Torture and raison d’état

statue-of-liberty-waterboardingMelanie Richter-Montpetit has an essay at The disorder of things, ‘Why Torture When Torture Does Not Work? Orientalism, Anti-Blackness and the Persistence of White Terror‘, which repays careful reading.

[L]ocating the findings of the Senate Torture Report within the racial-sexual grammars of chattel slavery and its afterlife opens up our analyses beyond explanatory and moral frameworks such as failed intelligence-gathering, “state of exception” or “human rights abuses” towards a more comprehensive understanding of seemingly illiberal security practices in the War on Terror. This genealogy indicates the fundamental role and value of force for the consolidation of the sovereign authority of the U.S. settler imperial formation ‘at home’ and abroad, and suggests the stubborn persistence of certain racial-sexual grammars of legitimate violence and suffering in this age of “post-racial triumph.” For “[w]ithout the capacity to inspire terror, whiteness no longer signifies the right to dominate.”

The immediate provocation for her essay, which is rooted in her recent York PhD thesis Beyond the Erotics of Orientalism: Homeland Security, Liberal War and the Pacification of the Global Frontier, was the Senate Torture Report (see my earlier post on ‘Tortured geographies’ here).

GTMO Statue of LibertyAt Just Security Jameel Jaffer has a brief, important post about the release of these documents – and, crucially, the Obama administration’s attempt to prevent the publication of photographs documenting the abuse of detainees at US military facilities – that loops back to the debate over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.  He argues that it is at the very least ironic that some of the same voices calling for the freedom to publish cartoons whatever their consequences are now demanding the suppression of other images ‘because of the possibility that their release will provoke violence’…

And speaking of violence and torture in the global war prison, Mohamedou Ould Slahi‘s Guantanamo Diary, which is being serialised in the Guardian and was published in book form earlier this week, provides more evidence of its routinised, banalised practice.

Slahi Unclassified Manuscript scan

Slahi is still incarcerated at Guantanamo even though he was approved for release in 2010.  Spencer Ackerman reports:

Slahi’s manuscript was subjected to more than 2,500 redactions before declassification, ostensibly to protect classified information, but with the effect of preventing readers from learning the full story of his ordeal. The book is being published with all the censor’s marks in place, and the publishers – Canongate in the UK and Little, Brown in the US – hope they will be able to publish an uncensored edition when Slahi is eventually released.

The full manuscript is available here.  You can find Tim Stanley‘s review at the Telegraph here (‘a necessary book’ that ‘reminds us that the evil we’re fighting can be found in ourselves as well as in our enemies’), Mark Danner‘s extended review at the New York Times here (‘Slahi’s memoirs are filled with numbingly absurd exchanges that could have been lifted whole cloth from “The Trial”’), and Deborah Perlstein‘s review at the Washington Post here (‘Slahi’s descriptions of … torture are the book’s most compelling, and difficult, passages [and] … are closely consistent with descriptions in official investigations of the treatment of other U.S.-held detainees’.)

In the face of these horrors, it’s necessary to consider this blunt reminder from Peter Beinart:

Torture, declared President Obama … in response to the newly released Senate report on CIA interrogation, is “contrary to who we are.” Maine Senator Angus King added that, “This is not America. This is not who we are.” According to Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth, “We are better than this.”

No, actually, we’re not. There’s something bizarre about responding to a 600-page document detailing systematic U.S. government torture by declaring that the real America—the one with good values—does not torture. It’s exoneration masquerading as outrage. Imagine someone beating you up and then, when confronted with the evidence, declaring that “I’m not really like that” or “that wasn’t the real me.” Your response is likely to be some variant of: “It sure as hell seemed like you when your fist was slamming into my nose.” A country, like a person, is what it does.

And in the face of evasion and denial – and redaction and suppression – here is Chase Madar from February’s Bookforum:

Though the [Senate] report has blacked out the names of the torturers, refusing even to use pseudonyms, torture watchers have been able to identify one of the agents, a model for Maya in Zero Dark Thirty. Her record of malfeasance, misrepresentation, incompetence, and gratuitous participation in waterboarding was blisteringly detailed by NBC News and [Jane Mayer at] the New Yorker, though neither outlet would name her. But far from being sanctioned or even demoted, she has risen to the civilian-rank equivalent of general inside the CIA. She has, unbelievably, served as the recent head of the agency’s “global jihad unit.”

It’s tempting to compare this to Latin American–style police impunity, but that would be unfair to the societies that have punished at least some of the abuses of their past dictatorships. In the same week that the SSCI released its report, Brazil published its own investigation into state torture of political dissidents under its long dictatorship. Indeed, one of that torture regime’s victims, Dilma Rousseff, is now the head of state. Latin American nations have been chipping away at, or simply ignoring, the amnesty deals made with the authoritarian rulers of the ’70s and ’80s and have brought many of their torturers to justice.

The United States would face a very different reckoning with its record of torture, should it elect to take a genuine, closer look at it. In our case, the impact of torture has largely been muffled by the military adventurism that has underwritten it…

Deconstruction on the map

There have been many maps tracking the course of military and paramilitary violence in Syria.  They include general ‘situation maps’ like this one from Canada’s National Post early last year (and whatever I think about the politics of the paper, its graphics are often outstanding):

National Post 13 January 2012

Or this one from the New York Times on 12 March 2013 (and, as Brian Harley would have been the first to remind us, the very titles of the maps tell their own stories of uncertainty, sympathy and affiliation: but ‘Map of the dispute in Syria’?  I understand ‘conflict’, ‘civil war’, ‘uprising’ – but ‘dispute‘?!).

Map of the dispute in Syria NYT

Other sites have tried to capture the fluidity of the situation through a series of updated though largely conventional maps, like Political Geography Now‘s maps of ‘rebel activity’ here and a very different, quite remarkable series of ‘military maps’ here (though as far as I can see no information on sources is provided).  The BBC‘s ‘Mapping the Conflict’ interactive is here and its earlier attempts at ‘Mapping the Insurgency’ are here.  Relief Web‘s bi-weekly mapped updates on the refugee crisis are all here.

Some of the most imaginative crowd-sourced maps are provided by Syria Tracker here (and more on the project’s data mining and crowd sourcing from iRevolution here). One of the most ambitious interactive projects, reported by the Guardian and master-minded by the New Scientist, is this one, which uses the open-source QGIS to extract and locate violent events recorded on the new Global Data on Events, Location and Tone database (though, for reasons that will be obvious to most geographers, the hexagons give me another pause for unquiet thought); you can access the interactive via the NS here:

NS Charting Syria's Civil War

All of these maps suffer from inevitable imperfections and deficiencies of data, and they all process and manipulate what they have in different ways (not least by the boundaries they draw around their maps: see this more porous map of the internationalization of the war from Foreign Policy).

We all surely know that none of these representations can be innocent – which brings me to other, more specific mapping projects, like this crowd-sourced map of rape as a military weapon from Women under siege; the live, interactive map is here.

Sexualized violence in Syria

You can find a detailed discussion of the project up to July 2012 by the project’s director Lauren Wolfe here (and an excellent interview here):

‘To step back from the red dots on our map and try to understand the sexualized violence of Syria’s war, our team of doctors, activists, and journalists has taken the 81 stories we’ve gathered so far, from the onset of the conflict in March 2011 through June 2012… Many more victims are included in these reports, but the vagueness of much of the information does not allow us to give an estimate of the total number…. Our data, though largely anecdotal, gives us a sense of the scope and impact of sexualized violence in Syria. It appears to be widespread, not limited to any particular city, and often involves rape.

“The data we have so far suggest sexualized violence is being used as a tool of war, although possibly haphazardly and not necessarily as an organized strategy,” said Dr. Karestan Koenen, associate professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and the lead epidemiologist on the mapping project. “These reports indicate that post-conflict intervention will need to address the consequences of sexualized violence for victims.”

More on that and the possibilities of what we might call forensic cartography from Laura Bates at Open Democracy here:

The crowdmap may serve another vital function in the future, when the information might be used to help drive prosecutions and bring perpetrators to justice. Wolfe hopes that collecting these reports now will give us a base from which to pursue more detailed investigations on the ground post-conflict “to turn our documentation into evidence that could be used in future war crimes trials”. This is vital when dealing with a crime which carries so much stigma that “stories are usually gathered after the fact, when much has been lost to shame and the destruction of evidence.”

Another potential instance of forensic cartography is this map from Human Rights Watch of sites where, despite denials by the Syrian Army, there is evidence of cluster bombs being used (more here):


Apart from the forensic possibilities, all of this must seem desperately depressing – so many violent deconstructions of the material map – but a Syrian activist, Omar al Assil, has produced a map (of sorts – it’s a web of associations, technically a force-directed graph: plotting physical locations of activists would obviously be inviting reprisals) of non-violent activism in Syria; you can read about it courtesy of Amnesty International here and check out the interactive here.  Incidentally, unless it’s a temporary glitch, Amnesty’s own Eyes on Syria project seems to have shut both of them…

Non-violence map of the Syrian uprising

 “In the [Syria Non-Violence Movement] we believe that there is still a room for peaceful struggle and creativity amid all this chaos. Many people thought that the non-violence came to an end and this is a small step to show them that it is still there and they are using it or working with it on daily basis. So mainly it was to motivate people and the other aim is to document all these activities so interested people can have access to it easily.”

Taken together, these last maps say something about the courage of people’s convictions – and perhaps even the (I fear faint) possibility of cartographic convictions.

The invisible war

Kirby Dick’s – and Amy Ziering’s – documentary film The invisible war (2011) recently won the Audience Award at the Sundance Festival and the Nestor Almendros Award at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.  It documents, in brave detail, the incidence of rape inside the US military.  The film-makers contacted more than 100 victims, men as well as women.  The Department of Defense estimates that there were 19,000 violent sex crimes inside the military in 2010 and 22,800 in 2011; the vast majority go unreported, and of those that are there are few convictions.  Women in combat zones are more likely to be raped than killed by the enemy, but the attacks also take place far from the firing-line: on bases in the continental United States, at barracks in Washington DC.

There are powerful, thoughtful reviews of this film – including essays by Rose Aguilar, David Leonard and Marcia Yerman – and its achievements are substantial.  Gary Trudeau saw The invisible war at a special screening and used a series of Doonesbury cartoons to bring the issue to a wider public, while Rebecca Keegan reports that two days after Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta saw the film he called a press conference ‘to announce new rules on how the Pentagon would handle sex crimes.’

And yet, across all the reviews I’ve read, there’s a strange reluctance to link rape inside the military to the rape by soldiers of enemy combatants and civilians.  There is a substantial literature on rape as a weapon of war – on rape as a systematic strategy – but what I have in mind here is a structural connection between the power and cruelty involved in rape and forms of military violence. This is obviously a differentiated terrain; there was a good roundtable discussion raising a number of important issues in Eurozine in 2009, the same year that Helen Benedict’s searing account of The lonely soldier: the private war of women serving in Iraq appeared.  You can find a video of her talk at Columbia here, and there is also this short interview:

Among more recent book-length treatments I’d recommend Janie Leatherman’s Sexual violence and armed conflict (Polity, 2011), Part III of Laura Sjoberg and Sandra Via (eds), Gender, war and militarism: feminist perspectives (Praeger, 2010), and a compelling study that makes the connection between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ military rape that I’m urging here, Gina Marie Weaver’s Ideologies of forgetting: rape in the Vietnam War (SUNY Press, 2010).  Making those connections is one way of making war’s injuries, both there and here, abroad and at home, more visible – and those who perpetrate them more accountable.  Eight years after Abu Ghraib you’d think we’d have made more progress in exploring the relations between military violence and sexual violence.

Three additional notes: 

(1) On Monday, Wednesday and Friday this week (13 through 17 August) YouTube has a new three-part drama series on sexual assault in the US military, Lauren: I found news of this on Stars & Stripes, ‘the US military’s independent news source’….

(2)  Earlier this month al Jazeera hosted a discussion of military ‘cultures of rape’ between Morris Davis, a retired US air force colonel who led the investigation into the sexual abuse scandal at the US Air Force Academy in 2003; Ariana Klay, a former US Marine Officer, who is one of eight current and former military members who have filed a lawsuit alleging they were raped, assaulted, or harassed during their service; and Aaron Belkin, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University and the author of Bring Me Men: Military Masculinity and the Benign Façade of American Empire, 1898-2001.

(3) Belkin’s Bring Me Men (Columbia University Press, 2012) documents male-on-male rape in the US military and en route challenges a number of existing discussions of ‘military masculinity’:  “I argue in Bring Me Men that contradictions that structure warrior masculinity look a lot like contradictions that structure U.S. empire, and that both sets of contradictions get sanitized and swept out of sight at the same moments, often by outcasts (African-Americans, women, gays and lesbians) who portray the military and the empire in noble terms as part of inclusion-seeking strategies.”  You can download the first chapter from Belkin’s own website.