War Party's Atrocity Porn
by William Norman Grigg January 24, 2005 The horrific experience of Iraqi woman Jumana Hanna -- supposedly imprisoned, raped, and tortured for years on the orders of Uday Hussein -- was cited by the Bush administration and its supporters as "reason alone" for the war. But Hanna's story -- like the rest of the administration's case -- was a tissue of fabrications. The face of Jumana Mikhail Hanna, a 40-year-old Iraqi expatriate who lives in northern California with her mother and children, is an instrument that appears designed for the specific task of conveying anguish. Photographs of Hanna published in the January 2005 issue of Esquire depict her in poses of agony as she visits locations in Iraq where, prior to the U.S. invasion, she was reportedly tortured. On the strength of her story, and her usefulness in aiding occupation authorities track down Iraqi officials suspected of committing Saddam-era atrocities, Hanna became a heroine in neo-conservative circles. But subsequent developments revealed that Hanna wasn’t a brave witness, but rather a brazen con artist. Hanna’s story was perfectly tailored to the needs of Bush administration propagandists. And her ability to give photographers their desired "money shot" – her body wracked by uncontrollable sobs, her face contorted in unspeakable grief – displayed an ability to simulate emotion worthy of a porn star. In 1993, according to her account, Hanna was a wealthy Iraqi Christian who made the mistake of falling in love with the wrong man. Her husband, Hayatham Jamil Anwar, was an Indian. As Hanna tells the story, "Saddam had made it illegal for Iraqi citizens to marry non-nationals," reports Esquire correspondent Sara Solovitch. "By marrying Anwar, [Hanna] would be breaking the law and risking a state backlash." Undeterred, she married Anwar, and then sought a special exemption. Using family and business connections, she sought a meeting with Uday Hussein, one of Saddam’s ferociously sadistic sons. On November 15, 1993, Hanna visited Uday’s office at the Iraqi Olympic Committee headquarters. After waiting for several hours, she was seized by three men who bound her, slipped a hood over her head, dragged her away to another room, and tied her, spread-eagled, on a bed. "Please – I’m like your sister," Hanna pleaded. "If our sister married an Indian, we would kill her," came the brutal reply. For several days, Hanna says, she was raped, tortured, and tormented with blasphemous taunts as she called out to God for help. After one particularly gruesome session, Hanna blacked out, only to awaken at Baghdad’s Loose Dogs Prison, "where the daily regimen comprised torture, rape, and a diet of green soup and one slice of bread," writes Solovitch. Hanna’s husband Anwar had also been arrested, and was being held in a cellblock roughly a hundred yards away, where he was routinely beaten and sodomized. Three years passed before the couple was released – but at the price of having Hanna’s mother sign over all of her property. In 2001, several years after the alleged events described above, Hanna sent her husband Anwar to sign the necessary documents for their children to attend school. He was purportedly arrested again, and confined to the same cellblock where he had been imprisoned for three years. Eventually his lifeless and mutilated body was "handed through the steel gate like a piece of butcher’s meat." Following the U.S. invasion, Hanna became a valuable intelligence asset to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which runs the U.S.-led occupation. "Her courage in coming forward to offer U.S.
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officials what is very likely credible information … is helping us to root out Ba’athists [officials of Saddam’s ruling party]," stated Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in testimony before a Senate committee. CPA officials awarded Hanna several medals of honor. Ultimately, occupation forces arrested nine Iraqi officers – including a general – on the basis of Hanna’s word alone. Telling a "Larger Truth"? Hanna’s story "became a defining parable in Washington of a world gone mad, in which dictators had been given license to terrorize their people without consequence," observes Solovitch. On July 21, 2003, with the insurrection beginning to coalesce and public support for the war beginning to cool off, the Washington Post featured Hanna in a front-page story headlined "A Lone Woman Testifies to Iraq’s Order of Terror." The problem was that everything about Hanna’s story is a lie. Esquire’s Solovitch, who came to regard Hanna as a hero, began to work on a biography of the Iraqi witness. To her chagrin, she learned that Hanna’s story was entirely fabricated. Hanna’s supposedly dead husband is alive and well. It was never against the law for an Iraqi to marry a non-Iraqi. While Hanna claimed to have earned an accounting degree from Oxford, she never attended Oxford, and the renowned college doesn’t offer an accounting degree. A site identified by Hanna as a "mass grave" proved to be utterly devoid of human remains. A gynecological exam conducted in Baghdad to verify Hanna’s account of long-term – and daily – rape and sexual abuse found no physical evidence to corroborate her story. According to Solovitch, Hanna responded by suddenly "remembering" that Dr. Said Hakki, the physician who performed the exam, had been "the very man who had signed the death certificates of her fellow inmates, writing that they had died of natural causes when they had obviously been executed or tortured to death." Occupation authorities, once again acting solely on Hanna’s testimony, denounced Dr. Hakki as incompetent and dismissed him. As it turns out, Hanna did indeed spent time in jail – as a prostitute, not as an innocent victim of Uday Hussein’s murderous whims. After arriving in the U.S., where she has been lavished with attention, given a luxurious home, and buried beneath generous financial gifts, Hanna continued to weave extravagant tales about her supposed experiences. Hanna’s profligacy and dishonesty alienated several charitable organizations that had offered her donations. Finally, Solovitch came to the conclusion that Hanna, rather than being a brave witness to horror, was a remarkably successful liar. What had first been "a nagging suspicion that Hanna was capable of exaggeration had become, after a month spent with her and reporting her story, a crippling doubt," Solovitch recalls. "Iraq, in the context of her amazing story, was an astonishment of cruelty. That is why her story was so terribly believable. She was telling a larger truth" – a "truth" that served the needs of the notoriously truth-aversive Bush administration. From Hoax to Hoax The Washington Post story describing Hanna’s fabricated atrocity stories came at a very propitious time for the Bush administration. In July 2003, misgivings about the administration’s rationale for war began to percolate in the press. Much of the discussion focused on the notorious "Sixteen Words" from Mr. Bush’s pre-war State of the Union Address: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
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The notorious "Sixteen Words" – which were the keystone in the administration’s case for war against Iraq -- were based on forged documents so transparently phony that an Italian tabloid declined an offer to publish them. This was known by the Bush administration well in advance of the 2003 State of the Union Address. With Iraq’s much-hyped WMD arsenal proving to be a chimera, and the "Sixteen Words" scandal prompting widespread criticism of the administration’s pre-war intelligence, the War Party seized on Hanna’s story in July 2003 as an irrefutable argument on behalf of a "humanitarian" invasion of Iraq. Hanna’s heart-wrenching account, pontificated Wall Street Journal cyber-flack James Taranto on July 21, 2003, offers "something more important than the Niger kerfuffle." Opponents of the war, particularly partisan liberal Democrats, "have to torture logic in order to justify their indifference to the torture of Iraqis like Jumana Hanna." During the 1990s, Taranto recalled, Clinton-aligned Democrats extolled the supposed merits of humanitarian military interventions, such as the invasion of Somalia (which actually began under Bush the elder), the occupation of Haiti, and the bombing of Serbia. "Now those same Democrats are complaining that the national-security justifications for liberating Iraq are phony," pouted Taranto. "They’re wrong, of course, but if they actually believe what they’re saying, they should be all the more supportive of the war," for humanitarian reasons. Of course, opposition to the invasion of Iraq is hardly synonymous with "indifference" regarding Saddam Hussein’s brutal treatment of his Iraqi subjects. Furthermore, many conservative opponents of the Iraq war also opposed military action in Somalia, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia, precisely because those missions did not involve national defense. But most importantly, Taranto sought to divert attention from the Niger uranium hoax by focusing it instead on Hanna’s fabrications. Syndicated columnist Ross MacKenzie deployed the same tactic in a July 24, 2004 essay. "Really, what is the Niger yellowcake issue all about?" asked MacKenzie, who dutifully maintained that the notorious "Sixteen Words" still "may be true." In any case, MacKenzie continued, "Bush’s desperate opponents, who deplored the enterprise to remove Saddam Hussein, have nothing else to nail him with but the thin reed of those 16 words." MacKenzie triumphantly pointed to Hanna’s confected tale of torture as "justification alone for Bush’s Operation Iraqi Freedom." Remember the "Incubator Babies"? As it turns out, Hanna’s atrocity porn was just as bogus as the administration’s pre-war talk about Iraqi "death drones" dispensing chemical and biological agents in U.S. skies, or Iraqi nukes reducing U.S. cities to rubble. This isn’t to say, of course, that Saddam’s regime didn’t do many horrible things, as do many other despotic governments around the world. But in building a case for war, the administration – following a time-honored strategy – wasn’t content to treat Saddam as a small-caliber thug who’s pretty typical of a nasty geopolitical neighborhood: Saddam and his regime had to be elevated to mythic status as a global aggressor and sadistic tyrant nonpareil. Just as Saddam owed much of his arsenal to Washington, his mystique as an avatar of Adolf Hitler is largely a product of Washington’s propaganda mill. Following Saddam’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the first Bush administration, in tandem with the Kuwaiti royal family (which was Saddam’s peer competitor in terms of official corruption and brutality) mobilized more than a score of PR firms and lobbying groups to indoctrinate the public into perceiving the Iraqi tyrant as nothing less than Hitler’s heir.
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The Washington-based PR firm Hill & Knowlton, under the leadership of Bush adviser (and former chief of staff) Craig Fuller, devised a remarkable "hook" for the propaganda campaign: a revolting story describing how invading Iraqi troops had torn newborn infants from hospital incubators and left them to die. "I volunteered at the al-Addan hospital," asserted a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl identified only as "Nayirah" during a meeting of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on October 10, 1990. "While I was there, I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where … babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die." Several weeks later, seven other "witnesses," who were also coached by Hill & Knowlton, offered similar accounts before the UN Security Council. A video produced by the PR agency was also shown to the Council, which issued an Article Seven resolution against Iraq – the world body’s equivalent of a declaration of war. It was on this basis that the first President Bush (and, for that matter, the second as well) claimed "authority" to attack Iraq, even without a congressional declaration of war. During the three-month build-up to Desert Storm, Nayirah’s account was endlessly recycled in forums ranging from talk radio to the UN Security Council. A post-war study of public opinion found that this accusation was the most potent weapon in the Bush administration’s campaign to enlist public support for the war. Christian Science Monitor columnist Tom Regan describes his brother’s reaction to the "incubator babies" story, which was quite representative of American public opinion at the time. "A pacifist by nature, my brother was not in a peaceful mood that day," Regan recalls. "`We’ve got to go and get Saddam Hussein. Now,’ he said passionately." "I completely understood his feelings," Regan continues. After all, "who could countenance such brutality? The news of the slaughter had come at a key moment in the deliberations about whether the U.S. would invade Iraq. Those who watched the non-stop debates on TV saw that many of those who had previously wavered on the issue had been turned into warriors by this shocking incident. Too bad it never happened." "Nariyah" was actually a member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family, daughter of Saud Nasir al-Sabah, Kuwait’s ambassador to the United States. Ambassador al-Sabah was in the audience as his daughter recited the story, which had been scripted by Hill & Knowlton. Following the war, independent human rights investigators failed to find a particle of evidence to confirm that horrifying story. The Kuwaiti-funded propaganda campaign was exposed in 1992 by Canada’s Fifth Estate television program. Asked about the allegations, Kuwaiti ambassador al-Sabah blithely replied: "If I wanted to lie, or if we wanted to lie … I wouldn’t use my daughter to do so, I could easily buy other people to do it." When al-Sabah’s daughter was similarly confronted about the lack of evidence to confirm her story, she said that she hadn’t actually seen the butchery, but had been told about it by a friend who had been there. The entire point of this exercise was to meet the need described by Hal Steward, a retired Army PR officer, prior to the first Gulf War. "If and when the shooting starts, reporters will begin to wonder why American soldiers are dying for oil-rich sheiks," warned Steward. "The U.S. military had better get cracking to come up with a public relations plan that will supply the answers the public can accept." Yellow Journalism
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There’s nothing new about a government demonizing a potential enemy in order to rally the public to a war. What is relatively new is the state’s ability to inundate the public in war propaganda. As historian Walter Karp pointed out in his 1979 study The Politics of War, that approach was pioneered during Washington’s campaign to wage war against Spain in the 1890s. Lurid accounts of Spanish atrocities in Cuba were retailed to the public by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst and kindred practitioners of "yellow journalism." But the wholesalers were a group of U.S.-supported Cuban rebels whose leaders had headquarters in New York City. The so-called "Army of Liberation of the Republic of Cuba" worked in tandem with key figures in the press and Congress to barrage the public with a ceaseless stream of stories depicting the Spanish authorities in Cuba as incomprehensibly inhumane. "How long are we to listen to the cries of outraged humanity that every southern breeze wafts across the straits that separate Cuba from Florida?" exclaimed Democrat Senator George Grey of Delaware in a typical pro-intervention speech. Republican Senator John Sherman of Ohio was in agreement: "The intervention of the United States must sooner or later be given to put an end to crimes that are almost beyond description." "I contemplate war at the end of any resolution that we pass," declared Senator John Morgan, an Alabama Democrat. He added the remarkable claim that "Spain has no legitimate right to hold the province of Cuba," but that the U.S. government had "a very peculiar relation … to the government and people of Cuba." That "peculiar relation" was supposedly rooted in Washington’s humanitarian duty to end Spanish atrocities in Cuba. In fact, that relationship was actually manifest in the tidal wave of bogus atrocity stories flooding the American press. After being immersed in anti-Spanish propaganda, the public was eager for war after the U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana harbor (an incident regarded as a terrorist attack at the time, but now known to be an accident). In the years leading up to World War I, British government, in all likelihood, studied Washington’s preSpanish War propaganda campaign, and applied the tactics used therein to prime the U.S. public to intervene in the European War. (This is ironic, given that – as Karp documents – War Hawks in Washington had tried to provoke a U.S.-British war in 1894 over a border dispute with Venezuela.) Shortly after going to war with Germany in August 1914, the British ship Telconia hauled up the key undersea telecommunications cables connecting Europe to the Western Hemisphere. All but one of them were severed; the remaining communications cable was cut a few months later. As a result, noted a New York Times story, "all word of happenings in Germany must pass through hostile countries – Russia on the east, France on the west, and England on the north." The consul general of Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary lamented to the Times: "The cutting of that cable may do us great injury. If only one side of the case is given … prejudice will be created against us here [in the U.S.]" That despairing remark, comments historian Thomas Fleming, was "one of the greatest understatements of the twentieth century." Belgian Babies on Bayonets? Within weeks of declaring war on Germany, notes Fleming, "the British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, put his friend and member of Parliament, Charles F. G. Masterman, in charge of propaganda." For that task, Masterman recruited the cream of Britain’s literary culture – from socialist H.G. Wells to arch-imperialist Rudyard Kipling. Denunciations of Germany coursed through the British press and were redistributed across the Atlantic through pro-British front groups. The most notable example of the latter was the Navy
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League, whose "members included dozens of major bankers and corporate executives, from J.P. Morgan, Jr. to Cornelius Vanderbilt." Another notable British propaganda organ was the National Security League, which "spent much of its time and energy echoing British propaganda handouts and warning of the danger of German `reservists’ operating under cover in the United States." In short order, blood-curdling accounts of unspeakable German atrocities began to flow through the AngloAmerican propaganda nexus. The Germans, recalls Fleming, were depicted as "monsters capable of appalling sadism": "Eyewitnesses described infantrymen spearing Belgian babies on their bayonets as they marched along, singing war songs. Accounts of boys with amputated hands (supposedly to prevent them from using guns) abounded…. Tales of women with amputated breasts multiplied even faster. At the top of the atrocity hit parade were rape stories. One eyewitness claimed that the Germans dragged twenty young women out of their houses in a captured Belgian town and stretched them on tables in the village square, where each was violated by at least twelve `Huns’ while the rest of the division watched and cheered. At British expense, a group of Belgians toured the United States telling these stories. Woodrow Wilson solemnly received them in the White House." In 1915, the British government tapped Viscount James Bryce, a notable historian, to head a commission to inquire into the validity of the anti-German atrocity stories. Unable to conduct an on-site investigation, and unwilling to name specific witnesses or victims, the Bryce Commission issued a report on May 13 "verifying" the atrocity stories. The report was hyped endlessly in both the British and U.S. press as "proof" of German bestiality – and to prepare the U.S. public to intervene in the war. Some prominent Americans found the British atrocity stories indigestible. One such was iconoclastic lawyer Clarence Darrow, who – unlike the Bryce Commission – went to France in an attempt to validate the stories of German brutality. "Increasingly dubious, Darrow announced that he would pay $1,000, a very large sum in 1915 … to anyone who could produce a Belgian or French boy whose hands had been amputated," writes Fleming. "There were no takers." "After the war," Fleming continues, "historians who sought to examine the documentation for Bryce’s stories were told that the files had mysteriously disappeared. This blatant evasion has prompted most historians to dismiss 99 percent of Bryce’s atrocities as fabrications. One called the report `in itself one of the worst atrocities of the war.’" An even greater propaganda atrocity was committed by London and Washington, and their media allies, in setting the stage for the sinking of the Lusitania, which resulted in the loss of 1,198 lives (including 128 Americans). At the time it was attacked by a German U-Boat, the passenger liner was laden with more than 4 million rifle cartridges and 1,250 cases of shrapnel shells, all of which was bound for England. Prior to the sinking, the German government attempted to place advertisements in several major U.S. newspapers warning Americans not to travel on the Lusitania; with Washington’s connivance, every newspaper but one refused the ad. Winston Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty, did everything he could to attract neutral shipping – including passenger ships – into the contested waters. "It is most important to us," wrote Churchill prior to the Lusitania disaster, "to attract neutral shipping to our shores in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany." The more neutral traffic in the region, the better, he observed: "If some of it gets into trouble, better still." For roughly two years, war agitators in the U.S. incessantly invoked the Lusitania, and they continued to do so after Congress declared war in April 1917.
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The Purpose of Atrocity Porn It’s true that Saddam Hussein’s reign was brutal, and that his treatment of political enemies sometimes displayed sadistic ingenuity. In similar fashion, it’s likely that Spanish General Valeriano Weyler, military ruler of Cuba in the 1890s, was a brutal autocrat. Imperial Germany was an aggressive power, but not notably more so than England or France. And Belgium’s imperial reign in the Congo had produced fictional horrors to rival any of the fictional atrocities conjured up by Charles Masterman. It should also be remembered that the totalitarian governments unleashed on the world after the "Great War" – especially Soviet Russia and National Socialist Germany – compiled a record of mass murder and state terror the likes of which could not have been imagined before World War I. It almost seems as if the Anglo-American war propagandists had written the first draft of the script followed by modern totalitarian governments. But it must not be forgotten that every government, our own not excepted, is capable of committing atrocities of that variety – if they are emancipated from law and permitted to consolidate power. War dissolves restraints on government power, and tends to concentrate power in the executive branch, whether headed by a monarch, president, or military leader. It also encourages the public deference that allows them to be committed in the people’s name – and helps catalyze the collective hatred that leads the public to embrace such crimes as a manifestation of justice. This is why the Founding Fathers, while understanding that just wars may need to be fought in defense of our liberty and national independence, sought to chain the dogs of war by vesting the war-declaring power in Congress, rather than the president. This isn’t a perfect solution; witness the fact that the SpanishAmerican War and U.S. involvement in World War I both followed constitutionally appropriate declarations of war by Congress. But the constitutional assignment of war powers is intended to make it difficult for our government to embroil our nation in unnecessary wars. But those constitutional mechanisms only work if sustained by an informed and morally serious electorate. Atrocity porn plays a critical role in the process of mobilizing mass hatred on the part of the state’s designs. Like its sexual equivalent, atrocity porn (especially, and obviously, in the case of stories describing rape and other sexual abuse) appeals to prurient interests to manipulate base impulses. In this case, the appetite being exploited is what Augustine called the libido dominandi – the lust for power. Once that appetite is aroused through atrocity porn, the consummation is usually a state-sanctioned orgy of bloodshed. The authors of atrocity porn also cynically exploit the predictable reactions it will provoke from decent people. Sometimes this can be accomplished through a selective – and obsessive – focus on outrages committed by a distant regime. And it’s certainly true that there is no shortage of genuine atrocities for the propaganda mill. This is why an obsessive focus on a specific regime – particularly one that, like Saddam’s Iraq, posed no plausible threat to the United States – should provoke immediate suspicion, rather than receiving immediate and unqualified support. All warfare is based on deception, including the crude and ephemeral deceptions embodied in atrocity porn. But war involves subtle deceptions, as well. The subtlest and deadliest is the idea that the state is conducting a war to protect the people from foreign enemies, rather than exploiting foreign conflicts to wage war on the rights and prosperity of the people.
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