Monday, May 03, 2004

The abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib has been blogged enough elsewhere so there is no reason to rehash the basics here. Let me say, however, that this string of incidents may have one salubrius outcome: the diminishment of the moral legitimacy of the military in the eyes of the US public.

After 9/11, a wave of patriotism and nationalism washed over the United States, perhaps most crassly expressed by country singer Toby Keith: "And you'll be sorry that you messed with / The U.S. of A. / 'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass / It's the American way". Particularly after the divisions of the 2000 election and the construction of 9/11 as an "Attack on America", people from all walks of life wanted to transcend their differences and feel a sense of unity as Americans. The flag was omnipresent; the ranks of groups like the American Legion swelled; victims of the World Trade Center collapse became national "heroes".

Since 9/11 the Bush administration and their supporters in civil society have fueled their imperial project with this high octane patriotism. In fact, the imperial project itself came to dominate the patriotic and nationalist impulse by crafting for it a permanent outlet. In turn (and this is my main point), the military became that national institution which best embodied the nation and its values. If the Presidency, the Congress, the Courts, the media were all corrupted by the filth of the world, the military stood above all taint to carry out la mission civilatrice in Afghanistan and especially Iraq.

Consider Hannah Arendt's observations in her classic The Origins of Totalitarianism of a similar phenomenon some 100 years ago:
only far from home could a citizen of England, Germany or France be nothing but an Englishman or German or Frenchman. In his own country he was so entanbled in economic interests or social loyalties that he felt closer to a member of his class in a foreign country than to a man of another class in his own. Expansion gave nationalism a new lease on life and therefore was accepted as an instrument of national politics. The members of the new colonial societies and imperialist leagues felt "far removed from the strife of parties," and the farther away they moved the stronger their belief that they "represented only a national purpose."
Now with the truth of Abu Ghraib revealed for the nation and the world -- in the words of a US military report, the "sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses" as well as their apparently systematic nature -- perhaps we can step back from constructing national unity on the foundation of imperialism?

One final note: we will be hard pressed to chalk this torture up to an excess of testosterone released in a war zone. Of the seven soldiers repremanded for their participation in the Abu Ghraib torture, three were women.


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