Torture Is News But It's Not New

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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.

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

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."

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 "sensationalise."

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.

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

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."

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.

civilians," he yelled.

civilians?" came the reply.

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?"

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."

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.

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."

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.

Kenya, as in the failed American attempt to colonise Vietnam, as
in Iraq, racism fuelled 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."

Iraq, nothing has changed.

boasting openly about killing "rats in their nest," US
marine snipers, who in Falluja 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.

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

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

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.

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?

Iraq, nothing has changed.

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

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 dishonouring of human life is the

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 mementoes." Yes, of course:
just like the human parts kept in wallets in Vietnam.

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."

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 civilised.

8, 2004

was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, filmmaker 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. This article was first published in
the Mirror.

John Pilger 2004

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