The Propaganda Function of Torture

language of empire

The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media

by Lila Rajiva (2005 Monthly Review Press

Book Review

The Language of Empire is an examination of the Abu Ghraib scandal, from the perspective that the US military’s use of torture was primarily an instrument of terror (i.e. a military tactic intended to cause intimidation). In addition to outlining what actually happened at Abu Ghraib, Rajiva also chronicles the Senate Armed Services Committee investigation triggered when the scandal first broke in April 2004. However the book mainly focuses on the media coverage of Abu Ghraib and what it tells us about the highly sophisticated psychological strategies employed by Pentagon and Wall Street propagandists.

The Language of Empire begins with a detailed catalog of the different forms of torture employed against prisoners (who were for the most part civilian non-combatants) at Abu Ghraib, with particular emphasis on the rape of female prisoners (only reported by the Christian Science Monitor) and the sodomizing of Iraqi teenagers, both largely ignored by the mainstream media.

The third chapter is devoted to the Senate investigation. The investigation, in Rajiva’s view, was a whitewash allowing the Republican majority to scapegoat a few “bad apples.”  There should have been a thorough investigation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who had clearly mandated the use of torture in interrogations. Rajiva is also critical of Senate Democrats, who focused entirely on the legal paper trail and the Pentagon’s failure to keep Congress informed, rather than a diseased Pentagon culture that enabled the US to adopt torture as official policy.

Rumsfeld’s Corporatization of the Pentagon

Rajiva is extremely critical of Rumsfeld’s wholesale “corporatization” of defense and his consolidation of all Middle East intelligence and propaganda functions under the Pentagon. Of most significance, obviously, was contracting with private companies to provide military and intelligence functions. In addition to introducing the secrecy (and deniability) of the corporate boardroom into military operations, it simultaneously transferred major policy decisions from military professionals to civilians.

Torture as Psyops*

Although she deals briefly with the cultural use of forced nakedness, sexuality and homosexual role play, compounded by the global distribution of photos of Muslim men humiliated in this way, most of the book deals with the intended psyops function of Abu Ghraib coverage on the American public.

Rajiva explores two broad themes here. The first relates to deliberately orchestrating fear and confusion in the American public to increase their susceptibility to ideological propaganda. The second relates to the deliberate use of fragmented, highly emotive images and scenarios in the absence of historical or logical context.

According to Rajiva, in most Americans normal social interaction has been replaced with incoherent economic and biological drives reinforced by continual advertising messages to consume. Layered on top of this (in white males) are Invented “culture wars,” consisting of imagined threats from liberals, women, minorities and Islam.

All this is very effective in distracting the public from the real conflict, which is between corporate interests and the real needs of people and their communities. In addition to making them exquisitely vulnerable to manipulation by the Pentagon and corporate media, it deliberately encourages Americans to project their inner anxieties on frightening outsiders (i.e. Muslims).

Rajiva gives numerous examples in which the US media deliberately misrepresents Arab society as inherently violent, tribal and uncivilized. At the same time Islamic insurgents are made to appear as monstrous as possible by 1) exaggerating their alleged religious fundamentalism and negating their rational motivation (poverty and US occupation and atrocities) for their terrorist activities and 2) defining them as evil by nature, with subhuman descriptors (animals, insects, slime, etc).

She also describes a trick of logic played by government/media propagandists, whereby the US killing of thousands of civilians is “rational” because it’s (supposedly) accidental. In contrast acts of violence by militants are portrayed as “irrational” because they occur in response to genuine grievances.

*Psyops are tactics intended to manipulate one’s opponents or enemies, such as the dissemination of propaganda or the use of psychological warfare.

Lila Rajiva is a journalist and author residing in Baltimore. She has degrees in economics and English from India, as well as a Master’s degree from JohnsHopkinsUniversity, where she did doctoral work in international relations and political philosophy. She has taught at the University of Maryland, BaltimoreCounty. She blogs at http://mindbodypolitic.com/