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An army of Sadists

Toward the beginning of the “War on Terror,” a number of Arabic-language experts – some of very few in the U.S. military – were dismissed when it was revealed that they were gay; they – as well as the United States’ intelligence-gathering capabilities – were victims of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

It’s ironic that this ideologically-rooted decision to cut off our nose to spite our face – that is, to decide that it was more important to keep “alternative lifestyles” out of the military than it was to bolster our intelligence-gathering efforts in the Middle East – led, however indirectly, to the sexual humiliations at Abu Ghraib. After all, if the torture and abuse were carried out in the service of interrogation – a theory which remains speculative, and may be diminished in the light of recent Washington Post reports that the soldiers inflicted abuse on prisoners as punishment or for their own amusement – then presumably, if we had strengthened our intelligence-gathering capabilities in the first place, such interrogation tactics might never have been deemed necessary by a desperate and floundering military leadership.

While views like Rush Limbaugh’s – in which forcing prisoners of war to masturbate or perform oral sex on other prisoners, in front of soldiers and cameras, is merely a fraternity prank, a practical joke, an emotional release – are, one hopes, extreme even for the right, it’s worth asking if the repressive mindset of U.S. military culture leads directly to the atmosphere in which rank-and-file soldiers see nothing wrong in the sexually-tinged humiliation of Muslims. It’s doubly ironic, of course, that soldiers choose to exploit a taboo that most of them, certainly the Christians, share with their chosen enemy. The conservative Christians hate and fear homosexuality as much as traditionalist Muslims.

In this light, how can the sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners – especially when captured on digital camera, seemingly for the express purpose of circulating amongst appreciative friends and spectators (and, according to Susan Sontag’s piece in the New York Times, interspersed with homemade pornography of soldiers having sex among themselves) – be seen as anything but the acting out of repressed erotic desires? Only by choosing an enemy whose culture is even more sexually repressive could they safely act out fantasies already prohibited by their own.

Obviously, sex crimes are not entirely about purely sexual desire; rape is equally a crime of violence and hatred, and likewise, jumping feet first into a pigpile of naked Iraqi men can’t exactly be seen as indicative of a desire to snuggle up and make sweet love to them. But while forcing Muslims to eat pork and drink liquor speaks to a barbarous and perhaps even genocidal cruelty – and certainly should be counted as a war crime – delighting in their sexual humiliation has pornographic overtones that speak to a far more conflicted mindset amongst the soldiers and commanders responsible. And perhaps it’s idealistic, but I can’t help but wonder whether, could the U.S. military only could come to grips with the reasons behind its own homophobia, we could have avoided this mess altogether.


I've been having second thoughts about using the g-word, so let me clarify: by a "perhaps even genocidal cruelty," I don't mean that the U.S. soldiers are intent upon wiping out all Muslims from the face of the earth. However, force-feeding Muslims pork or liquor -- a different kind of rape, in effect -- does seem to be a strategy bent on erasing their "Muslim-ness" by sullying them beyond redemption. A minor genocide, perhaps, or a synecdoche of the real thing.

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