had to view North Koreans as evil, as something else, as something inhuman. It's the sort of brainwashing necessary to any military. Because if we (the universal we composed of everyone in the world) actually thought about war, really thought about it, we would never participate in it. Maybe I'm advocating a total revolution of consciousness here. It wouldn't be the first time.

    In this vein, I would say that Phillips suggests, and I agree, that we have to think even bigger than just bringing the higher ups to justice (although that is a good start). We have to look at society as a whole. Remember, we are each born into a set of circumstances that we cannot control. The rules by which society functions were already in effect before our birth. Those rules are distorted, and need to be altered in a way that it becomes truly unacceptable to treat human beings in such a dehumanizing manner, not only unacceptable when evidence of that behavior is released to the media. I don't know if that's exactly an answer to your last question, Bekah, but that's my take on it.

    And because I've written more than my 250 words again, and also because I feel like it (I was inspired), I present you with: Oh the hypocrisy! Limericks of Lamentation.

    Youthful innocence was a blur
    But opening eyes did ensure
    The veil torn asunder
    Rug pulled out from under
    And I could see things as they were.

    I once viewed my nation with pride
    But I saw the flaws from inside
    The truth, it was spoken,
    "Our system is broken,"
    But still, my young hope hasn't died.

  2. In considering photography, the individual and the larger structures and conditions in which these snapshots take place, I began to think about the idea of a soldier as a “snapshot” of something bigger. In the same ways we discussed photographs and their relationship to objectification, and one must consider the context of that one photograph, the same can be said about soldiers. As Bekah brings up in her post, the Phillips reading, as well as Sontag and Brody, bring up the fact that those charged in the Abu Ghraib crimes, were lower level military personnel, taken out of a larger cultural and political context, just as photographs usually are. Should those soldiers who violated and objectified prisoners be punished? Absolutely; however it seems rather coincidental and convenient that the government didn’t punish anyone of a higher rank. Anyone who knows anything about the military knows that it is purely a chain of command, yet we failed to punish anyone who would have encouraged or told the subordinates that this is what they should and would do. Therefore in the same ways we cannot think about photographs as a mere image that encompasses everything that is occurring or causing that to happen, the plethora of pictures we have of the torture in Abu Ghraib, must remind us that these pictures and the soldiers, are functioning as just “one” in a larger socio-political context. Furthermore, this context is one in which the government acts and allows the military representing our so-called “democracy” overseas to mistreat individuals, for information, pleasure, or anything for that matter. This again seems ironic as we were looking to bring down Saddam Hussein, notorious for how he tortured his people, but we tortured them too. So in regards to Bekah’s question of, “is there a way to get at this bigger picture through a lens pointed at the individual?” it appears we cannot. If we were to look at the bigger picture, it wouldn’t just be punishing individual soldiers, but those in charge in the military who are giving orders in order for a structural change and analysis of the problem to occur.
    Furthermore, this context is one in which the government acts and allows the Bekah commented that, “structures, systems and hierarchies, on the other hand, work largely invisibly but affect us all daily.” I tend to find some way for everything in this class to connect to education, and the question that comes to my mind is how are we supposed to educate children about what happened in Abu Ghraib or educate them to be democratic citizens, if the government and those shaping the structures and systems, do not represent or act in accordance to the democratic ideals our country stands for? And similar to the question Bekah posed, how and what will the photographs of injustice or smiling soldiers in Abu Ghraib tell our children?

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  4. Bekah, I think you hit on a very important topic when you discuss the hierarchy of blame and protection that has been woven into the structure not just of the military, but also of the larger American government. The PCON department has shown “standard operating procedure” for two consecutive years now in their film series. This documentary analyzes and explicitly points to the lack of accountability that the higher-ups are held to. Through interviews with several of the soldiers who were captured in the photos committing torturous acts, the directors were clearly attempting to convey a certain point about where responsibility for these kinds of atrocities lies. The film, as well as the intro and chapter one from Phillips’ book, can be linked with education. In the film, the soldiers being interviewed were not college educated, as because by their age, grammar, dialogue, etc. There was definitely a question of when it is okay for a soldier to think for herself. Part of the military’s code is to follow orders blindly, but then these soldiers take the blame for something that has either not clearly been outlawed, or has been encouraged by those in positions of relative power. Phillips is looking at the psychological effects that this kind of tug-of-war with respect to responsibility and blame has had on waves of soldiers. These are all very troubling and difficult ideas to wrestle with. Who is to blame? Is the entire structure of the military to blame?

  5. For me I thought reading “None of us were like this before” was such a dramatic and engaging read because it was a personal story and was told with the help from Adam James Gray’s mother. Your heart really goes out to his mom as she sets out to truly find out what happened to her son. All she wants is closure and one of the most upsetting parts of the introduction and the chapter is that the army is not providing her with any informatin. I can’t even image if that were my mom trying to find out what happened to me and someone would not give her exactly what she was asking for. The one quote in the chapter that really stuck with me was “was the army covering something up? Why didn’t they seek answers to such seemingly obvious questions?” How could the army hide information about someone’s dead son? You would think they would be extremely helpful and provide the family with any assistance they may need. However, they just show up at your door tell you your son is dead and then leave.

    What drove Adam James Gray to commit suicide? If that really is what happened. I remember when I was in the 6th or 7th grade we were learning about WWII. I was so proud because my grandfather Albert Spagnoletti had severed in this war. I then interviewed him about his experiences. One of his responses really stuck with me and I will always remember this. He said to me “it wasn’t easy going out there and knowingly killing someone’s father, uncle, brother, or friend.” I will never forget that. There were so many upsetting things that my grandfather and Adam James Gray went through. It was selfish of me while reading the 1st chapter to want Adam to talk about his experiences and what he did to the Iraq captives. I really wanted to know some of the things he had seen and done. While reading them my heart dropped and could never image being told to treat people in that manner.

  6. Throughout our readings for today I struggled with the idea of accountability—just who exactly is responsible for allowing our soldiers to return home damaged, “wounded” in their own right? Sontag points us to an answer that we all know to be true but is still nonetheless difficult to internalize and accept; while there does exist a hierarchy that organizes the order of command within the military, the American public, the lay people, are also agents and just as culpable in permitting torturous tactics to slip under the radar as somehow necessary. As Americans we find “the fantasies and the practice of violence…as good entertainment, fun” (Sontag), and in this we are complicit in the photographing and thus sanctioning of the torture that has proved just as torturous for our own soldiers. When I first read this, I experienced what Sontag would only recognize to be reminiscent of compassion fatigue or helplessness—how is it that little me can actually do anything to change this? I think that the government capitalizes on both these feelings of helplessness and on the otherwise far spread ignorance among Americans that this is going on. If Sarah from the This American Life podcast has shown anything, it is that individuals can be incredibly productive and transformative.

    While reading about Adam Gray in “None of Us Were Like This Before”, I was reminded of the Vietnam War novel, “The Things They Carried”. At one point in the narration, the protagonist returns home and finds himself endlessly driving around a lake—driving around the lake is something that he used to do before the war, and it is all that he can seem to do post-war. Reading about this seemingly mindless ritual really struck me—I remember thinking that the protagonist had just died inside. The Vietnam War and the more recent Iraq War, as we have discussed in class, share two equally weighty characteristics—they both have been documented through photography, and they both have received less than universal support from the American public in comparison to say, World War II. Looking back, the prevalence of Vietnam vets coming home mentally drained and incapacitated seems to be a cautionary tale that we, from a position of privilege, decided to ignore following the lead of the Bush administration. Adam was and is no different from the protagonist in “The Things They Carried”, and just as we did then, we now have the responsibility to correct these wrongs (Although, I am not one-hundred percent sure I agree with prescription mediation in the same way that Adam’s mother Cindy is…).

  7. I agree with Bekah’s view about being completely drawn in to Phillip’s first chapter and “This American Life”. Although I cannot personally relate to the experiences of these American soldiers, I feel a sort of connection to them because they are the men who we deem as heroes in our country. As I continued to read the assignments for today, I began to see a debate form about whether these men are heroes or actually villains. To Americans, we see these military men as courageous people who risk their lives to represent our country from one point of view. On the other hand, these men can be portrayed as inhumane in many circumstances during war times, such as the war on terror. For example, Brody discusses how Americans were shocked to see the US soldiers torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Furthermore, in Phillips’ chapter, he discusses how Adam Grey finally opened up to his family about his experiences in Iraq. After explaining certain instances of torture, Adam’s mother responded telling him to “stop describing the torture they used—she couldn’t bear to hear any more. It sounded so “incredibly inhumane.” (8).
    I think that these readings bring up many diverse views concerning violence, torture, peace and war. People examine stories and photographs with different gazes or modes of looking, as we discussed in class. As a result, many questions evolve about what is considered acceptable behavior vs. unacceptable behavior. The readings for today, especially Phillip’s chapter, were eye openers to me about the realities of war and torture. Just as photographs can serve as windows to unfamiliar worlds, Phillips’ story achieves the same purpose for me. While I may feel a sort of connection to Adam Grey’s story, I think that the underlying message is that I just cannot imagine what these people go through, from Iraqi prisoners to American soldiers. American soldiers suffer severe PTSD and are scarred for life because of the challenging service they provide for our country. While I feel immense sympathy for these American soldiers, the only insight I have is from reading about the war on terror and viewing pictures of violence. As we see throughout the end of Phillips’ chapter, Adam Grey’s mother spends years trying to figure out what screwed up her son and other soldiers in Iraq. Throughout these readings, I have come to recognize that I can only evaluate violence during war to a certain extent.

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  9. I would like to expand on the idea of as Americans, viewing our soldiers as noble and just individuals. What I find disturbing is the ability for U.S soldiers to enter the military perhaps with the ideology we like to believe our soldiers carry, and then in the presence of war, or at least when they are away from their home country, these soldiers embrace an ideology that dehumanizes their victims. This kind of thinking is not new to war and has its roots in colonialism. We touched on this in class today, how the perspective of the perpetrators of colonialism or torture is vastly different from the perspectives of the victims. We cannot categorize this as a “Western perspective” because when we as everyday citizens see the photos of Abu Grahib, we cringe and think “how awful,” meanwhile it seems that those active in the torture were able to dissociate normal human empathy and dehumanize their victims. This mentality is possible when excessive violence becomes routinized in the military. This practice can lead torture to become professionalized and institutionalized so that the humanity of the victim can be disassociated from the act. To me, this seems that this phenomenon allows those guilty of torture to act without thinking about anything else but their job. Nevertheless, when we talked today about how the photos were used as blackmail to shame the victims, particularly because of the Arab culture of those in the photos, I feel like the soldiers involved in the torture did have an awareness of their victims. If this is true, does this mean that these soldiers are purely evil, which would seem to make them an exception? However this torture is so prevalent, it seems impossible that it is coincidental that there are enough people in Abu Grahib capable to conducting such horrendous acts. This leads me to believe that there must be routinized and institutionalized practices and torture in our military, but it still does not explain how there are still some vestiges personal recognition attributed to the victims. For this there may not be an answer.