Abu Ghraib 20 years on

12 May 2024
Andrew Cheeseman
A detainee in the US-run Abu Ghraib prison camp in Baghdad. The man was told that if he moved he would be electrocuted. This photo was taken in 2003 by US soldier Sabrina Harman who was subsequently court-martialled and given a six month prison sentence for her role in the abuse.

The US and its allies like Australia always claim to be “the good guys”—their wars only fought for freedom and democracy. It’s always a lie.

Twenty years ago, on 28 April 2004, a news report aired that proved to millions what anti-war activists had long argued: the US was indeed the bad guy. This was a little over a year after the US-led “coalition of the willing” had invaded and occupied Iraq, the second stop in the so-called war on terror begun in 2001. An episode of 60 Minutes revealed evidence that torture by US troops in Iraq was widespread, and detailed the sadistic abuse being meted out to Iraqi POWs at the US-run Abu Ghraib prison camp in Baghdad.

Be warned if you look for the photographs online: they are graphic. They show POWs stripped naked and smeared with human excrement, being forced to simulate sexual acts with guards, and being handcuffed to beds while naked and blindfolded. Geraldine Sealey, writing for Salon, claimed journalist Seymour Hersh had seen worse, unreleased images and videos, including of teenage boys being raped. Hersh’s own article in the New Yorker detailed sadistic sexual violence.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States became the world’s sole military superpower, eclipsing established and emerging powers. But imperialism is unrelenting. It isn’t enough to be number one; you must stay there. And the US had weaknesses. It was resoundingly defeated in Vietnam by determined military resistance, and rebellion at home and among its troops. This defeat engendered what became known as “Vietnam syndrome”, a national malaise that limited the US government’s ability to wage new aggressive wars.

To overcome Vietnam syndrome, a section of the US ruling class—referred to as the “neo-conservatives” or “neo-cons” for short—formed a think tank called the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). Only 25 people signed PNAC’s 1997 founding statement, but their influence was enormous. They included ten figures who were to take leading roles in the administration of George W. Bush, who was elected US president in November 2000. Among them were Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Bush’s brother Jeb, then governor of Florida, also signed on.

The members of PNAC had a simple argument, centred on the reassertion of the US’s role as a global military and political hegemon. “We need”, they said, “to promote the cause of political and economic freedom abroad ... we need to accept responsibility for America’s unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity and our principles ... Such a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity may not be fashionable today. But it is necessary if the United States is to build on the successes of this past century and to ensure our security and our greatness in the next”.

PNAC’s main proximate goal was to rehabilitate US power in the Middle East, and in particular to overthrow Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, who had been a US ally in the 1980s but was regarded as a threat to US interests in the region by the early 1990s. In 1998, PNAC advocated “an overall political-military strategy aimed at removing Saddam from power”. These people wanted war with Iraq. But they would have to wait until the time was right.

Osama bin Laden’s spectacular 11 September 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York gave Bush and his fellow neo-cons the excuse they needed to get started on PNAC’s plan.

With almost universal support domestically, the US war machine steamrolled into Afghanistan just four weeks after the 9/11 attack, driving the Taliban government from power. Emboldened by a rapid early victory, Bush announced in his January 2002 State of the Union address that Afghanistan was just the start. “Our second goal”, he said, “is to prevent regimes that sponsor terror from threatening America or our friends and allies with weapons of mass destruction”. The US, he promised, would go after what he called an “axis of evil” including Iran, Iraq and North Korea, and nothing would stop it.

There was one problem for Bush—Vietnam syndrome.

According to polls taken by Gallup, CNN and USA Today, the US invasion of Afghanistan was initially supported by over 80 percent of Americans. Bush pitched it as a crusade to liberate Afghanistan and protect women’s rights, as well as a mission to capture Osama bin Laden and others deemed responsible for 9/11. This resonated with a public whipped into a state of fear about terrorism and fervour about the US’s regalvanised national mission to spread “freedom and democracy” around the world.

Iraq, which had no links to the 9/11 attacks, proved to be a harder sell. There were huge anti-war protests in the US and around the world before the war began, including nearly a million on the streets in Australian cities in February 2003.

To deal with this problem, the Bush administration reverted to the tried and tested imperial strategy of simply making things up. Its pitch for its new war was based on two great lies. First, that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had so-called “weapons of mass destruction”; and second, that US forces would be greeted as liberators by the Iraqi people.

The first claim was effectively debunked even before the troops went in, and the idea that the US would be received as liberators started to fall apart just weeks after the invasion, when US troops massacred at least thirteen people at a peaceful protest in the city of Fallujah. From there things went downhill fast. The torture and abuse of Iraqi POWs at Abu Ghraib that was revealed in April 2004 was just one of many crimes committed during the long years of the US’s blood-soaked occupation.

On the basis of the revelations about Abu Ghraib, seventeen US soldiers were suspended from the US military, with eleven court-martialled, dishonourably discharged and sentenced to prison for a combined 25 years. The main warmongers—Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and others—never faced any consequences for their much greater crimes.

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