Highlights

 
Quotable
In all history there is no war which was not hatched by the governments, the governments alone, independent of the interests of the people, to whom war is always pernicious even when successful.
Leo Tolstoy
Original Letters Blog US Casualties Contact Donate

 
May 8, 2004

Torture Is News But It's Not New


by John Pilger

When I first went to report the American war against Vietnam, in the 1960s, I visited the Saigon offices of the great American newspapers and TV companies, and the international news agencies.

I was struck by the similarity of displays on many of their office pinboards. "That's where we hang our conscience," said an agency photographer.

There were photographs of dismembered bodies, of soldiers holding up severed ears and testicles and of the actual moments of torture. There were men and women being beaten to death, and drowned, and humiliated in stomach-turning ways. On one photograph was a stick-on balloon above the torturer's head, which said: "That'll teach you to talk to the press."

The question came up whenever visitors caught sight of these pictures: why had they not been published? A standard response was that newspapers would not publish them, because their readers would not accept them. And to publish them, without an explanation of the wider circumstances of the war, was to "sensationalize."

At first, I accepted the apparent logic of this; atrocities and torture by "us" were surely aberrations by definition. My education thereafter was rapid; for this rationale did not explain the growing evidence of civilians killed, maimed, made homeless and sent mad by "anti-personnel" bombs dropped on villages, schools and hospitals.

Nor did it explain the children burned to a bubbling pulp by something called napalm, or farmers hunted in helicopter "turkey shoots," or a "suspect" tortured to death with a rope around his neck, dragged behind a jeep filled with doped and laughing American soldiers.

Nor did it explain why so many soldiers kept human parts in their wallets and special forces officers who kept human skulls in their huts, inscribed with the words: "One down, a million to go."

Philip Jones Griffiths, the great Welsh freelance photographer with whom I worked in Vietnam, tried to stop an American officer blowing to bits a huddled group of women and children.

"They're civilians," he yelled.

"What civilians?" came the reply.

Jones Griffiths and others tried to interest the news agencies in pictures that told the truth about that atrocious war. The response often was: "So what's new?"

The difference today is that the truth of the equally atrocious Anglo-American invasion of Iraq is news. Moreover, leaked Pentagon documents make clear that torture is widespread in Iraq. Amnesty International says it is "systematic."

And yet, we have only begun to identify the unspeakable element that unites the invasion of Vietnam with the invasion of Iraq. This element draws together most colonial occupations, no matter where or when. It is the essence of imperialism, a word only now being restored to our dictionaries. It is racism.

In Kenya in the 1950s, the British slaughtered an estimated 10,000 Kenyans and ran concentration camps where the conditions were so harsh that 402 inmates died in just one month. Torture, flogging and abuse of women and children were commonplace. "The special prisons," wrote the imperial historian V.G. Kiernan, "were probably as bad as any similar Nazi or Japanese establishments."

None of this was news at the time. The "Mau Mau terror" was reported and perceived one way: as "demonic" black against white. The racist message was clear, but "our" racism was never mentioned.

In Kenya, as in the failed American attempt to colonize Vietnam, as in Iraq, racism fueled the indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and the torture. When they arrived in Vietnam, the Americans regarded the Vietnamese as human lice. They called them "gooks" and "dinks" and "slopes" and they killed them in industrial quantities, just as they had slaughtered the Native Americans; indeed, Vietnam was known as "Indian country."

In Iraq, nothing has changed.

In boasting openly about killing "rats in their nest," US marine snipers, who in Fallujah shot dead women, children and the elderly, just as German snipers shot dead Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, were reflecting the racism of their leaders.

Paul W Wolfowitz, the Deputy Defense Secretary who is said to be the architect of the invasion of Iraq, has spoken of "snakes" and "draining the swamps" in the "uncivilized parts of the world."

Much of this modern imperial racism was invented in Britain. Listen to its subtle expressions, as British spokesmen find their weasel words in refusing to acknowledge the numbers of Iraqis killed or maimed by their cluster bombs, whose actual effects are no different from the effects of suicide bombers; they are weapons of terrorism. Listen to Adam Ingram, the armed forces minister, drone on in parliament, refusing to say how many innocent people are the victims of his government.

In Vietnam, the shooting of women and their babies in the village of My Lai was called an "American Tragedy" by Newsweek magazine. Be prepared for more of the "our tragedy" line that invites sympathy for the invaders.

The Americans left three million dead in Vietnam and a once bountiful land devastated and poisoned with the effects of the chemical weapons they used. While American politicians and Hollywood wrung their hands over GIs missing-in-action, who gave a damn for the Vietnamese?

In Iraq, nothing has changed.

By the most conservative estimates, the Americans and the British have left 11,000 civilians dead. Include Iraqi conscripts, and the figure quadruples.

"We count every screw driver, but we don't count dead Iraqis," said an American officer during the 1991 slaughter. Adam Ingram may not be as literate, but the dishonoring of human life is the same.

Yes, the atrocities and torture are news now. But how are they news? asks the writer Ahdaf Soueif. A BBC news presenter describes the torture pictures as "merely mementos." Yes, of course: just like the human parts kept in wallets in Vietnam.

BBC commentators – always the best measure of the British establishment thinking on its feet – remind us that the torturing, humiliating of soldiers "does not compare with Saddam Hussein's systematic tortures and executions." Saddam, noted Ahdaf Soueif, "is now the moral compass of the West."

We cannot give back Iraqi lives extinguished or ruined by those acting in our name. At the very least, we must demand that those responsible for this epic crime get out of Iraq now and that we have an opportunity to prosecute and judge them, and to make amends to the Iraqi people. Anything less disqualifies "us" as civilized.

First published in the Mirror


comments on this article?
 
 
Archives

  • War Comes Home to Britain
    3/5/2009

  • Cambodia's Missing Accused
    2/23/2009

  • Hollywood's New Censors
    2/19/2009

  • Obama and the Politics of Bollocks
    2/6/2009

  • Come On Down for Your Freedom Medals
    1/22/2009

  • Holocaust Denied
    1/8/2009

  • The Good News for the New Year Is as Follows
    12/21/2008

  • Beware of Obama's Groundhog Day
    12/12/2008

  • Kafka Has a Rival – the British Foreign Office Lectures Us On Human Rights
    12/3/2008

  • The Making of an Unpeople
    11/28/2008

  • Beware of the Obama Hype
    11/24/2008

  • The Diplomacy of Lying
    10/27/2008

  • Truth and War Mean Nothing at the Party Conferences
    9/26/2008

  • A Murderous Theater of the Absurd
    9/11/2008

  • Don't Forget Yugoslavia
    8/16/2008

  • Obama, the Prince of Bait-and-Switch
    7/25/2008

  • How Britain Wages War
    7/12/2008

  • From Triumph to Torture
    7/3/2008

  • Britain's War in the Cause of Fear and Ignorance
    6/26/2008

  • Obama Is a Truly Democratic Expansionist
    6/13/2008

  • Philip Jones Griffiths, Who Understood War and Peace, and People
    3/26/2008

  • The Quiet Rendition of Moudud Ahmed
    3/13/2008

  • Australia's Hidden Empire
    3/6/2008

  • Bringing Down the New Berlin Walls
    2/14/2008

  • Suharto, the Model Killer, and His Friends in High Places
    1/28/2008

  • The Danse Macabre of US-Style Democracy
    1/24/2008

  • The 'Good War' Is a Bad War
    1/10/2008

  • 'The Values We Share'
    12/17/2007

  • Exposing the Guardians of Power
    11/30/2007

  • No Remembrance, No Remorse for the Fallen of Iraq
    11/15/2007

  • The Hypocrites Who Say They Back Democracy in Burma
    10/27/2007

  • A Conversation With Aung San Suu Kyi
    10/4/2007

  • Good Ol' Bill, the Liberal Hero
    8/9/2007

  • How Truth Slips Down the Memory Hole
    7/26/2007

  • London Bombs Also
    Belong to Brown
    7/6/2007

  • Rebellion in the British Army
    6/7/2007

  • Imprisoning a Whole Nation
    5/24/2007

  • The Kennedy Myth Rises Again
    5/11/2007

  • Iran May be the Greatest Crisis of Modern Times
    4/13/2007

  • Iran: A War Is Coming
    2/3/2007

  • Silent About Gaza
    1/18/2007

  • Setting the Limits of
    Invasion Journalism
    12/8/2006

  • Let's Now Charge the Accomplices
    11/10/2006

  • Busy Fondling Their Self-Esteem
    10/12/2006

  • No News Is Slow News
    9/15/2006

  • The Real Threat We Face in Britain Is Blair
    8/18/2006

  • The US Empire Makes Its Move to Take Over the Middle East
    7/27/2006

  • East Timor: The Coup the World Missed
    6/22/2006

  • In Palestine, a War on Children
    6/15/2006

  • Contentment in Caracas
    5/15/2006

  • The Return of the Death Squads
    5/5/2006

  • The Real First Casualty of War
    4/20/2006

  • The Death of British Freedom
    4/14/2006

  • The War Lovers
    3/23/2006

  • The Secret War Against the Defenseless People of West Papua
    3/11/2006

  • Iran: The Next War
    2/13/2006

  • Blair Criminalizes His Critics
    1/6/2006

  • A News Revolution Has Begun
    11/25/2005

  • UK Refusenik Deserves Our Support
    10/28/2005

  • Sinister Events in a Cynical War
    9/28/2005

  • The Rise of the Democratic Police State
    8/19/2005

  • Blair's Bombs
    7/25/2005

  • UK Press Under Blair's Thumb
    5/18/2005

  • Britain's Absurd Election
    4/22/2005

  • The Fall of Saigon 1975: An Eyewitness Report
    4/16/2005


  • John Pilger was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been a war correspondent, film-maker and playwright. Based in London, he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism's highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his work in Vietnam and Cambodia.

    Reproduction of material from any original Antiwar.com pages
    without written permission is strictly prohibited.
    Copyright 2003 Antiwar.com