‘Like a Dog!’ Humiliation and Shame in the War on Terror
This article examines the disturbing practice of torture and abuse in the “global war on terror”, focusing on the methods and motivations of the United States. Proceeding from the imaginary yet all-too-real world of Kafka and the Kafkaesque, it highlights the themes of humiliation and shame in the waging of this war, noting that the damage so caused is reciprocal and indivisible: “Whoever degrades another degrades me.” KEYWORDS: war, terror, torture, humiliation, shame,
“What are you after? Do you think you‟ll bring this fine case of yours to a speedier end by wrangling with us, your warders, over papers and warrants? We are humble subordinates who can scarcely find our way through a legal document and have nothing to do with your case except to stand guard over you for ten hours a day and draw our pay for it. That‟s all we are, but we‟re quite
capable of grasping the fact that the high authorities we serve, before they would order such an arrest as this must be quite well informed about the reasons for the arrest and the person of the prisoner. There can be no mistake about that. Our officials, so far as I know them, and I know only the lowest grades among them, never go hunting for crime in the populace, but, as the Law decrees, are drawn towards the guilty and must then send out us warders. That is the Law.
2 How could there be a mistake in that?” “I don‟t know this Law,” said K. “All
the worse for you,” replied the warder.
Kafka, The Trial (1925)
The “Global War on Terror” is nothing if not Kafkaesque. The very idea, a never-
ending, all-encompassing, worldwide sweep, seems to pay a kind of tribute to
Kafka and his demons. “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for
1without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.” The
arbitrary nature of the proceedings of The Trial corresponds eerily with the proceedings of the GWOT. “I forgot to ask you first what sort of acquittal you
want. There are three possibilities, that is, definite acquittal, ostensible acquittal,
2and indefinite postponement.” Anonymous functionaries (warders, whippers,
door-keepers, assessors) shield the prominents from direct contamination. Hand-
soiling in high office is inconceivable. Joseph K. never sees the Judge or locates
the High Court. He is allowed an Advocate, but the Advocate is also part of the
system. “So the Advocate‟s methods … amounted to this: that the client finally
forgot the whole world and lived only in hope of toiling along this false path until
the end of his case should come in sight. The client ceased to be a client and
became the Advocate‟s dog.” Rendition and subjection are spookishly prefigured.
The queasy combination of bureaucracy and depravity, a total envelopment at once
sinister and grotesque, foreshadows policy and practice at Guantánamo Bay, Abu
Ghraib, Bagram, and numberless other “facilities” in nameless other places, whose common denominator is the camp. “The camp is the space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the rule,” as Giorgio Agamben has observed.
“In the camp, the state of exception, which was essentially a temporary suspension
of the rule of law on the basis of a factual state of danger, is now given a
permanent spatial arrangement, which as such nevertheless remains outside the
3 Amnesty‟s “gulag of our times” comes to resemble Kafka‟s penal social order.”
colony, where the guiding principle is devastatingly simple: Guilt is never to be
4doubted. In the penal colony the prisoner is not told the sentence that has been
passed on him, or even if he has been sentenced at all. He learns it corporally, on his person. The commandment he is supposed to have disobeyed is inscribed on his
5body, in needlepoint, by an ingenious apparatus called the Harrow.
Corporal instruction, and corporal indignity, feature large in the catalogue of torture
and abuse perpetrated by the “alliance of values”, in Tony Blair‟s parlance, now
6copiously documented. Kafkaesque, however, embraces something more intimate
still. Beyond menace, Kafka‟s great subject is humiliation. In its infinite and exquisite variety, humiliation is instinct in his life and work. The damage is explored with
agonistic lucidity. Cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the
melancholy litany of the Convention against Torture, Kafka knew inside out.
In Kafka‟s world, humiliation takes canine form. The dog marks the degradation.
Thus the bizarre fate of the Advocate‟s client. Becoming a dog is a process of
voluntary or involuntary self-abasement. Kafka had an obsessive interest in small
animals, and in shrinking himself to be like them. He understood the terror of standing
upright, as he put it to his muse Felice Bauer, a terror shared by the abused of Abu
Ghraib. “The exact information you want about me, dearest F., I cannot give you,” he
wrote to her on another occasion. “I can give it to you, if at all, only when running
4 along behind you in the Tiergarten, you always on the point of vanishing altogether,
and I on the point of prostrating myself; only when thus humiliated, more deeply than
7 This image of humiliation haunts his fiction. “In the any dog, am I able to do it.”
Penal Colony” opens with an unforgettable portrait of the condemned man in chains,
held like a lead by his guard, as if to anticipate the grinning Lynndie England and the
cringing detainee, leashed and naked, known to the night shift as Gus. “In any case,
the condemned man looked so much like a submissive dog that one might have
thought he could be left to run free on the surrounding hills and would only need to be
8whistled for when the execution was due to begin.”
The collateral descendants of Kafka‟s warders and whippers seem to mimic his
obsessions. From the interrogation log of Detainee 063, aka Mohammed al-Qahtani,
the so-called twentieth hijacker, at Guantánamo:
11 December 2002
Detainee was reminded that no one loved, cared or remembered him. He was
reminded that he was less than human and that animals had more freedom and
love than he does. He was taken outside to see a family of banana rats. The
banana rats were moving around freely, playing, eating, showing concern for
one another. Detainee was compared to the family of banana rats and reinforced
that they had more love, freedom, and concern than he had. Detainee began to
cry during this comparison.
20 December 2002
Detainee offered water – refused. Corpsman changed ankle bandages to prevent
chafing. Interrogator began by reminding the detainee about the lessons in
respect and how the detainee had disrespected the interrogators. Told detainee
that a dog is held in higher esteem because dogs know right from wrong and
know to protect innocent people from bad people. Began teaching the detainee
lessons such as stay, come, and bark to elevate his social status up to that of a
9 dog. Detainee became very agitated.
The interrogation log is remarkably detailed – shamelessly detailed – but it does not make quite clear that the detainee was chained throughout, or that during the latter
session he was forced to perform this series of “dog tricks” while being led round the interrogation room on a leash. These were by no means the most offensive or invasive
techniques employed by the interrogators, as an official inquiry has revealed. Among
other ploys, the detainee was forced to stand naked in front of a female interrogator,
to wear women‟s underclothes, and to undergo repeated strip searches (allegedly
10cavity searches) as part of the interrogation. The detail, moreover, obscures the regime. Detainee 063 was held in isolation for some six months. During that time he
was regularly interrogated for 18-20 hours a day, starting at midnight, kept awake by
dripping water on his head or loud playing of Christina Aguilera music – “sleep
11adjustment” combined with prolonged sleep deprivation. After an episode of bradycardia (slow heartbeat) during the most intensive period of interrogation, his
condition gave sufficient cause for concern that he was hospitalized for observation.
Meanwhile other concerns were raised, sometimes from unlikely quarters. FBI agents
serving at Guantánamo went so far as to complain about “highly aggressive interrogation techniques”, noting that al-Qahtani exhibited behaviour “consistent with
extreme psychological trauma (talking to non-existent people, reporting hearing
12 voices, crouching in a cell covered with a sheet for hours on end)”.
All of the techniques employed in the interrogation of Mohammed al-Qahtani were
found to be legally permissible and officially authorized under the current
dispensation. Partly for this reason, multiple inquiries into interrogation practices and
detainee abuse have been reluctant to return findings couched explicitly in the
language of the Convention against Torture. The CAT may be the first casualty of the
GWOT. For a force for good, “torture” is as difficult a word as “genocide”. Following the bland evasions of the Administration – that as a matter of policy detainees are
treated “humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity,
in a manner consistent with the principles of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949” – inquirers have also been reluctant straightforwardly to acknowledge “inhumane”
13treatment. The most forthright to date is Major General Antonio Taguba, who was
tasked to investigate the conduct of the Military Police at Abu Ghraib, and who found
that “numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were
14inflicted on several detainees”. Seymour Hersh believes that Taguba, a Filipino-
American, was offended by what he saw. The “extremely graphic photographic
evidence” to which he refers in his report, it is now known, far exceeds the sample
disclosed in 2004 – dogs, hoods, electrodes and all – amounting to well over one
15thousand images and nearly one hundred video files of suspected detainee abuse. Taguba went further. “This systemic and illegal abuse of detainees was intentionally
perpetrated”, he declared, confronting the weasel arguments offered by tame
apologists: that the abuse was confined to rogue elements (“a few bad apples”), that it was not so heinous a crime (“Animal House on the night shift”), and that the purpose
7 was not to cause harm but to extract information (the lawyerly exculpation of
16 The Taguba Report will have none of this. “specific intent”).
Others have been more circumspect or less searching. Their struggle is played out in
the parsing of their reports. Allegations of abuse at Guantánamo were investigated by
Brigadier General John Furlow and Lieutenant General Randall Schmidt. In the
matter of Detainee 063, they concluded that “the creative, aggressive, and persistent interrogation … resulted in the cumulative effect being degrading and abusive
treatment”, a formulation twice repeated. There follows an awkwardly worded
concession – “this treatment did not rise to the level of prohibited inhumane
treatment” – and then a recommendation that the Guantánamo Commander “should
be held accountable for failing to supervise the interrogation … and should be
17admonished for that failure”.
Carefully circumscribed as it may be, the call for accountability is startling. No action
has more severely compromised the United States in its prosecution of the war on
terror than its inaction when faced with irrefutable evidence of American wrongdoing
(evidence gathered by its own internal inquiries): the conspicuous failure to trace
responsibility to its source and hold commanders and policy-makers to account. The
lack of accountability confirms the culture of impunity. Minimization aggravates
provocation, as surely as cover-up compounds scandal. Humiliation demands
expiation. The strongholds of certainty, inviolability, and “inherent power” – the
nexus of the Office of the Vice-President, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and
the Office of Legal Counsel – are above such considerations. The occupants of these
Offices brazenly add insult to injury, that is to say, heap humiliation on humiliation.
“Issues of senior official accountability” are passed like an unwanted parcel from
18 In most cases the very nature of the inquiry, inquiry to inquiry, and never addressed.
administrative investigations commissioned by army commanders in the field, directs
the focus down the chain of command rather than up, and caps the seniority of
19scrutiny at the rank of the investigating officer. Salami-sliced remits and tightly-
drawn terms of reference serve to delimit and defang, a strategy familiar from the
20serial inquiries into intelligence and weapons of mass destruction. Investigation after investigation pleads exhaustion (at Abu Ghraib, for example, one on Military Police,
followed by another on Military Intelligence); chronic redundancy prevails. Some
reports are parasitic on other reports. The Schmidt Report borrows from the Church
Report. The Church Report is patterned on the Schlesinger Report. The Schlesinger
Report synthesizes previous reports. Duplication and repetition contrive to blur the
outline and blunt the impact. And of course, for the practised hand, different tactics
are available. Findings can be rejected, or disputed, or ignored. Both the conclusion
and the recommendation of the Schmidt Report were summarily rejected by the
21officer who commissioned it. In a classic demonstration of the art, he argued that,
because the Guantánamo Commander had little experience of detainees before he
took charge, he should not be held accountable for every aspect of prison operations.
In the camp, everything is possible. Al-Qhatani and his cohorts found themselves in
an ethical, political and legal limbo. Agamben calls this bare life. Bare life is a fathomless existence of domination, degradation and dehumanization. “In the detainee at Guantánamo, bare life reaches its maximum indeterminancy”, he writes, a process
22exemplified in the deliberately indeterminate designation of its subjects. The nondescript “detainee” is wonderfully apt to the purpose. Even better is “Person
Under Control” (PUC), an expression originating in Afghanistan to replace Prisoner
of War (POW), after the President decided that the Geneva Conventions or at any rate
POW status did not apply there; it was carried over conveniently to Iraq. The
23 PUC is expression neatly dehumanizes, signifying less a person than an unperson.
pronounced puck, as in “fuck a PUC” (administer a beating). An inquiry conducted by
Human Rights Watch, based on the first-hand testimony of serving soldiers, found
that the PUCs held at Forward Operating Base Mercury, near Fallujah, were “fucked”
routinely, by anyone who pleased. They were also “smoked”, under the specific direction of Military Intelligence. “Smoking” referred to forced physical exertion,
sometimes to the point of unconsciousness, accompanied by food, water and sleep
deprivation. Smoking was central to the interrogation system in operation at the base.
As one soldier put it: “[The Military Intelligence officer] said he wanted the PUCs so
fatigued, so smoked, so demoralized that they want to co-operate.” In short, they were tortured, almost daily, over an eight-month period from September 2003 to April
Once introduced, torture is more readily accepted than admitted. Normalization is
easy and insidious. Detainee 063 was a special case, but the techniques employed
against him soon passed into general use. The Special Interrogation Plan for
Mohammed al-Qahtani was approved in advance by the Secretary of Defense, Donald
Rumsfeld, for a “high-value” detainee who had resisted the standard techniques for
months on end, and who was believed to possess “actionable intelligence” – the
25interrogator‟s holy grail – which might prevent further attacks on the United States.
The strategy was to establish and maintain total control, an objective straight out of
Army Field Manual 34-52, Intelligence Interrogation (1992), the fundamentals of
10 military doctrine. At least one official inquiry has suggested that the precepts set
down in the widely used (but significantly revised) 1987 version of the manual may
have been open to abuse by the untrained:
The interrogator should appear to be the one who controls all aspects of the
interrogation to include the lighting, heating, and configuration of the
interrogation room, as well as the food, shelter, and clothing given to the source.
The interrogator must always be in control, he must act quickly and firmly.
However, everything that he says and does must be within the limits of the
Geneva and Hague Conventions, as well as the standards of conduct outlined in
26the UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice].
The techniques embodied in the Special Interrogation Plan were applied to that end.
Each had its rationale, expressed in the elementary psychology of FM 34-52. They
27centred on “Pride and Ego Down” and “Futility”. But they contained an additional element: “Increasing Anxiety by Use of Aversions”, specifically, bringing a military working dog (MWD) into the interrogation room and ordering it to growl, bark, and
bare its teeth at the detainee. The dog, like the detainee, was on a lead. The teeth were
for show – this time – but the threat was for real. The image of humiliation appeared
before him, large as life, unmuzzled. It was illicit, but easily justified (“exploiting
individual phobias”). Crude notions about Arab fear of dogs and Muslim sense of
shame mark the limits of cultural understanding. The war on terror is a war of mutual
incomprehension, a war of tribes, with something of the primitive about it. As the
captors strip the captives of their dignity, insult their mothers, and profane their
religious books, so the captives mock the captors in terms the latter cannot begin to