Abu Ghraib Isn't Guernica
But here's why the Spanish Civil War analogy is worth exploring.
Ian McEwan observed recently that there were, in effect, two kinds of people: those who could have used or recognized the words "Abu Ghraib" a few years ago, and those to whom it became a new term only last year. And what a resonant name it has indeed become. Now the Colombian painter Fernando Botero has produced a sequence of lurid and haunting pictures, based on the photographs taken by American war criminals, with which he hopes to draw attention to the horrors inflicted there. But his true ambition, he says, is to do for Abu Ghraib what Picasso did for Guernica.
The first of these ambitions is probably otiose: Where in the world are the images of Abu Ghraib not already notorious? (One of the cleansers of Darfur, only recently, employed them as a tu quoque to pre-empt any American condemnation of his activities.)
The second ambition is a bit dubious. It's also a bit stale: An article by Jonathan Steele in Britain's Guardian has already employed the Guernica comparison—this time to compare it to the U.S. Marine Corps' re-taking of Fallujah.
Guernica did have a certain reputation, as a town, before it was immortalized by Pablo Picasso. It was the historic capital of the Basques of Spain, and its famous oak tree was the spot where Spanish monarchs took an oath to protect Basque liberties. Its destruction from the air by German aircraft allied with Gen. Franco was considered not just an atrocity in itself, but a warning of a future Nazi blitzkrieg against Europe, and this is the potency that the painting still possesses, even if you agree with the Marxist and Third-Worldist art critic John Berger, in his The Success and Failure of Picasso, that it was one of the master's crudest works.
Abu Ghraib was by no means celebrated as an ancestral civic and cultural center before the year 2004. To the Iraqis, it was a name to be mentioned in whispers, if at all, as "the house of the end." It was a Dachau. Numberless people were consigned there and were never heard of again. Its execution shed worked overtime, as did its torturers, and we are still trying to discover how many Iraqis and Kurds died in its precincts. At one point, when it suffered even more than usual from chronic overcrowding, Saddam and his sons decided to execute a proportion of the inmates at random, just to cull the population. The warders then fanned out at night to visit the families of the prisoners, asking how much it would be worth to keep their son or brother or father off the list. The hands of prisoners were cut off, and the proceedings recorded on video for the delight of others. I myself became certain that Saddam had reached his fin de régime, or his Ceauşescu moment, when he celebrated his 100-percent win in the "referendum" of 2003 by releasing all the nonpolitical prisoners (the rapists and thieves and murderers who were his natural constituency) from Abu Ghraib. This sudden flood of ex-cons was a large factor in the horrific looting and mayhem that accompanied the fall of Baghdad.
I visited the jail a few months later, and I can tell you about everything but the stench, which you would have to smell for yourself. Layers of excrement and filth were being shoveled out; cells obviously designed for the vilest treatment of human beings made one recoil. In the huge, dank, cement gallery where the executions took place, a series of hooks and rings hung over a gruesome pit. Efforts were being made to repaint and disinfect the joint, and many of the new inmates were being held in encampments in the yard while this was being done, but I distinctly remember thinking that there was really no salvaging such a place and that it should either be torn down and ploughed over or turned into a museum.
Instead, it became an improvised center for anyone caught in the dragnet of the "insurgency" and was filled up with suspects as well as armed supporters of Baathism and Bin Ladenism. There's no need to restate what everyone now knows about what happened as a consequence. But I am not an apologist if I point out that there are no more hangings, random or systematic. The outrages committed by Pvt. England and her delightful boyfriend were first uncovered by their superiors. And seven of Saddam's amputees—those whose mutilations were filmed and distributed as a warning—have been flown to Houston, Texas—Texas, capital of redneck barbarism!—to be fitted with new prosthetic hands. A film about this latter episode, titled A Show of Hands, has been made by Don North and was, I believe, shown on the Al Hurra network. But I don't think that 1-in-100,000,000 people has seen it; certainly nobody in comparison with the universal dissemination of photographs of recreational sadism. Sr. Botero, who usually works with flab, has done some leaner and meaner paintings in this case. But they resemble less the metaphors of Picasso than the starkly literal efforts of Goya to represent the crumpled and twisted bodies of the second of May. And that is somehow appropriate, since Goya was divided in his own mind between Spanish patriotism and a covert sympathy for the Napoleonic forces, which, even at second hand, were bringing the principles of 1789 to his own benighted state.
The superficially clever thing to say today is that Lynddie England represents all of us, or at any rate all her superiors, and that the liberation of Iraq is thereby discredited. One odd effect of this smug view is to find her and her scummy friends—the actual inflicters of pain and humiliation—somehow innocent, while those senior officers who arrested them and put them on trial are somehow guilty. There is something faintly masochistic and indecent about that conclusion.
There's also something indecent about any comparison of this with the struggle of the Spanish Republic. If Fallujah is "Guernica," then the U.S. Marines are Herman Goering's Condor Legion. If Abu Ghraib is "Guernica," then the U.S. Army is a part of the original "Axis" between Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco. I wonder if any sympathizer of this view would accept its apparent corollary: that the executions and tortures inflicted by the Spanish Communists—crimes now denied by nobody, though Picasso excused them at the time—axiomatically discredit the anti-fascist cause? And this distortion of the record is all the more extraordinary, since a much more natural analogy is close at hand. Gen. Franco's assault on the Spanish Republic—an assault that claimed to be, and was, a rebel "insurgency" against the elected government—consisted of an alliance of fascist parties, religious extremists, and Muslim fighters. It was led by the frightened former oligarchy, and its cause was preached from the pulpit, and its foot-soldiers were Moorish levies from North Africa and "volunteers" from Germany and Italy. How shady it is that our modern leftists and peaceniks can detect fascism absolutely everywhere except when it is actually staring them in the face. The next thing, of course, if we complete the historic analogy, would be for them to sign a pact with it. And this, some of them have already done.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Abu Ghraib by Joe Raedle/Getty.