Gendering Abu Ghraib

abu-ghraibNancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale argue that to understand ISIS, you have to understand Abu Ghraib. And if you want to understand Abu Ghraib, you have to look through the lens of gender.

In the spring of 2004, a few dozen photos were leaked to the media showing American soldiers abusing inmates at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. One photo, of a hooded man, has become iconic. All the photos were shocking, and there was an outcry. Eight American prison guards were court martialled for mistreating prisoners. The highest ranking defendant was a corporal. Three of them were women. Seven of the eight were sentenced to prison. No officer, no sergeant, no interrogator, and no CIA agent was punished.


The sociologist Ryan Ashley Caldwell worked as a research assistant to an expert witness for the defense at the court martial of Sabrina Harman. Caldwell’s Fallgirls: Gender and the Framing of Torture at Abu Ghraib is a harrowing and important book.[1] Caldwell takes much the same approach to gender that we have on this blog. She does not start by looking at women, or men, or LGBT people. Instead, Caldwell looks at gender as an aspect of all social relations. She asks question after question about knitting, makeup, tattoos, lovers, homosexuality, underwear, women prisoners, toilets, women officers, masturbation, skin, writing, phone calls, who holds the leash, who takes the pictures and who becomes the scapegoat.

The answers to her questions about gender tell us much we could find out in no other way. They shine light into hidden horror. They tell us something important about the US military, and something important about ISIS.

Gender, Caldwell says, is not an identity. Gender is something we perform all day long, all the time, in every word and gesture. In that performance we try to occupy the highest place we can in an unequal world, or to challenge that hierarchy, or both. Gender is always and all the time about power. The more unequal any relationship, the more the gender inequalities will be marked. Abu Ghraib prison was terrifying and unequal, and torture is always all about bodies. That is why everything in the prison was saturated with sexuality, and gender was heavily marked.

Sabrina Harman
On October 20, 2003, Sabrina Harman wrote an email from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq to her partner Kelly Bryan back home in the States. Harman was a military police woman in the US Army. She was working night shift as a guard in the prison. Part of her job was softening up prisoners at night before their interrogation and torture the next day. This is the full text of her email:


Okay I don’t like that anymore. At first it was funny but these people are going too far. I ended your letter last night because it was time to wake the MI [Military Intelligence] prisoners and “mess with them” but it went too far even I can’t handle whats going on. I cant get it out of my head. I walk down the stairs after blowing the whistle and beating on the cells with an asp [baton] to find “the taxi driver” handcuffed backwards to his window with his underwear over his head and face. He looked like Jesus Christ. At first I had to laugh so I went and grabbed the camera and took a picture. One of the guys took my asp and started “poking” at his dick. Again, I thought, okay that’s funny then it hit me, that’s a form of molestation. You can’t do that. I took more pictures now to “record” what is going on. They stated talking to this man and at first he was talking “I’m just a taxi driver, I did nothing.” He claims he’d never try to hurt US soldiers that he picked up the wrong people. Then he stopped talking. They turned the lights out and slammed the door and left him there while they went down to cell 4. This man had been so fucked that when they grabbed his foot through the cell bars he began screaming and crying. After praying to Allah he moans a constant short Ah, Ah, every few seconds for the rest of the night. I don’t know what they did to this guy. The first one remained handcuffed for maybe 1 ½ – 2 hours until he started yelling for Allah. So they went back in and handcuffed him to the top bunk on either side of the bed while he stood on the side. He was there for a little over an hour when he started yelling again for Allah. Not many people know this shit goes on. The only reason I want to be there is to get the pictures to prove that the US is not what they think. But I don’t know if I can take it mentally. What if that was me in their shoes. These people will be our future terrorist. Kelly, it’s awful and you know how fucked I am in the head – Both sides of me think its wrong. I thought I could handle anything. I was wrong.


In the next few weeks Harman took a lot of photos to record what was going on. The other guards starting taking snaps on their digital cameras too. This was before cameras on phones. Between them, they took 16,000 photos, of which only a few dozen have been released. Everyone presumes many of the still secret photos are worse.

We have decided to include only one of the photos in this post, because the content is disturbing enough. This footnote tells you how to find them. [3]

Working at Abu Ghraib
Harman’s email to her partner was sent six months after the US invaded Iraq. The American military had taken over Abu Ghraib, one of Saddam’s prisons. The new prison was chaotic. The night shift had a constant problem with lighting. The Americans had not fixed the national electricity grid their bombing had destroyed. Everything in the US military was neoliberal, contracted out and corrupt.

There were supposed to be generators to produce electricity on site, but they did not work, and were not repaired, and the fuel supplier never came. Many nights the Americans lined up all the army trucks to face the main block of the prison and left the engines running and the lights on. There was no other light inside the prison at night.

There were similar problems with the portable toilets. The company with the contract to empty them did not come, and they overflowed. Guards and the prisoners shat where they could.

The guards lived in prison cells – the Pentagon was saving money. There was a large area outside the main block, but within the fence. There were tents holding less serious prisoners. Rodents lived there, and packs of wild dogs. There were no wild dogs inside the main block, only American army dogs authorized to bite the prisoners. (There is a photo of Harman sewing up one of the bites.)

The sheds where the interrogation and torture happened were outside the main block. Military intelligence worked there. So did what everyone called OGA – other government agencies. Sometimes this was a euphemism for the CIA. But there were at least ten other US intelligence agencies involved, and lots of civilian contractors, so the American guards could not keep track of who was who. Some civilian contractors and CIA liked wearing uniforms, and some military intelligence were in civvies. The guards did not know what the lines of command were.

The guards’ job was to look after the prisoners when they were not out in the sheds being tortured. The guards had to keep some prisoners awake all night so they would be more vulnerable during torture the next day. But mostly the guards were just trying to control the prisoners. Because the Pentagon was saving money, there was usually about one American guard on shift for every 150 to 200 prisoners. Meanwhile, the area around Abu Ghraib was largely controlled by the resistance, which sometimes shelled the prison. The guards heard gunfire and explosions many nights.

The job was also a bit unreal. The prisoners were called detainees, because if they were prisoners either the Geneva Convention or Iraqi law would have to apply. They had been picked up in sweeps by US troops. Everyone involved knew the great majority of the prisoners were not part of the resistance. But someone had to be tortured, so someone was.

Caldwell attended two of the court martials. She noticed that witnesses kept mentioning the women and children in the cells. But no one ever asked what those women were doing there. If they had asked, Caldwell says, someone would have had to say. So no one asked.

Caldwell does, in her book. She knows the women and children were not detainees, or prisoners. They were housed in cells interspersed among the men’s cells. They had been picked up in sweeps by the American military, alongside the men, often from their homes. So many of the men and women were related. The women and children were not assigned numbers at Abu Ghraib, and there was no paper work on them.

Javal Davis was one of the guards court-martialled. He told the journalist Philip Gourevitch: ‘If we can’t get the insurgent leader, we took their kid. “OK, Akbar, I have your son – your son is in jail, turn yourself in, and we’ll let your son go.” I call that kidnapping, but that’s what we did.’[4]

The youngest child in the prison was ten years old, Harman said: ‘A little kid, he could have fit through the bars he was so little.’[5]

There is another possibility that Caldwell does not mention. Megan Ambuhl, another of the guards who was court martialled, spoke to the journalist Philip Gourevich:

She told the story of a prisoner on Tier 1A – one of Saddam’s former generals – whose son was being held in one of the tented camps: ‘They brought his son in from the outdoor area, and they explained to him that he couldn’t say anything, and threatened him: “Just stand there.” Then they pulled the general out of his cell with a hood on and walked him up to the cell where his son was. They took the hood off, so he could see that his son was there, and then they put it back on and took him away, and they were just gonna use the fact that they had his son, and he knew it.’ It was Ambuhl’s understanding that this practice was one of the more effective ways to make prisoners talk.[6]

It is possible that things went further. The New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersh was one of those who broke the story of Abu Ghraib. His contacts in the military and intelligence are very good. Speaking at a meeting hosted the American Civil Liberties Union in New York in 2004, Hersh became upset and said:

Some of the worst things that happened you don’t know about, okay? Videos, um, there are women there. Some of you may have read that they were passing letters out, communications out to their men. This is at Abu Ghraib … The women were passing messages out saying ‘Please come and kill me, because of what’s happened’ and basically what happened is that those women who were arrested with young boys, children in cases that have been recorded. The boys were sodomized with the cameras rolling. And the worst above all of that is the soundtrack of the boys shrieking that your government has. They are in total terror. It’s going to come out.[7]

Hersh later said that his remarks had been taken out of context. He also said that he stood by every detail of what he wrote, but not necessarily what he said. It is possible he was exaggerating under stress. It is also possible that he had been told these things as deep background, not for attribution. In his subsequent book Chain of Command, all Hersh would commit himself to in print was that one of the translators at the prison had raped a child in front of it’s mother.

Caldwell also asked why Harman wrote ‘rapist’ on one of the prisoners. Harman explained that they wrote on the prisoners naked bodies all the time. The records were utterly chaotic, Harman explained. No one was keeping track, and the prisoners were naked all the time. So the guards wrote a lot of information on the prisoners bodies just so they would know the basics of who they were dealing with.

Why were the prisoners naked? One reason was they didn’t have any clothes. The army took away their clothes when they were arrested, and then no one supplied them with prison uniforms. Captain DiNenno kept asking his superiors for orange uniforms, as it was getting really cold with winter coming on, but by early November there were still not enough uniforms.

Another reason the prisoners were naked was that there were Iraqi civilian guards working in the prison too. They were left over from when it was a civilian prison. The Americans did not trust the civilian guards, who did not have uniforms, which meant the Americans could not tell the guards from the prisoners. It was safer to keep the prisoners naked.

But none of this goes any way to explaining the panties. Caldwell asked Harman about that:

Caldwell: Why in the world were there so many women’s panties at Abu Ghraib? I mean, there are in so many photos and they are continually referred to at the trials. What is going on here with women’s panties?

Harman: The panties were there when we got there so I have no idea. Getting supplies for the prisoners was not easy. Soap, shoes, towels, Korans, you name it, it was hard to have the amount needed for all prisoners that kept piling up. I don’t think they ordered them to put them on the heads of prisoners, but then again you never know.[8]

But that is what they used the panties for. Sometimes they kept the men naked with their own underwear tied on their heads. But mostly the guards tied women’s panties on their heads. They sent soldiers into Baghdad to buy the panties. This was to humiliate the prisoners, but of course it was also exciting for some of the guards.

Later, when they finally began to get uniforms for the prisoners, the Americans gave them panties to wear as underwear. One of the things Caldwell notices is that they gave the women in the cells men’s boxer shorts at the same time. Maybe this was just because they had run out of women’s underwear from the Px, or wherever they were getting it from.

Caldwell asks about nicknames. The iconic photograph of torture at Abu Ghraib (above) shows a man in a hood, standing on a box, his arms spread, with electrodes attached to his fingers. This was done so he would stand all night without sleep before his interrogation the next day. The guards called him ‘Gilligan’. This was after the goofy, but affable, main character in the old TV comedy Gilligan’s Island. The prisoner got the nickname because he was friendly and helpful to the guards. He was desperately eager to please.

Caldwell also asked how ‘Shitboy’ got his name. Harman explained:

Shitboy, I think he was not crazy but wanted people to believe he was so he could get sent out of Abu Ghraib. He would smear poop on everything. Poop sculptures. Poop art on the mattress. Poop in bottles. Throw poop at prisoners. I caught him one day making a picture on his mattress with a turd and he looked and smiled at me and he had it in his hand. He heard [Sergeant] Snider coming and he motioned like he was going to throw it at him when he got to his cell. I said, ‘No, he will kill you please don’t do it.’ Snider got to the cell and he put the turd down and smiled at me. That’s the day I knew he was acting. He knew better.[9]

Harman was not using a figure of speech. Had he thrown the turd, she expected Sergeant Snider would kill the man.

Four days after Harman wrote the email we quoted at the beginning of this post, there was a ‘riot’. Several men in the cells protested about the food. The guards knew the food was often inedible. Again, this was corruption on a contract. Many nights the guards gave the prisoners American army rations (MREs). But first the guards had to pick out all the pork and bacon, for religious reasons, and all the Tabasco sauce, in case it was used to make a weapon. All this was very time consuming, though, and the army hierarchy kept telling the guards not to use the MREs in this way. So that night there was a protest about food.

Some guards dragged several protestors to the center of the tier. They were forced to make a pyramid of bodies, bound and naked, writhing on top of each other. The guards punched them hard, ran their heads into the wall, and then forced them to masturbate. The guards took a lot of pictures.

Matthew Wisdom, another guard, arrived on the tier a bit later:

When I arrived, I saw one prisoner on his knees with his mouth open, and another prisoner masturbating with his penis in the prisoner on his knees’ face. Both of the prisoners were entirely naked. … Sergeant Frederick … turned towards me and said, ‘See what these animals do when we leave them alone for two seconds.’[10]

Harman went off for an hour while this was happening and made a long phone call to Kelly back in the States.

The next morning Harman wrote Kelly:

Something bad is going to happen here. I’m leaving to come home in about 3 ½ hours. I’m not sure how I feel. I have a lot of anxiety… I hate to be so scared. I hate anxiety. I hate the unknown… We might be under investigation. I’m not sure, there’s talk about it… I just don’t think it’s right and never have that’s why I take the pictures to prove the story I tell people. No one would believe the shit that goes on. No one. The dead guy didn’t bother me, I even took a picture with him doing the thumbs up … they said the autopsy came back ‘heart attack’. It’s a lie. The whole military is nothing but lies. They cover up too much. This guy was never in our prison. That’s the story… If I want to keep taking pictures of those events – I even have short films – I have to fake a smile every time. I hope I don’t get into trouble for something I haven’t done. I’m going to try to burn [copy] those pictures and send them out to you while Im in Kuwait – Just in case.

I love you and I hope to see you in the next day –

Your wife –


The whistle blower
Sergeant Ken Davis was part of making the photos public. Every morning at Abu Ghraib, Sergeant Davis went up on the roof and prayed: ‘God, do me a favor today. Make sure my soldiers make it home alive. Make sure that I don’t have to kill anybody here. And just make sure my family gets to see me again. That’s all I ask.’

Every evening he went back to the roof and said, ‘Thank you, God, for answering my prayers today, even though I don’t deserve it.’

One morning he forgot to pray. He was driving a Humvee, escorting another vehicle taking fourteen prisoners to court when a bomb went off, probably a car bomb. Davis drove his Humvee to an American outpost. When he got there he realized he had left the prisoners behind, and went back:

The Iraqi prisoners were all in a heap there, unable to untangle themselves on account of the handcuffs… A few had shrapnel coming out of their chests. As the MPs pulled them apart, one of the prisoners pleaded, ‘Help my friend, help him.’ His friend was lying under him with part of his head gone.[12]

Sergeant Davis put his sunglasses, looked up at the sky  and started screaming at God.

Sergeant Davis and Specialist Joseph Darby eventually blew the whistle on the abuse. Davis was persistent – he went to his congressman, and gave photos to the media.

The army had to do something. So they court martialled eight guards.

The court martial
Harman was court martialed for mistreating prisoners two years later, there were many elephants in the room. Harman’s wife Kelly Bryan was one of them. Bryan testified, not in the regular trial, but in the sentencing hearing. There was a lot of evidence about emails, phone calls, and how Bryan kept Harman’s letters by her bedside in a special box. No one mentioned that the two women were partners.

Caldwell asked Harman how the other soldiers in her unit treated her in Iraq. It was ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ in the US army then. But soon after she arrived in Iraq, Harman’s commanding officer took her aside. He said that her girlfriend was really hot – a way of saying he knew and approved. All the other guards she worked with closely knew too, and none of them made her feel bad.

The army brass was different. The soldiers who attended or testified at Harman’s court martial all told Caldwell privately that the brass were killing ‘two birds with one stone’. They could have a scapegoat for the photos, and they could get rid of a lesbian from the army.

The dead guy
The ‘dead guy’ Harman mentions in her email was another elephant in the room at the court martial. The photograph of Harman with the corpse in ice is the most disturbing of the photos that had already become public at the time of her trial. Harman is smiling happily, giving a thumbs up to the camera, her head right next to his. His face is emaciated, and full of suffering.

The photo was the strongest evidence they had against Harman. But the prosecutors did not use it. Caldwell thinks it was because if they had produced the photo at the court martial, someone might have asked how the man died.

In fact he had been brought in the day he died. A CIA man had him taken into the shower and hung him up there with his arms out above his head. The guards called this the ‘Palestinian hanging position.’ They left the man in the shower, and when they came back he was dead.

Harman came, saw, and had her picture taken with her thumb up. According to Gourevitch:

Later that evening, Harman returned to the shower with Frederick to examine the body more carefully. This time, she looked beneath the ice and peeled back the bandages, and she stayed out of the pictures. ‘I just started taking photos of everything that was wrong, every little bruise and cut,’ she said. ‘His knees were bruised, his thighs were bruised by his genitals. He had restraint marks on his wrists. He just had bruises everywhere. You have to look close. I mean, they did a pretty good job of cleaning him up… I just wanted to document everything I saw. That was the reason I took photos. It was to prove to pretty much anybody who looked at this guy, Hey, I was just lied to. This guy did not die of a heart attack.’[13]

Had the prosecution produced the photo of Harman smiling, she would have said that in court, and might have produced her photos of the body.

Harman assumed he was beaten to death. There is another possibility. The Palestinian hanging position closely resembles crucifixion, which kills by asphyxiation. In early November 2003, while all this was happening, Mark Swanner and other CIA agents at Abu Ghraib killed a detainee named Manadel al-Jamadi by keeping him in a ‘crucifixion-like pose’. The US Defense Department did an autopsy and ruled it homicide. No one was punished. The immediate cause of death was asphyxiation, which is also how Jesus died. Swanner was not punished in any way, nor were any of the people involved in at least four other detainee deaths at Abu Ghraib at the same time.[14]

Another thing Caldwell notices is how much time Captain Patsy Takemura spent on her makeup. Takemura was one of the two attorneys for the defense at Harman’s court martial. She was good looking, in a cute way, the only woman in the whole long story to wear a skirt as part of her army uniform. During breaks in the trial she spent a lot of time ostentatiously fixing up her makeup in the well of the court.

Why? Caldwell’s answer is that Takemura was a good lawyer. As part of the defense, Takemura had to explain why Harman had taken so many photographs to record what was happening, without ever telling her superior officers. So Takemura asked many soldiers who testified during the trial if they had been afraid at Abu Ghraib.

All those men said yes, they had been afraid in Abu Ghraib. Nowhere else in all the court martials did any man admit he was afraid. But they told Takemura, with her gentle femininity and her careful cosmetics.

Takemura did not go on to ask them what they were afraid of. But in context it is clear. They were afraid that if they reported what was going on, they would be killed. They were afraid of their officers, the sergeants, and the Other Governmental Agencies.

Caldwell also asked Harman about her tattoos:

My first one was when I came home on leave in November 2003 and it’s of me in a straitjacket with tape over my mouth and my eyes wide open, meaning I can’t talk about what I was seeing. The next one I got during my trial was the bad apple. Thanks Bush!

(Most of the eight defendants in the trials got bad apple tattoos to protest the army’s insistence that the problem was a few bad apples.) Harman continues:

A skull with tape over the eyes, means trying to forget what I saw. Another is two girls facing each other hiding knives their backs, meaning don’t trust. And two angels, one protecting the other, it’s not finished yet. Also a puppet (me) in a prison suit with my jail number hanging from a string controlled by a hand, which is the government. And a peace dove riding a missile with the Iraq colors. Oh, and I did have a tattoo of Saad (Gilligan) on a box but I just had it covered with a gas mask because I didn’t want people asking what it was.[15]

Caldwell calls attention to how much ‘homo-eroticism’ there was in the abuse. This is important, though we would put it a bit differently. We don’t think it is so much that the prisoners were men, as that they were naked helpless human bodies. The excitement among the guards was probably mostly simply erotic. We don’t need to fit it into a box, a particular labelled kind of sexuality.

There is an important analytical point here, which we will return to in later posts. Human sexuality is endlessly fluid and social. Intense feelings have sexual aspects. Sexual violence is about terrifying people, about control, and about enforcing order. But it is also about sex.

One point that Caldwell does not make is that day after day the women and children in the cells saw the naked men with the underwear on their heads, and heard the screams through the night.

Love and need
Harman said that Corporal Graner ordered her to be in the photo with the corpse. Corporal Graner also ordered Private Lynndie England to pose for other pictures. One time he handed her the leash on a naked prisoner. The man was on all fours. Graner took the photo. He was sleeping with England, and she was in love with him. She was needy, and romantic, and had his child soon after they came home. Then he left her. She was pleased and hopeful when she learned Graner was going to testify at her court martial. But he walked right past her at the end of his testimony, without once looking at her.

Caldwell says the army officers were furious with England because some of the still secret photos showed her making love with Graner. The officers thought she was a slut.

One of the great strengths of Caldwell’s book is that she takes the side of the Iraqi prisoners against the army, and the side of the American guards against their officers.

There is much more in Caldwell’s book, and much wisdom about gender. Read it.

But let’s step back a moment and think about the implications. First, except for the detainee deaths, none of the things we have talked about were part of the official torture in the sheds. The stuff we have talked about was not the bad stuff. And Caldwell writes that one of the most disturbing moments for her was when she realized in 2005 that the torture was still going on in American prisons all over Iraq, and would continue until the Americans left.

Second, the torture was not about gaining information. Everyone knew that the large majority of those tortured had done nothing. Abu Ghraib, and all the other raids and prisons, were about terrifying a population.

Third, Harman was right that the prisoners were tomorrow’s terrorists. Very large numbers of Iraqis went through the American gulag. They will have learned hatred, both for the Americans and for those Iraqis who collaborated with them – the officials of the current government of Iraq.

There is also a striking similarity in style between the American theatre of cruelty and ISIS today. In both cases, the cruelty is saturated with markers of gender, and with modern technology. But while the Americans took photos that remind the viewer of Facebook snaps and internet porn, ISIS now uses more video.

Finally, at the time of writing it looks likely that American troops will return to Iraq in the spring or summer of 2015, bringing with them again torture and rape.

After she got out of prison, Sabrina Harman was in a bar with her partner. A women came up to her said, trying to be supportive, that all those prisoners in Iraq deserved what they got. Harman started crying and could not stop.



[1] Ashgate, London, 2012. Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris, 2008, Standard Operating Procedure: A War Story, Picador, London, is also useful, and we have relied on it for a few details.

[2] Caldwell, p. 111. The email was presented in evidence at her court martial.

[3] Just Google Abu Ghraib images, or Sabrina Harman images, Lynndie Englund images, or Abu Ghraib dogs images. Do bear in mind that some of the photos that come up are the work of subsequent artists, so check the page the photo comes from.

[4] Gourevitch and Morris, p. 115.

[5] Gourevitch and Morris, p. 115.

[6] Gourevitch and Morris, pp. 115-116.

[7]   Geraldine Sealey, ‘Hersh: Children Sodomiszed at Abu Ghraib’, on tape, Salon, 15 July 2004.

[8] Caldwell, p. 175.

[9] Caldwell, p. 171.

[10] Gourevitch and Morris, p. 198.

[11] Gourevitch and Morris, pp. 200-201.

[12] Gourevitch and Morris, p. 218.

[13] Gourevitch and Morris, p. 180.

[14] Caldwell, p. 175.

[15] Caldwell, p. 176.

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