by Zainab Cheema (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 3, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1433)
Photographs are the privileged medium for showing the graphic horrors of war.
There is paternal kinship between the US Civil War photographers, who carefully arranged the whitening bones of soldiers in picturesque landscapes of violence, and the US soldiers who proudly snapped themselves urinating on Afghan corpses and posing with dismembered body parts. Photographs are included in the bits and bytes of Pentagon Inc.’s vast mural of planetary violence — Picasso’s La Guernica simply pales by comparison with the psychedelic portraits of war beamed into our retinas by the media on a 24-hour basis.
The US self-portrait of its power over the Muslim East and Eurasia is a spectacular conflagration of violence, designed to shock, awe, intimidate, horrify, and silence but according to Newton’s Third Law, to every force there is an equal and opposite reaction. This means that every image in our eyes has a counter-image. In short, the graphic Kodak reel of violence wrapped around the world has a counterpart — invisible circuits of violence, for which there are no photographic stills or movie images, but which are nevertheless ever-present. While media-beamed images project US power over bodies in far-flung areas of the globe, the invisible network of violence cloaks the fact that domestic bodies in the US are consumed as voraciously by the military industrial complex.
It is hardly ironic that an example of such counteracting forces of violence — Pentagon Inc. feeding on itself — can be found within the US military itself.
It is hardly ironic that an example of such counteracting forces of violence — Pentagon Inc. feeding on itself — can be found within the US military itself. Secretary of Defense (and ex-super spook) Leon Panetta has recently announced the problem of sexual violence within the US military, where the number of men in uniform assaulting women — including women in uniform —has reached an all-time high. About 56% of the cases involve a soldier attacking a female soldier, and 26% involve military personnel attacking a civilian.
Hillary Clinton is fond of making feminist arguments for why Pentagon Inc. should invade other sovereign states — the oppression of (Muslim) women warrants the intervention of saviors in camouflage. However, the lust to save women’s bodies often bleeds into the lust to consume women’s bodies, no matter what side of the line they may be on. For instance, statistics reveal that one in three women in the military will likely be assaulted. In a study recently released by the Pentagon, 3,192 sexual assault cases were reported to military authorities in 2011 — Panetta obliquely admitted to the US military’s historical cover-up of the scale of this problem, noting the accurate number for sexual assault “actually is closer to 19,000.” Experts note that even this figure is most probably an underestimation.
If our retinas are clouded with the fog of war, the men programmed into mechanized Crusaders by Pentagon Inc. have their own problems of vision. The neat, dividing lines between “us” and “other,” the binaries separating “civilization” from “Islam” becomes scrambled with the codes of violence. The commercials about honor and patriotism through which the Pentagon enchants its audience of unemployable men is a screen for a culture characterized by hatred of women, as noted by Columbia professor Helen Thomas. “The symptoms of this woman-hatred range from obscene comments on breast size, relentless staring and ridicule, sexist rhymes, and pornography everywhere,” she notes. While women comprise a mere 14% of the US armed forces, they are 95% of the victims of sexual assault.
US women who have been raped and assaulted are not likely to be found telling tales of war — rather, what its like being a woman at war. As former California Representative Jane Harman noted in a 2008 testimony, “A woman who signs up to protect her country is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire.” The machinery of violence mowing down lives, communities, and cities in Iraq and Afghanistan, is plated with mirrors — it refracts as much violence behind the grand marching line of civilization. “The mortar rounds that came in daily did less damage to me than the men with whom I shared my food,” reported one former victim of assault who came in for counseling with Thomas. Violence is also more than the sum of the wounds — it ripples across communities and psyches in ways that give each mark an exponential power. Women victimized by sexual assault suffer from higher rates of depression, mental illness, diabetes, and other ailments.
And since Pentagon Inc. is invested in its mythology of honorable American manhood — the subject of ads, Defense budget-funded Hollywood blockbusters, and televised speeches — women raped in the military truly do become invisible. New evidence indicates that women who complain about sexual violence in the military are slapped with the diagnosis of a psychiatric disorder and discharged from service. The tale of Panayiota Bertzikis is a common one: a Coast Guard veteran, she was raped by a fellow Coast Guard member, given no medical services, made to continue working with her rapist and ultimately dismissed from the Coast Guard as unfit for duty. The military has a notorious record for sweeping accusations under the rug — targeting anyone who tries to pull the plug on the culture of silence around Pentagon Inc.’s divine right to lands, bodies, and wealth.
Not that women are the exclusive victims of assault. The US military industrial complex is an umbrella for a number of domestic industries, where sexual violence is as much a part of the culture as the global warfronts of Pentagon Inc. One of the most notorious is the prison-industrial complex, which incarcerates almost 10% of US men. (As a point of comparison, there are more people under “correctional supervision” in the US — over six million — than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height). In 2007, a series of articles in the New York Review of Books illuminated the hidden shades of violence in US prisons, where astronomical rates of prison rape made the US the only country in the world where the numbers of men subjected to sexual violence exceeds the number of women. Public outcry led to a 2008 Justice Department probe, which discovered more than 216,000 victims of sexual abuse in prisons across the US.
Unlike Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, those spectacular prisons from where trophy images of violence are beamed across the global networks of media, photographs or images of sexual violence from US civilian prisons are almost never released. Prisons are underworld gulags where men are stripped of the rights to their own bodies and enrolled in a violent sub-culture where prison guards prey on prisoners, and prisoners dish out violence to each other in turn. Prisoners are routinely gang-raped, which increases their chances of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. One example is Stephen Donaldson, the former President of the Stop Prison Rape organization. During two days in 1973, when he was in jail on charges of trespassing on White House property during a peace protest, Donaldson was gang-raped approximately 60 times. Donaldson eventually died of AIDS, contracted during his prison ordeal.
Rape and sexual predation is part and parcel of US prison (and DoD) culture — its not about reform, its about fear, anxiety and revenge against suspicious male bodies that US culture imagines as violating the norm. Federal investigator Joseph Fishman toured 1,500 US prisons and wrote about a widespread culture of prison rape, where a new prisoner is forced to become the sexual slave of a larger, aggressive inmate. The new prisoner, now called a “punk,” is protected from sexual aggression from other prisoners by his “daddy,” in return for total submission to the latter’s sexual demands. Prison guards have actively promoted this culture — they could rape the prisoners they themselves fancied, without fearing the consequences. Nor do guards report any complaints from prisoners endangered by violence, encouraging a culture of silence.
The US military promotes itself as the great paternal institution entrusted with disciplining male bodies into defenders of the nation — think of George C. Scott as General Patton delivering his WWII rallying speech in front of a gigantic American flag in the film Patton. However, the astronomical numbers of male rape in prisons shows that its machinery of violence cannot be easily controlled so that it is only directed against those (Muslim) bodies out there. Pentagon Inc.’s saturation of US civil society ensures that the dark matter of invisible violence spills across US society, linked up with the graphic violence on global territories cycled through 24-hour reporting on cable, network TV, and the internet. Men and women within Pentagon Inc. and its various sub-industries are as vulnerable to its voracious appetite as those living in its border zones.