The Spectacle Of a Dirty War


By Yossi Alpher

Published May 21, 2004, issue of May 21, 2004.
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A few days ago, in a conversation with a retired senior officer in the Pentagon’s intelligence arm, the Defense Intelligence Agency, I dropped a derogatory remark about the now infamous posing of naked Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.

“We learned it from you,” the DIA man retorted.

“Not the taunting women and the photos,” I replied.

“We’re a more progressive army,” he smiled.

That cynical exchange reflected three key dilemmas that Israel and America share in their respective wars: Can dirty wars like these be sanitized? What is the role of, for want of a better word, “spectacle” in today’s wars? And are Iraq and Israel-Palestine essentially the same struggle?

A decade or so ago, Israel set out to rationalize its techniques for interrogating terrorist prisoners. In effect, this was an attempt to codify torture in legal terms, although the word never was mentioned and the closest the code comes is when it discusses “moderate physical pressure.” The code banned, for example, the “shaking” technique that had caused the accidental death of several Palestinian detainees. But it did not prohibit, and indeed set standards for, acts like forcing Arabs to stand naked in order to humiliate them and putting sacks over their heads to disorient them.

This was an attempt by a democratic society to come to terms openly with the ugly necessities of fighting terrorism — a fight that inevitably, as we have learned most recently in Iraq, degenerates into dirty war. It was considered audacious by some, repugnant by others. The nasty techniques Israel perfected did indeed help break the resistance of “ticking bombs” and save innocent lives, and their codification and official legitimization enabled interrogators to look themselves in the mirror at the end of their day. But they did not end or solve the conflict, which escalated and eventually produced the suicide bombings, which in turn made the war even dirtier.

The Pentagon seemingly set a very different course at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. It also sought to humiliate, using the same techniques, but this time as sado-sexual theater. Prisoners were treated as subhumans, as untermenschen. The deed was digitally recorded for posterity, thereby reflecting the absence of any sense of culpability or shame. Nobody knows who gave the orders or what those orders were; some of the interrogators are civilian contractors, outside a seemingly nonexistent chain of command.

The Israeli approach to interrogation is undoubtedly problematic. But in Iraq it has been turned into a cruel joke — and a highly counterproductive one, to judge by the reaction of some Arab regimes that know the real meaning of torture.

War as spectacle or theater in the Middle East is not limited to the Abu Ghraib interrogation chambers. On the same day last week that hooded Al Qaeda operatives in Baghdad cited the Abu Ghraib “torture” as justification for decapitating Nicholas Berg on camera, their Hamas and Islamic Jihad counterparts in Gaza posed almost cannibalistically with body parts of slain Israeli soldiers. For a brief video moment, not only were many Arabs claiming that “Iraq is Palestine” and that Arab fighters were combating imperialists at both ends of the Middle East — but the grisly images also drew together Jews in Israel and America in their confrontation with Islamic terrorists.

But Iraq is not Palestine, even if the Palestinian cause is a handy public relations excuse for Muslim terrorists everywhere. For all its faults and its failures, America’s post-September 11 strategy in the Middle East has demonstrated that the Arab world is weak, fragmented and diffuse, and that most of what goes on in the region has little to do with the Palestinians.

Nor, in the Israeli case, do the Palestinians have a monopoly on nastiness or on a morbid preoccupation with human remains. Israel has, over the years, frequently refused to hand over Palestinian bodies and body parts for burial. And in a conflict where both civilians and soldiers are being blown apart by the enemy, the Israeli insistence on scraping and digging out for burial every “sacred” gram of victims’ remains sometimes seems to exceed the commendable injunction to give slain Jews a proper funeral; to bespeak morbidity, not Halacha. Again, a photo — of soldiers on their hands and knees, pawing the sands of Rafah in southern Gaza in search of their slain buddies’ body parts — reflects everything that is both admirable and unsettling here.

Death in war has taken on an additional dimension of spectacle in Israel that is not yet recognizable in America, where soldiers who fall in Iraq seem to be buried almost secretly. In our case, the omnipresent media has now empowered grieving families to declare their political demands — stay in Gaza, leave Gaza, reverse the Likud referendum decision — even before they have buried their loved ones. Seldom are the cameras waved away from the funeral and the ensuing shiva.

By and large, then, it is not the same war. And by and large, a dirty war can be sanitized only up to a point. And, sadly, far too much of this is spectacle.

Yossi Alpher, a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak, is co-editor of and

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