Joanna Bourke: Torture as Pornography

Roundup: Historians' Take

Joanna Bourke, professor of history at Birkbeck College London and author of An Intimate History of Killing (Granta), in the Guardian (May 7, 2004):

A woman ties a noose around a naked man's neck and forces him to crawl across the floor. Uniformed people strip a group of hooded men, then laboriously assemble them into a pyramid. Men are forced to masturbate and simulate fellatio. In the past few days, we have all participated in the pornographic gaze. The sight of wide-eyed, grinning young men and women posing in front of their stripped and degraded captives has proved profoundly shocking. These snapshots tell us more than we may perhaps want to know about our society's heart of darkness.

This festival of violence is highly pornographic. The victims have been reduced to exhibitionist objects or anonymous "meat". They either wear hoods, or are beheaded by the camera. The people taking the photographs exult in the genitals of their victims. There is no moral confusion here: the photographers don't even seem aware that they are recording a war crime. There is no suggestion that they are documenting anything particularly morally skewed. For the person behind the camera, the aesthetic of pornography protects them from blame.

Indeed, there is a carnivalesque atmosphere to the photographs. The perpetrators of this sexual violence are clearly enjoying themselves. The cliche "war is hell" takes on a chilling new vigour in these images. After all, these photographs are not "about" the horrors of war. Many, if not most, are part of a glorification of violence. There is no question that many of these snapshots were taken by people who were pleased by what they were seeing. Or what they had done. They are trophies, memorialising agreeable actions.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, for some of these Americans, creating a spectacle of suffering was part of a bonding ritual. Group identity as victors in an increasingly brutalised Iraq is being cemented: this is an enactment of comradeship between men and women who are set apart from civilian society back home by acts of violence. Their cruel, often carnivalesque rites constituted what Mikhail Bakhtin called "authorised transgression". After all, there is some evidence to suggest that more senior military personnel were aware of what was happening in the prison but turned a blind eye to it, accepting abuse as necessary either in intelligence-gathering or in providing a safety valve for panicky individuals living in a country that was turning increasingly hostile.

Furthermore, the pornography of pain as shown in these images is fundamentally voyeuristic in nature. The abuse is performed for the camera. It is public, theatrical, and elaborately staged. These obscene images have a counterpart in the worst, non-consensual sadomasochistic pornography. The infliction of pain is eroticised.

It is important, however, not to see these sadistic images as unique. After all, torture and sexual violence are endemic in wartime. In the past, as now, military personnel tend to simply accept that atrocities, including sexual ones, will take place. As one British colonel admitted during the first world war: "I've seen my own men commit atrocities, and should expect to see it again. You can't stimulate and let loose the animal in man and then expect to be able to cage it up again at a moment's notice."


The display of cruel pleasure taken in punishing Iraqi prisoners has reverberated throughout the world, confirming in many countries the negative stereotype of westerners as decadent and sexually obsessed. Many people have questioned the motives and conduct of the war in Iraq, but these pornographic images have stripped bare what little force remained in the humanitarian rhetoric concerning the war. In the Arab world, the damage has been done, and is irrevocable.

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Lisa Kazmier - 5/8/2004

What does this have to do with the alleged cruelty of the antiwar movement? You also obviously forget that there is an identification problem that works against your analogy People sympathize and affix themselves to Christ's passion. That is not the case here. Pornography is about objectifying the suffer; where does Christ have a bag over His head? The rest of your agenda makes sense perhaps only to you.

Clare Lois Spark - 5/8/2004

Joanna Bourke's argument would be more helpful were she to have analyzed the eroticizing of pain and suffering throughout many historic cultures. Consider for instance the joyous reception to Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ.
The pursuit of happiness is still a vanguard ideal, while gentleness, optimism, and humanitarianism is often associated with sentimental women. Sadly, the antiwar movement too often indulges in the kind of cruelty and masochism that Bourke ostensibly criticizes from a higher moral plane.