Feminist Review

, Volume 88, Issue 1, pp 164–167 | Cite as

Monstering: inside America's policy of secret interrogations and torture in the terror war and One of the guys: women as aggressors and torturers

  • Laleh Khalili
Book Review

Tara McKelvey, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 2007, 292p. +index; ISBN-978-0-78671-776-7, $25.95 (Hbk) One of the guys: women as aggressors and torturers Tara McKelvey, editor, Seal Press, Emeryville, CA, 2007, 266p.; ISBN 978-1-58005-196-5, $15.95 (Pbk)

In both the meticulously researched investigative report that is Monstering and in the edited volume written in anticipation of the former book, Tara McKelvey, a senior editor of and contributor to the liberal American Prospect magazine, is concerned with women in war and at war.

Images of female American soldiers giving the thumbs up over bloodied and tortured dead bodies of Iraqis, or smiling behind a pyramid of men forced into homoerotic poses, or holding a leashed Iraqi prisoner, starkly repulsed viewers in the first moment of visual impact and upon further examination illuminated the murky conjuncture between race, gender, and imperial power. The broad range of US-based authors, writing in the edited volume, grapple with these images and the stories they tell.

The authors in One of the Guys include academics, public intellectuals, feminist activists, and artists. This breadth means that the book includes both inspired pieces as well as somewhat weaker contributions that, in at least two instances, do not suit the topic.

Among the more thoughtful contributions, Jumana Musa's ‘Gender and Sexual Violence in the Military’ contextualizes women torturers in the ‘larger culture of gender devaluation and sexual aggression’ (p. 90). Laura Frost's ‘Photography/Pornography/Torture: The Politics of Seeing Abu Ghraib’ teaches us how to read the images from the prison as not just a ‘grotesque moment’ captured in an image that ‘subsume[s] the spotlight’ (p. 144) but as representative of a series of problematic social relations that include gender. Barbara Finlay's ‘Pawn, Scapegoat, or Collaborator? US Military Women and Detainee Abuse in Iraq’ uses the lens of gender and race to question militarism, and LaNitra Walker's ‘Women's Role in Mob Violence: Lynching and Abu Ghraib’ draws out the implicit similarities between Abu Ghraib and American lynching with startling and disquieting results. Among the best essays is Timothy Kaufman-Osborn's fantastic ‘Gender Trouble at Abu Ghraib?’, which persuasively takes Walker's argument further by illuminating the racialist tendency of American imperial practices.

The book also includes a few brief pieces by people ‘who were there’, Janis Karpinski who was in charge of the American military police at Abu Ghraib, and attorney Kristine Huskey who represents Guantánamo prisoners. Their contribution has the rawness of exposure at first remove to some of the characters in the ghastly drama of torture and torment.

But the book also includes pieces that don’t fit all too well. Some are too brief to develop an idea well, while others simply don’t belong. The interview with Eve Ensler is about a play written by Ensler, and the women torturers are treated therein only obliquely. The piece by Riva Khoshaba is shocking in its rehashing of the kinds of stereotypes about Muslim notions of gender, which are not all that different from the way the American culprits must have understood them. Finally, Erin Solaro's essay on women in the military could be interesting in other contexts, but its declaration that ‘in the midst of a highly questionable war, the United States has done something unprecedented and extremely positive’ by sending ‘more than 151,000 women to war as volunteer professional soldiers’ (p. 97) disturbs. After reading page after page about misogyny, homophobia, slaughter, dehumanization, and cruelty, are we to celebrate that now women are being sent to slaughter?

A striking character of the edited volume is the extent to which most of the authors seem to be responding to invisible audiences of right-wing talkshow hosts and reactionary political pundits. More than anything else, One of the Guys demonstrates the extent to which the mainstream debate in the US has shifted ground, forcing progressives to respond to racist and misogynist mass media ‘authorities’ simply in order to be able to defend women or the ‘other’. In some senses, the book grapples more directly with the US debates over feminism and gender rather than with the way gender fits in the confluence of race and imperial power. Angela Davis writes at some point that ‘people in power regardless of gender or race have this equal opportunity to inflict racist and sexist violence on others’ (p. 27). A more sustained meditation on the role imperial projections of power plays in such cruelty would have further strengthened an already interesting book, and deepened our understanding of why, how, and in what contexts women become torturers.

If the contributors to One of the Guys seem to be responding to the right-wing attacks, McKelvey's Monstering pulls no punches. An extraordinarily raw account of what went on in Abu Ghraib, the research and writing of the book was inspired by the other women in the bloody arena of war: the invisible, oft-forgotten, but much abused prisoners in Abu Ghraib. McKelvey set out to find out more about the rumours that indicated that in Abu Ghraib women had been targets of sexual assault, that they had been taken as hostages to induce their male kinfolk to turn themselves in, and that – fearing outrage – all evidence of this abuse was intentionally and systematically concealed by the Pentagon.

McKelvey conducts extensive interviews with soldiers, generals, contractors, lawyers, and most importantly, the prisoners in Abu Ghraib (and other US prisons in Iraq). The book reads fluidly and with a great deal of suspense. In the end, the question of what has happened to Iraqi women is resolved to some extent, but not entirely, which should be expected, given the dispersion of so many Iraqi victims, the massive obfuscation perpetrated by the US public relations and psychological warfare machinery, and by the simple fact that most of Iraq is unsafe to visit for American reporters, no matter how committed they may be to finding the truth about Abu Ghraib. Furthermore, the book reiterates the disheartening fact that the only Americans imprisoned for committing torture in Iraq were low-level soldiers whose deplorable actions occurred in a hallucinatory environment of massive bloodshed, absolute (and intentional) lack of military discipline, tacit and explicit inducement to torture by the military's higher echelons, and a pervasive culture of racism which dehumanized the Iraqi prisoners in the eyes of their American captors and jailers.

When read in conjunction with one another, what stands out about McKelvey's books is that even after the honourable efforts of a journalist who so obviously wants to provide a forum for the victims of American violence, ultimately the more visible women in her stories (and in the public imagination) are the American women who committed violence and torture. Castigated as whores, brutes, and symbols of degeneracy (allegedly encouraged by feminism), women like Lynndie England tend to overshadow the Iraqi victims of torture. The latter are still being targeted for violence in Iraq (at least three of McKelvey's Iraqi interlocutors have been killed since she interviewed them), they have to overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers of language, restrictions on their movements, incredulity of an American public who is unwilling to believe them and the intransigence of an American military who refuses to sentence their torturers to anything but derisory terms – if at all.

These Iraqi women often remain anonymous and invisible. Whether by choice – avoiding the dishonour and notoriety that might come with having been sexually assaulted – or through the sheer asymmetry of power and resources in which they are the disempowered party, most of us do not know these women's names or faces. And despite the valiant efforts of McKelvey and others like her to throw some light on their fates, one is left with the bitter conclusion that here and now, the subaltern victims of imperial violence have to overcome so very much only for their voices to be heard and their image to be brought to forestage.

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© Feminist Review Ltd 2008

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  • Laleh Khalili

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