I saw a photograph on the front page of the New York Times last year that chilled me. In the middleground of the shot, Iraqi children, some of them wearing baseball caps emblazoned with the names of American football teams, smiled shyly for the camera while they jostled each other for places in a short line. In the foreground, a large, white, male hand gripped a football. The caption said something typically dry about American soldiers teaching Iraqi children to play football.

I remember thinking what a cryptic photograph it was. Were we supposed to see the not-so-subtle imperialism of the moment–the implication that a military presence in Iraq not only made it safe for democracy but for America’s national sports as well? Were we supposed to take it literally–that the soldiers are kind of father-figure/playmates to the Iraqi kids? Or were we supposed to look at the photograph and not think–as I immediately did–of how much more gruesome it would be if they instead showed the children who weren’t lucky enough to have footballs thrown at them by the American military, but instead found themselves in the path of its bombs.

There’s nothing about the latest pictures from Iraq that requires an eye for symbolism. They are sick and disturbing before you apply any kind of analysis to them. And yet there is something oddly refreshing about photographs that depict so clearly, finally, the attitude the United States, and certainly each and every soldier who obeys its orders, must have toward Iraqis. It is the only attitude you can have toward other human beings in order to invade their country, rule over them, imprison them, abuse them, torture them and kill them by the thousands–that they are less than human. It’s perversely refreshing to see the whole attitude of the war summarized in a few photographs.

One of my favorite professors in college once began our class by asking what colonialism was. I raised my hand and gave some convoluted response about appropriating other people’s resources and denying them political agency. He thanked me politely and then read from a book about the Belgian colonization of the Congo. It was a description of how the Belgians had murdered the Africans who resisted their rule, and kept their hands in cans. Years later, storehouses full of cans were found, packed, floor to ceiling. When they were opened, inside were found human hands. Why would they commit such an atrocity, and if they did it, why would they leave such tangible evidence?

Colonists, you see, like to have souvenirs.

The only difference between now and then is that the colonists of the twenty-first century have digital cameras. Well, that’s not the only difference. In the last couple of centuries, it was acceptable to say that the people you were invading and killing were inferior, and that was why you could take their resources, treat them as slaves and eventually leave their nation in the kind of political and infrastructural vacuum that begets violence and suffering. Now, you have to accuse the people you want to colonize of being terrorists or claim to be bringing them freedom. It gets confusing–are they terrorists or are they victims? Are you there to lock them up or sell them McDonalds? You can’t say the people you’re invading and killing are inferior. Instead you have to say you’re “liberating” them while you take their resources and leave their nation in a political vacuum.

What happened in the prison is not an isolated atrocity. The war itself is the atrocity. The abuse of these prisoners is not separate from nor incidental to it. The American government has trained and ordered its soldiers to bomb, shoot and kill Iraqis, and now it is shocked and appalled that the soldiers are abusing Iraqis.

The American government and military grits its teeth and spouts the rhetoric of “just doing my job.” “Just following orders.” Or sometimes the rhetoric of hard choices–the “You want to make a democratic omlette, you gotta kill 10,000 Iraqis” theory. What they rarely admit–and what these pictures reveal–is that when you arm a young person and send her halfway around the world to kill, control, intimidate and humiliate, it’s not very hard for her to do. It comes naturally. She smiles for the camera. She wants a souvenir.

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