What are some famous controversial photos that maybe shouldn’t have been taken?

The pictures of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Abu Ghraib is a large prison in Iraq. During the time of the Iraq War, it became a housing facility for American prisoners of war, as well as maintaining its role as a prison in an attempt to maintain order in the country following the collapse of the Hussein regime. Housed there were convicted terrorists, murderers, robbers, and rapists, but it was the US Army staff which brought the prison its most infamy.

Early in the Iraq war, soldiers of the 320th Military Police Battalion, an Army reserve unit far from the front lines of the conflict took over command of the facility. Prior to their arrival acts of barbarity by Iraqi prison officials was not uncommon. It was, in fact, a practice in Middle Eastern society prior to the American’s intervention to take pictures of people in humiliating situations, and to release the photos as a means of shame and humiliation to force coercion. In tribal societies, this works well and it was something the Hussein regime had long practiced. Having an image of a woman, in this case a woman holding a leashed naked Iraqi, I should add, greatly increased the value of the for such a work. Culturally, a women was of an inferior status, so to be depicted in such a demeaning manner by ta women was particularly offensive to Arab Muslims.

When the Americans took over, they were advised to continue the practice. Abuses under the American Army command included being forced to pose nude in demeaning positions, evidence of violence, inducing fear with military working dogs, and mocking poses with female guards. These practices, however, go against the law of war and several levels of military law and justice, as well as standing against many treaties, so when leaders in the prison took the advice to continue the status quo for the Hussein regime, they did so without good judgement or the legal leg to support their actions. This is why investigations for the prison were already underway before news of them began to circulate with international media, which had mostly been tipped off by these very same investigations.

Following the investigation, members of the 320th Military Police Battalion was charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice with prisoner abuse. The United States Department of Defense removed seventeen soldiers and officers from duty, and eleven soldiers were charged with dereliction of duty, maltreatment, aggravated assault and battery. Between May 2004 and March 2006, these soldiers were convicted in courts-martial, sentenced to military prison, and dishonorably discharged from service. Two soldiers, Specialists Charles Graner and Lynndie England, were sentenced to ten and three years in prison, respectively. Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the commanding officer of all detention facilities in Iraq, was reprimanded and demoted to the rank of colonel.

In April of 2004, information about the goings on at the prison began to become public, following earlier stories by the Associated Press. When the news broke, it detailed images of prisoner abuse at the prison not long after the war began.

After the pictures were released, the conversation about the war collapsed. In spite of the Army’s clear message through the imprisonment of the offending Army personnel, and the demotion of one of their Generals, the story that was told by the pictures was that this was acceptable practices for the United States military. This was detrimental to the war effort in that it unfairly misrepresented the rest of the military, myself included, in our efforts to help Iraq stabilize following the removal of the Iraqi Saddamist regime. It was never viewed as a rogue act of an undisciplined and reckless unit, but as representative of the entire United States military, and, to quote a commentor below, “…but it showed the true face of USA…” This radical hyperbole defined the war for many people even today, but the story the pictures told, rather than the truth, dramatically changed the ground war.

The United States military could not really advocate itself as a force for good when this event existed. It cast a very bright light on the decisions of an extremely small group of people in the military. Within the Iraqi population, it made a sound argument that this sort of behavior was the way of the new imperial dictator, and fed propaganda against the American occupation and populist government.  The pictures generated hatred and animosity as the images touched on very deep cultural sensitivities, beyond the obvious human reactions to them. This escalated insurgency activity and fed the increasing terror campaign for three more years before the “Surge” of 2007. In the United States, the event fed the anti-war rhetoric, silencing many supporters of the conflict and empowering those who were never behind the war in the first place with new evidence to support their views. After quickly toppling the government under Saddam Hussein and breaking grounds towards a stable and free government, the legacy of the American involvement in the country was forever damaged by Abu Gharib.

This was a tragedy on many levels. First, the actions of a very few marred the image of the United States’ mission and the conduct of its servicemen. The Marines have a saying, “No greater friend; no worse enemy.” This led many potential allies to think not in the terms of no greater friend, but that the Americans are simply an enemy to be feared. Resistance from that point on, was assured based on these pictures alone. Further, it painted the entire conflict as one of cruelty, forever ignoring the extreme effort that American and coalition forces went to minimize harm to civilians and attempt to rebuild the Iraqi way of life. And even furthermore, painted the hyperbolic assumption that all Americans were really like this.

Second, it was  a tragedy of justice in that it made it impossible to accurately judge who the just were. I will remind readers that the photos are of not just political prisoners of war, and certainly not of poor innocent Iraqis, but of convicted criminals under Iraqi courts. Some were guilty of war crimes under Saddam and some after the war began in 2003. Others were convicted murders, rapists, and all manner of citizens harmful to their own people. In truth, being tied to a leash and paraded around in some humiliating fashion was a far lighter offense than those suffered by many of their victims. You won’t find much remorse from me in the way they were treated, other than that the Americans were obligated by treaty not to participate in such acts. That said, even if these were the vilest of men, that message never got through. When they were masked, their identity was hidden along with all of their individual crimes. When their clothes or uniforms were removed, you remove their allegiances, in some cases to the criminal organizations that committed acts of terror and treason against the Iraqi people.

People can hate a face of a known killer, and they can hate anyone who wears a certain uniform. They couldn’t identify with a murderer, but to them, this was just another defenseless man. There was nothing that stopped them from identifying with just a naked man. Once you look at the picture, you only see illogical cruelty; there is never a question why did that person get into prison in the first place. The pictures didn’t capture their own atrocities, but clearly communicated human suffering they experienced at the hands of people who obligated to at least protect them, be it justified on any level or not. When we no longer saw them as criminals of the most terrible nature, we only saw people, or in this case, martyrs of the American war machine. Quick to forget who these men were and what they did, it was easy to look to those others pictured, cavalier and in American military uniforms as the unjust. I’m not saying that what the American soldiers tasked with overseeing the Abu Gharib prison did was morally justifiable. I’m just not very sorry for the individuals pictured. What I am sorry for is that the stupid actions of the soldiers caused anyone who saw them, both American or Iraqi, to forgive the evils of the men pictured for the story that was immortalized in their imagery.

The seminal tragedy in this is that it made sound the argument that the Americans should not have been in the war, and were incompetent to see it through. It increased pressure to forcing them out of the country long before Iraq was ready for them to leave. In this way, it opened the door to the premature departure of American forces, therefore leaving the door open to terrorists and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to invade and conquer vast swaths of Iraqi territory and empowering them to spread terror throughout not only the Middle East, but also throughout the world into the rest of Asia, Africa, and even Europe. I’d like to hear rational arguments, not for whether or not we should have been in Iraq, but that the world is a better place now that we have given in to emotions and retreated from the region. Having said this, it isn’t just that these pictures should not have been taken. The event they recorded never should have happened. At the bare minimum, they cost the American and coalition forces years on top of the conflict. They fed emotional reactionaries into fleeing the nation with no reasonable objectives adequately met, and worst of all, led to point where far more evil crimes are being committed today.


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2 thoughts on “What are some famous controversial photos that maybe shouldn’t have been taken?

  1. You mention, I believe correctly, that U.S. de-escalation in Iraq was a flighty response of reactionism due to this imagery and similar stimuli. Do you have an opinion on how this could / should have been averted? It’s difficult for political leaders to not feel pressure from a public reacting to their first exposure to this kind of situation.

    • There is much that could have been done, but namely, leaving the country at a time when it was so very far from secure was ridiculous. Frankly, he has had the ability to leverage a cult of followers to do whatever he wanted. He should have used that to say that there needs to be time to pull out. Not just to pull out at the earliest possible moment.

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