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A Critical analysis of The Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse in Iraq, in the context of Foucault’s ideas on subjection, and the workings of Power

April 6, 2009


We often construct images of aliens to define ourselves in contrast as normal, and in doing so set standards of right and wrong; punishing those considered others by engaging in wars and violent activities. It is a tactic; a thought out strategy to prevent the other from rising to power. The war on Iraq was initiated on similar grounds; to protect and discipline this other.

As the respected Shri Shri Ravi Shankar quoted; war to him denotes worse action for reason. Even though the war on Iraq, like any other war was fought on the grounds of being a disciplinary practice, in reality it demonstrated clear power politics between states; played to control the bodies within the states and threatening their ultimate human security.

When I first heard about the incident, a number of questions sprung to my mind. What was the extent of these abuses and what exactly caused the American soldiers to perform such heinous acts? Yet, the more answers I tried to find, the more conflicting my judgments became due to differing media projections. However, I was anxious to determine where the accountability of these abuses truly lies; in black and white, the American soldiers were the culprits, but what if there is a grey in between? What if the American soldiers were socially disciplined and trained to act in ways that they did.

The abuses at Abu Ghraib might have occurred in a physical prison built out of steel and concrete, but what about the psychological prisons that the American soldiers, along with the Iraqi detainees subjectified into? Here, it would be noteworthy to mention that such mental prisons are not isolated to the Abu Ghraib incident solely; they are social constructs of society, brought into form when we construct divisions; like us and them, sane and insane. Hence, even though the American soldiers were the explicit agents in these abuses, other implicit factors, like racism, religion and sexism were all at play together. When the soldiers were abusing the Iraqis, they were in reality abusing the enemy, the evil, the other.

This other has become contingent to the existence of our social system; just like the delinquents keep the prison system in operation, and has fostered the creation of hegemonic states. There could be a way out, but it requires us to redefine our margins by reconstructing our social system. At the micro-level; every person, as an individual needs to unlock prejudices based on religion, race, gender and sexual orientation. At the macro-level, the imbalance of power between states resulting in the formation of hegemonies needs to be controlled. Once all states have established a balance of power, power will be universal. This homogeneous nature of power will allow for an equal world, which in turn will foster justice, equality and peace; such that there is no other.

  1. Emily permalink*
    April 7, 2009 9:17 am

    It’s unfortunate how war subjugates other people . . . it would be interesting to dive into how the situation Abu Ghraib “demasculine-tized” prisoners and how soldiers in war use raping women as another way of subjugating power.

  2. Jay permalink
    April 7, 2009 11:27 am

    I recommend Dr. Zimbardo’s “The Lucifer Effect” for a revealing discussion of the power of social situations and the Abu Ghraib scandal specifically.

  3. Maria permalink
    April 9, 2009 11:30 pm

    Those are some interesting observations Emily. They highlight the ultimate goal of war being the abuse of power to dominate over all genders; all beings considered inferior. Gender no longer warrants protection or safety from the dominating force.
    It’s quite interesting how within the two genders lies further segregation by class, religion, culture, etc. Hence, the prisoners’ abuse at Abu Ghraib, they were marginalized regardless of their gender because of another factor at play; their race.

    Soldiers raping women during wartime could be a subjugating force aimed at creating ethnically cleansed neighborhoods.

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