Abu Ghraib and the visual legacy of Iraq

In order for history not to repeat itself, it is the duty as educators of our youth to tell our country’s past actions truthfully. Whether our actions go against what we want associated with our country, like freedom and democracy, or make the U.S. look like bullies, history must be told and told accurately. While slavery is considered to be one of the most revolting and demeaning times in American history, we still tell the horrid stories in order to let our future generations understand our mistakes and make sure nothing like it can ever happen again.

There is a decision to be made when it comes to talking about Abu Ghraib and the war in Iraq to our youth. The repercussions that have stemmed from the torture and prisoner abuse in Iraq has been significant, and cannot be overlooked when discussing that period in time. Just like so many images from the Iraq war, like the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Firdos square, the images from Abu Gharib represent a dark period of war in our history. While most wish we wouldn’t have to tell our youth about the violations of human rights we committed on those detainees, we have to in order for their learned history to be accurate and altruistic.

On September 11, 2001, the radical Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda conducted four suicide attacks on U.S. soil. Terrorists hijacked planes targeting the Pentagon, Washington, D.C. unsuccessfully, and the World Trade center. The attack on the Twin Towers resulted in the greatest loss of life by a foreign attack on U.S. soil. This act led directly to what the Bush administration referred to as the “War on Terror,” a military campaign that would focus on disassembling al-Qaeda and Islamic terrorism as a whole.

The War in Afghanistan became the longest running war in U.S. history. Together, with the help of American allies and NATO, the United States sought to eradicate the Taliban regime. The results of the coalition led to the occupation of Afghanistan, the fall of the Taliban government, and the death of Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda. This long and gruesome war on foreign ground was fierce and unrelentless. Documentaries like Restrepo, which took the viewer to the Korangal Valley, home to some of the most dangerous missions in U.S. military history, showed the animosity that was building in the U.S. and abroad. With the global war on terror in full effect, the United States began to grow suspicious of the possibility of Iraq’s possession of WMDs. The United States, along with the United Kingdom, invaded Iraq, captured Baghdad, and eliminated Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist government.

Images, especially those of war and related to war, have a way of encapsulating that moment in time and become synonymous with what occurred. The falling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos square, whether staged or not, represented the end of the war in Baghdad and Hussein’s corrupt government. While this image in many ways illustrated the positive outcomes that the United States brought to Baghdad, it fails to shed light on the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths that the United States’ invasions led to.

Today, when people think of the Iraq war, the first images that come to mind for most is that of Abu Ghraib. The prison that was originally Saddam Hussein’s, was taken over by U.S. troops and used as a location torture and abuse of war detainees. The poignant images taken by U.S. military personal depicted physical and sexual abuse such as torture, rape, murder, and the overall demeaning of the individuals being held. Unfortunately 20 years from now it is these images and the context behind them that will be thought of when considering the Iraq war and possibly even the war on terrorism as a whole. Through these images the original purpose of bringing democracy to a helpless country turned into a scandal of human rights violations. The animosity from the September 11th attacks and all that was going on in Afghanistan could almost be felt from looking at the pictures. The war that had started as the U.S. being victims had rapidly turned to us becoming the bullies that we are seen as by many foreign countries. The evidence of the authorization of these actions only increased public outcry and led to public apologies from president Bush and the questioning of Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense’s role.

The images at Abu Ghraib set back American efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan monumentally, making citizens ponder exactly what it was we were doing and why. Despite it may being necessary to detain these prisoners for information about terrorist plots, the way the United States decided to go about it lowered our great countries standards almost to the point of our enemies. In times of war, unrelenting actions must be taken, whether its sending 20-year-old men into the most dangerous areas of the world to fight for our freedom, or bringing democracy to broken governments, torture and murder of American prisoners is no way to handle it. When we are teaching are kids about the war in Iraq I strongly hope these images are not what first comes to mind, rather the hundreds who gave their lives to fight terrorism and create a safer place to live for us. Unfortunately, the influence of these powerful images are not something that can be forgotten and have therefore become the visual legacy that will be left behind to our children. The hope is that from seeing these photographs, and understanding the context that got America to this low point in our history, our future generations will not make the same mistakes and instead create a proud legacy of honor and integrity.

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