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Regardless of all consequences: Abu Ghraib - images of abuse and the abuse of images

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Of love, war and obscenity: a perspective on the fall of Baghdad


The following article was written for the Guardian in April 2003. It was due to appear on the Saturday following the fall of Baghdad and had been passed for obscenity by the editor. On the Friday, however, the Guardian received a last-minute piece from the playwright David Hare, and the article was spiked to make room for it.  It appears for the first time here in May 2004 as an oblique comment on revelations concerning the abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by American and British soldiers. The relevance of its argument about obscenity to the recent revelations about Abu Ghraib will, I hope, be immediately apparent.

12 April 2003; first published 7 May 2004

LAST WEEK IN THE ONLINE edition of the Guardian Buhran Wazir wrote about an aspect of the war which could never have been reported honestly twenty, or perhaps even ten, years ago. In his Iraq diary he described how he had accompanied a group of British soldiers as they drove a four-ton truck into Zubayr as part of a humanitarian aid convoy. Wazir’s attention was caught by a loud young Scot who was voicing his grievances. An officer who had irritated him was “a fucking cunt”. The Turks were bastards: “Stick fingered cunts the lot of ‘em. I hated that place. Remember they stabbed those English fans? … Dirty bastards.”  

And the Iraqis? After a crowd of locals had gratefully accepted supplies of food, the Scot expressed his view: “And I tell you another thing: they didn’t look hungry to me. Some of those cunts were right fat bastards.” 

Some who read Wazir’s report may have been grateful that the lifting of taboos  permitted a reporter to record honestly an episode which reminds us that obscenities are part of the lingua franca of war. Others, however, may still be uneasy about the climate which allows such obscene abuse to be freely published.  

Such unease is understandable. We might well reflect that we have as a culture devoted a great deal more time and energy to fighting for the right of novelists (and others) to use the words ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’ than we have ever given to considering the psychology which is implicit in our usage of these words, and in the power which they possess. 

In the context of a trusting and intimate relationship both words can be the focus of some of the deepest human feelings. It is because of their richness, and the affective wealth which has been locked into their obscenity, that any culture which values emotional vitality should, I believe, always resist those who seek to ban these words entirely either from literature or from life.

But even within a sexual relationship these obscenities are fraught with a dangerous ambivalence. And the further they are removed from a context of trust and emotional intimacy, the more likely it is that they will be used as vehicles not of emotional richness but of hatred and contempt.  

In its most common and everyday usage the word ‘fuck’ is one of the hardest and most violent words in the English language. Very often it is used in a way that implies the existence of a hated Other who must be punished, subjugated or hurt; the hated Other is very often a woman. Indeed, when this word is used most fiercely and most vehemently, it expresses, perhaps better than any other single word, the misogyny of our culture, a misogyny so ordinary and so deep that for the most part we do not even recognise that it exists. As Germaine Greer wrote in The Female Eunuch, even sophisticated men “still say ‘Fuck you’ as a venomous insult; they still find ‘cunt’ the most degrading epithet outside the dictionary.” The contents of the Oxford English Dictionary have changed since these words were written in 1970. But the general truth which they express remains unaltered.

In creating a climate where it is possible to discuss such misogyny without euphemisms, we appear to have progressed. But this progress is more apparent than real. Insulting language does not grow benign by use and such words remain, in some contexts at least, not only offensive but viciously repressive. Of course, many people who use the word ‘cunt’ as an insult do so with no deliberate misogynistic intent. But the word remains freighted with hatred and contempt for women and to use it negatively is to silently assent to and endorse such hatred. 

To say this is not to make misogyny – or what Germaine Greer once called ‘cunt-hatred’ – into the sole criterion of offensiveness. The word ‘prick’ may be less offensive than ‘cunt’ but it remains an insult. Just as misogyny itself does, such insulting terms harness the enduring puritanism and sex-hatred of our culture in order to denigrate and hold in contempt another human being. 

When so many real men and women on both sides of the war are still being shot or burned or bombed to death it may seem frivolous or self-indulgent to engage in arguments about the use of mere words. 

But sexual obscenities and war-mongering are intimately related. Anyone who doubts this should study the emails which are routinely received by journalists who oppose Western policies which involve war or subjugation. I say this on the basis of reading a selection of emails sent to this newspaper which I asked the Guardian to forward to me earlier this week. An hour or so after I had made this request, a flurry of messages with unusual subject-lines began to settle in layers on my computer screen: ‘Scumbag’. ‘You are a piece of cunt’. ‘Fuck you’. ‘Asshole’.  

“How many dogs had to fuck your mom for you to happen?” wrote one reader to the author of  a Guardian article criticising US foreign policy in the Middle East in the immediate aftermath of September 11. “I just don’t understand why you have a job in the free world,” said another. “You should slither on back into your sand-encrusted cunthole you ungrateful fuck..”

What these messages convey most clearly is not hatred of peace, or hatred of the left, or hatred of Muslims, or even hatred of Guardian journalists. It is hatred of the body – and of the sexual bodies of women in particular. And it is not only angry American readers of the Guardian who sometimes imagine war as a form of  intimate violence directed against a hated human body. At the outset of the 1991 Gulf War General Norman Schwarzkopf said: ‘I want every Iraqi soldier bleeding from every orifice.’

War is the ultimate form of violation. It is a violation of other people’s sovereign territory and it is, necessarily, a violation of other people’s bodies. It is a violation of the sanctity with which we normally surround life itself – to which even the soldiers of an oppressive and hated regime are normally held to have a right. This does not mean that war is not sometimes necessary. But it is an obscene necessity to be resorted to with the utmost rareness.

It is only in a culture whose moral compass has been sent into a spin by the idea of freedom, which does not understand the obscene realm to which war belongs, and which is unable to distinguish between liberation and violation, that any politicians could have seriously contemplated embarking on the present war.


We may be confused about the nature and the obscenity of war. But for Arabs throughout the middle east there is less doubt. Millions of ordinary Arabs already see the invasion of Iraq not as an act of liberation but as the violation of a Muslim country. Earlier this week, as jubilant Iraqis greeted American soldiers in Baghdad, this view seemed to be undermined. But the real harvest of any invasion is always a late one. It is worth recalling that, when British soldiers were sent to Northern Ireland in 1969, they were welcomed openly by Catholic communities as protectors and liberators. But when they used heavy-handed methods to enforce law and order, jubilation turned to resentment and the same soldiers found themselves facing petrol bombs, stones, and ultimately bullets.

As the jubilation in Iraq fades, to be replaced by the reality of living under an occupying army, the images and the injuries of war, and the thousands of deaths it has brought, will remain. Resentment will grow both within Iraq and throughout the region. Millions of ordinary Arabs will then be confirmed in the view they hold already. And they will not forgive what they see as the rape and humiliation of yet another Muslim country by the world’s only superpower – aided and abetted in this case by the British government and a British prime minister.
In responding to the renewed rage which this war will inevitably lead to in many Islamic countries, some in the West will point an accusing finger towards the sexual repressiveness of Islam. But, before we demonise another culture on account of their puritanism and misogyny, we need to think a great deal more carefully about our own.

12 April 2003; first published 7 May 2004 



© Richard Webster, 2004