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“Some Real War Shit. … I Fucking Held the Camera”: Re-implacing Iraq in Roy Scranton’s War Porn (2016)

« Some real war shit. … I fucking held the camera » : re-localiser l’Irak dans War Porn (2016) de Roy Scranton
Barbara Kowalczuk


Prenant comme point de départ la philosophie du lieu d’Edward S. Casey (Remembering: A Phenomenological Study, 1987), cette analyse de « strange hells (columbus day, 2004) », l’une des trois sections composant War Porn de Roy Scranton (2016), examine deux formes de l’Irréparable, la torture et le viol. De retour d’Irak, l’ancien soldat de la Garde nationale Aaron Stojanowski demeure assujetti à un lieu, Camp Crawford, le centre de détention irakien où il a été le témoin mais aussi l’auteur d’actes de torture et d’humiliation. La hantise toxique de l’avoir lieu passé devient manifeste lorsque le vétéran entreprend de décrire « la vraie merde » de la guerre qu’il a photographiée. Si l’obscénité des images montrant des faits de violence extrême perpétrés contre des détenus fait écho aux violations des droits de l’homme survenues à la prison d’Abou Ghraib en 2003, pour Aaron le rapport à la « pornographie de la guerre » dépasse le cadre de la simple réminiscence : faisant acte de souvenir, il ré-expérimente le lieu passé mais ce retour, que Casey nomme re-implacing, est suivi du viol d’une femme, Dahlia. Après avoir figé les prisonniers, l’extrême violence commise en Irak s’est imposée dans la chair et la mémoire du vétéran comme un corps étranger et nuisible. Par sa représentation de la hantise de l’avoir-lieu, le texte fictionnel invite le lecteur à s’interroger sur la souffrance d’autrui et à s’engager dans une réflexion éthique et ontologique sur le droit au deuil et sur la mort « digne d’être pleurée » (« grievability », Judith Butler, Frames of War [2009]).

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Texte intégral

“Did you… torture… people?”
“Legally? […] I took pictures.”
(Scranton 311)

1On May 19, 2004, shortly after the release of the photographs taken in the Fall of 2003 by the American military police at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the French newspaper Libération published an article written by Jean Baudrillard, who reacted to

[…] the degrading images of something that is the opposite of an event, a non-event of an obscene banality, the degradation, atrocious but banal, not only of the victims, but of the amateur scriptwriters of this parody of violence. The worst is that it all becomes a parody of violence, a parody of the war itself, pornography becoming the ultimate form of the abjection of war which is unable to be simply war, to be simply about killing, and instead turns itself into a grotesque infantile reality-show, in a desperate simulacrum of power. (Scranton 86)

  • 1 According to the 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or (...)

2The infamous images of disempowered, feminized bodies and of genitalia wired to fake Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are in the same vein as war trophy photography, which Joey Brooke Jakob, linking it to commemorative violence, defines as “the result of the entwined practices of war photography and trophy collection” (Jacob 87). However, the subject of the Abu Ghraib photographs is not the enemy’s cadaver, carcass or severed body parts but the frozen-in-place Iraqi prisoners, sometimes piled up in humiliating, homosexualizing positions, forced to endure lewd poses, torture1 and/or abuse. Their corporal integrity is violated by perpetrators who are displaying their prowess with signs—postures, grins and thumbs-up gestures—that accentuate the celebration of physical and ontological collapse. The trophies, at least for some of those who took part in the “reality-show,” seem to have been the photographs themselves. Drawing an analogy between war trophy photographs, harem and lynching postcards and the Abu Ghraib images, Mary Ann Tetreault contends that the latter, before entering the public arena,

  • 2 The circulation of atrocity photographs started long before the democratization of digital camera t (...)

widened the scope of normalization as they circulated among select groups of colleagues and friends. They were “commodities” within the prison walls—one of the computers in Abu Ghraib’s office of military intelligence even used the now-famous image of naked detainees arranged in a pyramid as a screensaver […] and knowledge and stories about the photos were propagated outside Abu Ghraib as personnel cycled in and out and news about the events was shared with e-mail correspondents. (Tetreault 40)2

3It is likely that the pursuit of spectacle, combined with the intentional, unidirectional infliction of severe physical and psychological suffering, fuelled the thrill of anticipation and the photography-mediated remembrance. Abu Ghraib is a place which became an event but the meaning of this “taking place” was jeopardized, if not neutralized, by the extensive slippage from torture to torture play and by the confluence of human rights’ violations and pornography. The phrase “war pornography,” widely used in the media to describe the pictures, is itself problematic, even inadequate, for it brings forth the spectacularization perpetrated in a prison which was used as a torture-space. The ghastly “parody of violence” and the sensational simulacrum of domination, captured on cameras as a trophy would be, show torture as a diversion taking place in a dungeon/playroom.

  • 3 Margot Weiss deals extensively with this issue in an illuminating essay on sadomasochism and tortur (...)
  • 4 “Notions of obscenity frame pornography in moral terms, casting it as immoral, damaging, and involv (...)

4The label “war porn” applied to the spectacularization of dehumanized beings furthers the sense of diversion and the slide from torture to torture play as it brings to the fore sexual performances copycatting sadomasochistic iconography. Thus, the prism of pornography distorts perception: it is not content, the essence of what took place, which seems to carry weight, but form, the appearance of the event, how it was performed and represented with pathos formulas. The stress on the dramatization of eroticized brutality and the pathologization of sadomasochism3 fosters repulsion at the perpetrators’ sexual deviancy4 and overshadows horrorism, an extreme, unilateral and repugnant form of violence that, Adriana Cavarero argues, impedes reciprocity, leaves the defenseless, unarmed body reduced to a state of paralysis and “appears more inadmissible than death” (Cavarero 8).

  • 5 Hereafter called “strange hells”. The fragmented piece opens and concludes the novel (Scranton 7-35 (...)

5“Certain photographs,” Susan Sontag writes, “can be used like memento mori, as objects of contemplation to deepen one’s sense of reality; as, secular icons […]. But that would seem to demand the equivalent of a sacred or meditative space in which to look at them (Sontag 2003, 119). With “strange hells (columbus day, 2004),”5 the first of the three interrelated sections composing War Porn (2016), Iraq veteran Roy Scranton creates such a space in a work of fiction loaded with historical references that elicit reflection on reiterated acts of human violation. The piece explores the memory and the conscience of Aaron Stojanowski, a former National Guard soldier who shot torture pictures in an Iraqi detention center for insurgents and intelligence targets. Saved on a thumb drive, the photographs brought back from Camp Crawford exist not only because Aaron looked at the suffering of others but also because at some point, he must have looked ahead, or rather, looked forward to recollecting with—and maybe showing to others—the visual souvenirs of the horrorist violence he and some of the guards were repeatedly witnessing and perpetrating. The anticipated re-visitation of the past with photographs downloaded on a memory stick calls attention not only to the essence of picture-taking, the paradoxical mixture of predation and non-intervention, the possession and objectification of the subject (Sontag 2005, 8, 10, 96) but also to the playfulness and the flexibility of digital photography, which allows immediate seeing, exchange and editing.

6Unlike most post-Vietnam war and GWOT [Global War on Terror] fiction, “strange hells” does not feature the effects of combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Taking a distance from this topos in a novel “[d]edicated to the interpreters,” Scranton represents a returning National Guard soldier—or Nasty Girl in military slang—who seems to be affected neither by war trauma nor by moral injury, the psychological and spiritual harm that is experienced after one has transgressed or witnessed the transgression of one’s moral principles. Not only does Aaron ironically debunk the figure of the devastated veteran (“Yeah, well, I’m all traumatized and shit. You know what it’s like. You saw the movie” [Scranton 29]), but he also obscures the significance and the legacy of what he beheld and perpetrated overseas. Hence, his oral rendition strikingly throws light on the chasm that separates remembering past events from probing and acknowledging one’s moral failures. “[I]n remembering,” Edward Casey writes, “we can be thrust back, transported, into the place we recall. […] Rather than thinking of remembering as a form of re-experiencing the past per se, we might conceive it as an activity of re-implacing: re-experiencing past places” (Casey 2000, 201). Re-implacing relies upon the interconnection between memory and the body, the latter being the recipient of passage and anchoring: “there we were, there and nowhere else” (Casey 2000, 196). This implies a somatography influenced by “outgoing” and “incoming”: meeting a place, bearing and being shaped by the traces of the encounter (Casey 2001, 688).

  • 6 Aaron uses the word to assess the war in general: “Iraq’s a fucking disaster. The whole thing. Stay (...)
  • 7 The term was first coined by Hortense J. Spillers to address the sexualization of the black body, t (...)

7In “strange hells,” Camp Crawford, known as the Pit by the American guards, is anchored to Aaron’s memory and body. It remains there as a scene that furnishes toxic points of attachment. What Aaron exactly re-implaces and how his memories of, and insight into, the past misdeeds surface in the unsettling account will be examined in the following discussion. Specifically, the analysis will shed light on the horrorist face of violence and on the haunting impact of an irreparable disaster6 rooted in abject, sexualized dehumanization. It will consider the defenseless body undone by depravation, when “legal personhood qua self-possession” (Weheliye 39) becomes flesh, the core subject of the non-erotic grammar of pornotroping.7

Pornotroping the other: The body as terrain for horrorism

“War porn,” n: Videos, images, and narratives featuring graphic violence, often brought back from combat zones, viewed voyeuristically or for emotional gratification. Such media are often presented and circulated without context, though they may be used as evidence of war crimes.” (Scranton back cover)

8Unlike the two other storylines set in Iraq between 2003 and 2004, “strange hells” occurs in America, somewhere on the edge of Utah deserts. Aaron, who is said to have been “a little sensitive” since he came back from Iraq (Scranton 11), shows up uninvited at a barbecue organized by a young couple, Matt and Dahlia. Even though the silent, aloof veteran accompanies one of the hosts’ friends, he perceives the mixture of curiosity and suspicion his presence elicits. Later, in the middle of the night, he nevertheless decides to present the Iraq photographs to Matt (“Some real war shit […] I’ll show you the past” [Scranton 303]). When Camp Crawford appears on the computer screen, the anthropomorphic traits of the topography anticipate the wounding and the cycle of horrorism immortalized by the camera: “The first picture was of a dusty, tan-colored building looming against a bruised sky. Barbed wire coiled on the wall tops” (Scranton 306). As the prison starts being re-implaced by the veteran, Matt experiences an impression of déjà vu:

Naked men piled on top of each other.
“That’s like the photo,” Matt said.
“Yeah. That’s basically ’cause we were bored. I mean, one of our OGA [Other Government Agency] dudes came from Abu G, and he gave us guidance on a bunch of shit he said worked really well over there. Naked Dog-Pile, Electric Wire Box, Fake Menstrual Wipe, shit like that. But a lot of shit we did ’cause we were bored. I mean, plus all the normal shit, sleep deprivation, hostile environment, loud music, stress positions, beatings, immersion—you know, the basics. […] It’s surprisingly easy to drown a motherfucker.” (Scranton 318)

  • 8 Drawing upon Gérard Genette’s definition of intertextuality (Genette 2), Clément Chéroux sees inter (...)

9A human pyramid, a box, wires: this is Abu Ghraib Redux, or so it seems. The intericonicity8 at work here causes the overlapping of two distinct places in the protagonists’—and in the reader’s—memory. The truncated comparison (“like the photo”) is immediately deciphered by the veteran. The exhibition of the digital images does not prompt social memory, that is, co-remembering based on shared personal experience/history and bonding, but it confirms that Abu Ghraib, as a place and an event, belongs to, and is shared by, collective memory. Though the absence of a precise chronology excludes an accurate dating of the photographed events, the conspicuous correspondence increases the process of recognition: with each click forward drawing attention to intericonic reverberations, the veteran’s images and account come to be construed as hyper-photographs and hyper-comments which specifically mirror and resound with pre-existing, real icons and discourses. Textually sustained by the references to the “dudes” and the “kids” (Scranton 314) from “Abu G”, the effect of intericonicity is heightened by motifs that are reminiscent of the Abu Ghraib pornotropic imagery: naked and hooded men, dangling bodies, entertained grinning male and female guards, defenseless detainees stripped of their humanity and symbolically dismembered by the perpetrators.

10“It gets better,” says the enraptured veteran (Scranton 312): re-implacing engages him in the aesthetics of pornotroping and horrorist violence, thus sparking a response to the art, or rather, to the “grammar” of the pornotrope, namely the lacerations, the bleeding flesh, the handcuffed and passed out figures lying on concrete floors. Therefore, probing the magnitude of the inflicted pain is displaced by the aesthetic impact of the visual, stylistic patterns, lines, shapes that testify to the perpetrators’ and the photographer’s virtuosity: “That’s a good one. Action shots are hard. The boot’s a little blurry but you can see the impact. I like that picture. That’s a good one” (Scranton 317). Aaron looks at the pictures through a prism which distorts the significance of the past events. The pornotroped men who bear salient traces of torture are viewed as disarticulated, abstracted figures, bodyscapes framed in the close-ups and the mid-range photographs of cell bars, bruises, pools of blood. Here are the recipients of the “war shit” which, according to the veteran, resulted from the assignments given by officers:

We didn’t decide to do this shit. We didn’t ask for the torture detail. Staff Sergeant Cortázar told us to do this shit because Lieutenant Viers told him to do this shit, and Captain Weems, the company commander, told him to do this shit and so on up the fucking chain of command. Plus, our guidance with the OGA fucks was full cooperation. They say jump, we don’t ask how high, we don’t ask shit. We jump. […] Everything was verbal. […] We did what we were told to, just like those kids in Abu G. (Scranton 314)

  • 9 He recalls the predicament of the military police in Abu Ghraib: “That’s Staff Sergeant Cortázar. H (...)

11Neither moral considerations nor rationalizing the why and how of the acts is utterly displaced in the account but the unconvincing line of reasoning, betrayed by an awkward syntax (“because… and… and so on… plus”), relies upon clichéd verbal self-defense. Referring to compulsory obedience to authority (“I signed a contract. We had a job to do” [Scranton 30]), Aaron blames an unstoppable system, thus making the group of dedicated combatants, “we,” morph into helpless pull-toys.9 While he never requested “torture detail” when he was in Iraq, he now itemizes it in an inventory filled with pornographic tropes. The catalogue indicates the blurring of the line separating standard operating procedures (SOP) and the strategies described in manuals on extreme brutalization.

12Aaron describes what Elaine Scarry calls “world-destroying” methods of torture (Scarry 29). Torture can be seen as “a parallel act of deconstruction,” she writes. It imitates the destructive power of war” (Scarry 61). Such imitation relies upon inhumane coercion, sharpened by the use of objects that seem out of place: surgical gloves, scissors, chemlights stuck in the detainees’ butts, panties or bags covering faces. Torture, as a core component of horrorism, does require specific aptitudes: a peculiar sense of humor, illustrated by the photo of a laughing female guard who points at a detainee’s genitals (Scranton 317), but also techniques to cope with imperfect logistics: “I wish we’d had dogs,” Aaron complains. “Dogs would have made life so much easier. […] It’s totally easy to stress dudes with dogs, and you don’t even have to touch ’em. Dogs scare the shit out of people. Next” (Scranton 318). Stress, scare, fucking around: though euphemisms and military jargon are meant to alleviate or even negate the disgusting substance of pornotroping and racism (“‘Hadjis?’ ‘Iraqis. You get real racist over there’” [Scranton 307]), they fail to mask the very essence of torture, this “grotesque piece of compensatory drama” which creates “a fantastic illusion of power” (Scarry 28). Driven by this illusion, the guards become “anti-subjects,” individuals engaged in “violence for the sake of violence” and acts of cruelty which elicit pleasure (Wieviorka 5). By negating the social dimension of the body and dislocating the organic unity and the corporeal functions, they increase the detainees’ violability and de-subjectivization:

You keep them handcuffed like that for hours. You don’t give them water, because if you do, they have to piss and then you have to unhook them and everything and it’s a huge hassle. You don’t feed them either, because if you do that, then they have to shit. Click forward. (Scranton 313)

13Torture and abuse entail taking a place: the body of the Oriental Other is a violable and violated territory ravaged by its occupiers and hollowed out by pain-producing acts. It amounts to a hellish space of destruction, a pit within the Pit, which can be seized, disposed of or turned into a mere hole assaulted by plastic glowsticks.

Photographing horrorism

“Bam. Makes a huge impression. Next.” (Scranton 317).

  • 10 To Aaron, raping detainees is no more intrusive or excruciating than a prostate check-up (Scranton (...)

14As he re-implaces the camp, Aaron denies the perpetrators’ awful, destructive drives and presents the preparations for information sessions (Scranton 310), the stress positions (Scranton 313) and the mass techniques (Scranton 317) as mere SOP.10 Refuting any implication, the veteran symptomatically clears the remembered self: “Enhanced interrogation, technically. Whatever you want to call it, I told you, I fucking held the camera. How many times I gotta say that? Click forward” (Scranton 312, emphasis added). The repetition of “click forward” confers a particular dimension to the scene. While the instruction exposes the thrill of anticipation and the veteran’s desire to assert his singularity as a “rememberer” by sharing the digitalized photo album with a lay viewer, it also accentuates Matt’s ambivalent submission and his curiosity for war photographs, which is indicated earlier in the piece (“Maybe he’s got pictures” [Scranton 11]). The reiterated imperative form does not merely imply Aaron’s controlling position. Matt, indeed, is at liberty to take a stand for or against seeing more of the spectacularized torture, a point the veteran is quick to stress: “Nobody’s making you look. All you gotta do is pull out” (Scranton 311). The repetition of the request signals less Matt’s compliance than his cooperation: not only does he choose to continue to browse the series of images but he is also the one who runs the “show” by clicking forward to display the rest of the horrific imagery. Repulsed and secretly wishing he had not accepted to see more pictures, he nevertheless stops the veteran when the latter reaches for the memory stick and briskly backs down: “No wait […]. It’s awful, but I think I should see it. So I know what it’s like. I should know what it’s like” (Scranton 310). But Matt’s reaction is illogical, in fact, he does know what it looks like for he has already experienced a visual encounter with the repulsive. He remembers the Abu Ghraib photographs, which must have occasioned the same contradicting emotions: resistance and temptation, aversion and irresistible fascination.

15After all, the “wish to see something gruesome” and “the spirit of prurience” are not uncommon, Sontag observes, but, she adds, looking at atrocity photographs should elicit a constructive reflection upon “what it means to look at them” (Sontag 2003, 95). Yet, though the combination of horror and fascination is explicit, there is no indication in the narrative of how Matt elaborates on the ambivalence of his emotional response. “One should be obliged to think,” Sontag says (2003, 95). Surely, the contradiction between the essence of the icons and Aaron’s oral “clarification” generates a shady hiatus. In Aaron’s case, although the photographic record stimulates reminiscing (memory) and telling (language), there is a patent discrepancy, even a conflicting relationship, between the verbal and the photographic messages. As he re-experiences the past place, he insists on locating himself in the field of vision, more precisely on the edge of the scene of torture. Ironically, this way of exonerating himself through the self-portrait of a man with a camera epitomizes the duality of predation and non-intervention. During the horrorist “big show” (Scranton 317), he snapped a racialized violence which tore human beings he cannot name (“It was like Z something. Zabar… Zartan… Zazar” [Scranton 313]). The sense of belonging to the group, marked by the recurring pronoun “we” and the assumed comparison to Abu Ghraib, is intensified by the content of the last photographs, which show a cheerful Aaron with gloves on, making a peace sign, while forcing a bleeding prisoner’s head through cell bars. Contrary to the preceding pictures, the detainee and the guard are both identified in this series:

That’s the Professor. Puck [PUC: Person under control] named Qasim. […]. I remember when I came on duty, I took this picture, right, and the flash woke him up and he started babbling, my friend this and that, mistake, mistake, Mista Mista, blah blah blah […].”

16The next picture was the same, except Aaron was pulling Qasim’s head back and holding his other hand flat in a karate chop against Qasim’s neck: “That’s Judo Chop. It’s a joke we had, ‘Judo Chop. Hiyah!’ Next. […] Just this once, right, I let someone take the pictures. I mean, it wasn’t real interrogation. Just fucking around” (Scranton 321). The identification of the detainee is not incidental. The name triggers a different modality of re-implacing, whereby a past textual place is re-experienced. While Matt is once more distressed by the degree of horrorism and the suffering of yet another “fucked up” man, the reader mentally goes back to the city of Baghdad and remembers Qasim’s personal history. Narrative and biographical connections are established, but these connections are more than textual, they are also social, as they make it possible to relate the “Puck” to a human being with a past and, obviously, no future. At the end of “the fall (baghdad, 2003),” Qasim decides to leave Baghdad for home, Baqubah, to prove his relatives that he is not a coward and he reappears in “Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2004” as one of Specialist Wilson’s interpreters. When brutally interrogated by local policemen, the Iraqi had tried to imagine post-war Baghdad, “what it would be like after” (Scranton 207). There will be, one realizes, no post-war life for Qasim, no “after.” The Camp Crawford photographs represent an unarmed subject undergoing a degrading exposure to the horrorist scrutiny of the Americans, whose modus operandi entails symbolic dismembering. In the dead-end bounded by cell bars, time went by through the cycles of brutalization, leaving Qasim’s limbs and flesh in the gloved hands of dexterous guards.

  • 11 “Strange hells” presents the dark side of the “impressionism of place”: “Places come into us lastin (...)

17“It’s a weird thrill,” Aaron concedes, “having that much physical control over somebody, knowing what you’re doing. It’s…” (Scranton 322, emphasis added). Dahlia’s entrance in the room interrupts his account at a critical point, as he acknowledges his awareness of having committed transgressive acts. But the infliction of pain is simultaneously presented as addictive, sadistic self-indulgence. The ambivalence conveys a paradoxical sense of rapture and detachment amplified by the substitution of an impersonal, neutral “you” for an “I.” Aaron’s effort to distance himself from what occurred is counterbalanced by the use of the present continuous, which translates the prolonged influence of the Iraq War. Possessed by the Pit’s toxic imprint, the remembering body seems to be recharged and stirred up by the remembered body and the sexual stimulus generated by the photographed torture scenes.11

To be continued: The Spirit of Camp Crawford

“So what happens when the war comes home?” (Scranton in Plum, n.p)

  • 12 As Gaston Bachelard would put it, the Pit ‘“clings’ to its inhabitant and becomes the cell of a bod (...)

18Dahlia’s attraction to Aaron is immediate, though she is torn between wariness and temptation. When he arrives, she appraises “the electricity, the gold flecks in his green irises” (Scranton 35). The eyes, like the rest of his body, bear traces of the war experience and seem to be still connected to the electric wires used to torture the prisoners. In the middle of the night, despite her ambivalent feelings, Dahlia begs the veteran to “fuck” her and consents to be tied up (Scranton 330-331). The bedroom and Camp Crawford soon intersect as the veteran’s ruthless body language conjures up the Camp Crawford photographs. The finger that causes Dahlia’s body to tense up evokes the phallicized chemlight used to rape and humiliate one of the Iraqi detainees. The echo provokes another collision of times and places, although, at this point of the narrative, the psychological impact of what takes place is made explicit by the victim’s objections and vain attempts to stop the unwanted anal penetration. The “private show,” like the “spectacle” of torture, does not mean fucking around. Under the lingering influence of re-implacing, Aaron’s flesh is burning (Scranton 333), as if bodily memory were instinctively place-oriented, wired to the assimilated sediments of the prison, whose lingering, embedded “whole brute presence” (“how it felt to be in this presence” [Casey 2001, 688]) has generated a destructive somatography. For Aaron, re-implacing involves both return—deep mental immersion—and recurrence. The Pit is an embodied space, an Iraqi living room which dwells within the veteran and affects his enactments in the Utah bedroom.12

19The rape scene characterizes Aaron’s body as a bearer of idiolocality, i.e., a guardian whose main function is to carry “the peculiarities of place in its very flesh, keeping them there in a state of Parathaltung, a condition of readiness to reappear at the flash of a mere impression” (Casey 2001, 688-689). When the veteran’s body starts expressing the prison’s idios in the bedroom, the latter is suddenly converted into a hostile place of defilement. The distance between Iraq and Utah, atrocity and safety, non-consensual sexual coercion and lovemaking collapses with the slide from “war porn” to “homemade porn.” Camp Crawford was conceived as a playground to “fuck around,” emulate gay pornography and the dominatrix imagery of sadomasochism. The bedroom is soon deprived of its congenial atmosphere after Dahlia has asked Aaron to “fuck” her. The veteran delivers by giving a dreadful version of the “private show” he had promised her when she had insisted on seeing the images (“‘War porn […] Wanna see?’ ‘Hell yeah!’” [Scranton 322]). Like in Matt’s work zone, where the photographs were displayed, words prove to be inappropriate signifiers. In lieu of foreplay and sexual intercourse, the Utah “show” is yet another gruesome simulacrum of SM practice which includes bondage, discipline and dominance, minus the erotic roleplaying, the consent and the “relational” pain that are fundamental to sadomasochistic performances (Weiss 183):

  • 13 This passage echoes Scarry’s definition of pain: “a pure physical experience, an immediate sensory (...)

“Shush now. You know this is just what you wanted.” […] She went slack. Gray. Feeling herself rattle loose from herself, thinking: who’s this happening to—the room going out of focus, the gray fabric blurring; thinking: who decides things. Thinking: where’s Matt, and what happened, and who is this. How? Who? What’s happening and who to, yes, no. Whose body? No. Who makes choices? No. It’s not me. Not mine. No. No. (Scranton 333)13

20The repetitive fragments and the missing interrogation marks underline Dahlia’s undoing and traumatization. The epilogue of “strange hells” climaxes with this scene, which further stresses the pathologization of re-implacing and the haunting incoming of Camp Crawford, now “taking place” in an endless present continuous.

  • 14 Sontag notes that “[h]arrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock” and “haunt (...)

21What could be perceived in the images—shock, dissociation of the self and unbearable suffering—is explicitly articulated at the end of the section to underpin once and for all the irony of the novel’s titillating, supposedly programmatic title. It would be inappropriate, though, to consider that, unlike narratives, images are deprived of any epistemological power and cannot trigger understanding and empathy.14 Aaron shows unambiguous Iraq pictures, yet his description aims at disguising the subjects of the photographs to lead the viewer astray. It is the textual mosaic, the play on disparities and similarities, the contrast between denaturing reminiscences, graphic violence, echoes and suggestive silence which suck us out of the shallow surface of Pornland and into the profound, harrowing reality of horrorism. The “homemade porn” passage is interrupted by a blank space and three gray squares, the same color as the fabric of the comforter. The narrative, like the victim, is gagged; the elision prevents us from further looking at and looking with yet another pornotroped human being. The typographic blankness constitutes a specular space where the violated bodies gather.

22The rape scene is not meant to sustain the kind of sexual excitement pornography, literally, “writing about prostitutes,” may procure through performances with a purpose (arousal) and an effect (release). Characterized by artificiality and play-acting, pornography typically represents hyper-sexualization and hyper-objectified bodies and genitalia. However, both in Camp Crawford and in the Utah bedroom, acting out supersedes play-acting, which entails moral, existential consequences and collateral damage. The prisoners stripped of their identity and integrity mingle with Dahlia in the narrative. The blank spaces, Aaron’s unsaid truths and the textual breaks make a place for the injured bodies, which, beyond their constitutive vulnerability, should be considered as “injurable” or “lose-able”, to borrow Judith Butler’s terms (Butler 1). The juxtaposition of torture and rape exposes how the art of pornotroping and the horrorist cross-fertilization of cruelty and sexual brutality de-body the subject. This de-bodiment creates a seizable territory where dehumanization and ontological disintegration take place. The analogy between the dehumanization of Qasim and the anonymous detainees and the undoing of Dahlia calls for the ethical acknowledgment of suffering, of what can be done when the defenseless, objectified body experiences the negative and dark side of vulnerability, not caring but its opposite: extreme wounding. For the perpetrator, there is no body, no grievability of life, of a life “that matters,” as Butler would say (Butler 14): “Without grievability,” she writes, “there is no life, or, rather, there is something living that is other than life. Instead, ‘there is a life that will never have been lived,’ sustained by no regard, no testimony, and ungrieved when lost” (Butler 15). Though the reader’s response will depend on various, interrelated factors, such as socio-cultural upbringing, morality and ethics, the fictional representation (and re-presentation) of horrorist violence does not fail to question the trivialization of degrading coercion. It constitutes a symbolical and a social place to investigate the ethics of the gaze and the emotional gratification that may be provided by the production and the reception of “war porn.”

23The crucial achievement of “strange hells” is how it provokes dissociation from spectacularization by throwing light on the unsuitable equations of war with torture, of torture with torture play, and, finally, of human rights’ violations with pornography. These equations create “non-events,” they facilitate looking away, which is tantamount to retreating from ethical engagement. The effectiveness of the textual representation of non-consensual suffering and cruelty relies on, and is haunted by, the suggestive title and the definition of “war porn” given on the back cover of the paperback edition. Both form a programmatic framework meant to orient the reader’s anticipations. Crucially, what sort of expectations arises is clearly not an insignificant detail. Scranton plays with the effect of curiosity: first, by framing the novel in the context of pornography with a titillating paratext, then, by crafting narrative tension through a non-linear chronology and a fragmented structure which postpone the “striptease” of the body text. When the latter finally bares the overwhelming experience of “war porn,” it becomes clear that capitalizing on the pornographic gaze and the potential erotic essence of the forbidden—the fantasies, pleasure and/or disturbance it may breed—is actually the starting point for reflection and introspection. What sort of hopes, desires, repulsion or even uncertainties does the phrase “war porn” arouse?

  • 15 On the resemblance of motifs and subjects, see Stephen Eisenman (60-72).

24What takes place, in the end, is an encounter with the rawness of a narrative which, like pictures (Mitchell), wants something. It wants to unmask spectacularization and make the reader scratch the surface. More specifically, it wants to provoke a fundamental meta-response that should transcend desensitization. Such response investigates the ethics, not only of picture-taking, but also of sharing, representing and seeing the suffering of others. It implies examining one’s stance on horrorism and on a theatricalized infliction of pain reminiscent of visual and literary artworks which, for centuries now, have represented through pathos formulas the spectacularity of extreme violence, bodily domination and agony.15

“Events are places and vice versa”16

  • 16 Ethington 483.

What is a life? (Butler 1).

  • 17 To quote Butler: “[T]he frames through which we apprehend or, indeed, fail to apprehend the lives o (...)

25From the dangling forms photographed in Iraq to Dahlia’s disorientation and traumatic fixation on the grayness of the comforter, “strange hells” presents a challenging answer to the epistemological vacuum Matt exposes in the early hours of the barbecue: “I mean, all we know is what they show us on TV, right? I mean, we don’t even know. I can’t even imagine […] and I’m just wondering, is it really like how they say?” (Scranton 28). Beyond the craving for images and the compulsion to see more of the arcane sides of war, what eventually matters is apprehending what a life really is, regarding life as a life.17 While War Porn underlines that moral justification cannot be applied to acts of torture, it also calls for restoring the wounded flesh of the defenseless. Flesh is the “primary narrative,” it comes before the body (Spillers 67). Scranton succeeds in such restoration by shaping a body text which releases interrogations related to the ethical integrity of perpetrators and the legitimacy of institutional and military plans that fail to clearly distinguish horrorism from war. The first part of “strange hells” highlights the danger of ignorance and its focal point goes beyond individual moral failures to include collective memory and ephemeral concern: “Aren’t you ashamed?,” one of the protagonists, Mel, asks. She blames the veteran for having fought in an “illegal war that kills thousands of innocent people—for college money—” (Scranton 31): “You know it’s illegal, but you do it anyway. People die and you don’t even fucking care. You could’ve not gone” (Scranton 30). Aaron comes to be assimilated to criminals from another era:

Loads of German soldiers were just doing their jobs. Loads of German people were just doing what they were told. They all thought it made sense, they all thought what they did was fucking justified, but it wasn’t. They don’t get to say it’s okay. It’s like that Eichmann book, man. Evil is evil. […] I can’t fucking believe I’m fucking sitting here with a fucking American Nazi I don’t know what, and everybody’s like, ‘Play nice, Mel. Lay off, Mel.’ Like it doesn’t fucking matter. Fucking sheeple. This is why. This is why. (Scranton 31-32)

26Ironically, the lecture is given by the daughter of a traumatized former helicopter mechanic in the Vietnam War who belongs to a generation of troopers contested, spat at and called “baby killers” by antiwar civilians and activists. Retrospectively, it becomes crystal-clear that the veteran’s account is foreshadowed by this one-dimensional antiwar discourse which conflates the Iraq War with organized mass murder. Though the historical shortcut is disputable, the allusion to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) comes along with a befitting statement—“Evil is evil”—which haunts the end of “strange hells.” Aaron, the “fascist puke” (Scranton 33), the “Rambo fucking Himmler” (Scranton 325), did not perpetrate or witness a “word-and-thought-defying” banality of evil (Arendt 252). He tries to mitigate his ghastly account by insisting on the fact that, as far as he was concerned, there was neither absolute disengagement from the perpetration of the Irreparable nor thoughtlessness or “lack of imagination” (Arendt 287-288):

But if I had a problem with what was going on—which I did, of course, I’m a red-blooded American, right?—then the time for me to address that was before I fucking did it, before it got done, or at the very least while it was happening. Not afterwards. Not later. Not now. […] If it was wrong, it was wrong. But I did it. Nothing can change that. Click forward” (Scranton 315, emphasis added).

27The veteran’s body and verbal language proves the plaguing penetration of the Pit, its venomous corporal and psychological dissemination. Yet, to Aaron, the evil of Camp Crawford remains an “if-event,” even though, only a few minutes before raping Dahlia, he voices his disorientation in post-war life, where, again and again, he re-experiences the hellish past place, escorted by its commanding ghosts: “Everything seemed changed. Unfamiliar. Disconnected. […] It’s hard to see what really matters now” (Scranton 328).

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Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Bacon Press, 1994.

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Eisenman, Stephen. The Abu Ghraib Effect. London: Reaktion Books, 2007.

Ethington, Philip J. “Placing the Past: ‘Groundwork’ for a Spatial Theory of History.” Rethinking History. The Journal of Theory and Practice 11.4 (Dec. 2007): 465-493.

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Paasonen, Susanna. Carnal Resonance: Affect and Online Pornography. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011.

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1 According to the 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment “the term ‘torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions” (

2 The circulation of atrocity photographs started long before the democratization of digital camera technology, as historian and theorist of the media arts Douglas Kahn points out: “There are shoe boxes stuck in attics and closets all across America right now filled with what really went on in Vietnam. […] I grew up in a military town where, during high school in the late 1960s, I saw numerous snapshots of necromutilations, of Vietcong beheaded with their cocks coming out of their mouths, brought back by older brothers of students. These were secretly passed from one person to the next in the same manner as pornographic playing cards and other taboo photos” (in Sturken 92).

3 Margot Weiss deals extensively with this issue in an illuminating essay on sadomasochism and torture. “The photographic representation in Abu Ghraib,” she writes, “effectively transforms a political real—torture—into a safe, sexual fantasy. [T]he Abu Ghraib photographs close off a social or political response to torture by instead adhering attention to the surface spectacle of individual pathology” (Weiss 181).

4 “Notions of obscenity frame pornography in moral terms, casting it as immoral, damaging, and involving “prurient” (impure, lascivious, vulgar, bawdy) interests” (Paasonen 50). On the erotic dimension of the Abu Ghraib photographs, see Alfred W. McCoy (109-141).

5 Hereafter called “strange hells”. The fragmented piece opens and concludes the novel (Scranton 7-35; 291-334). In addition to six poetic interludes entitled “babylon”, War Porn includes two other storylines: both “your leader will control your fire (operation iraqui freedom, 2003)” and “your leader will control your fire (operation iraqi freedom, 2004)” focus on Specialist Wilson’s tour in Iraq (Scranton 43-126; 233-284); “the fall (baghdad, 2003)” presents the early days of the war and the dilemmas faced by an Iraqi math teacher, Qasim al-Zabadi (Scranton 133-226).

6 Aaron uses the word to assess the war in general: “Iraq’s a fucking disaster. The whole thing. Staying’s a disaster. Leaving’s a disaster. It’s a fucking shithole. And it doesn’t matter what the fuck we think about it, because the guys who run shit don’t give a rat’s ass what people like you and me think. Or do. Or say” (Scranton 29).

7 The term was first coined by Hortense J. Spillers to address the sexualization of the black body, the construction of gender in the African-American community and the distinction between “flesh” (captive subject-position) and “body” (liberated subject-position). Referring to the socio-political order of the New World, she contends that the captive body expresses “otherness.” It “reduces to a thing, becoming being for the captor […], translates into a potential for pornotroping and embodies sheer physical powerlessness” (Spillers 67). On the “grammar of the pornotrope” and “becoming-flesh,” see also Alexander G. Weheliye (“Depravation: Pornotropes” [89-112]).

8 Drawing upon Gérard Genette’s definition of intertextuality (Genette 2), Clément Chéroux sees intericonicity as the implied and perceived relationship between images.

9 He recalls the predicament of the military police in Abu Ghraib: “That’s Staff Sergeant Cortázar. He took us aside after Abu G broke and—this conversation never officially happened, realize—and told us that because of one stupid shit, because of that blue falcon Joe Darby who turned in the photos, a whole bunch of good soldiers who did their jobs, who were doing what they were told, were now getting totally fucked by the system. It wasn’t their commanders getting punished, […] it was the men and women doing their jobs” (Scranton 313-314).

10 To Aaron, raping detainees is no more intrusive or excruciating than a prostate check-up (Scranton 311-312): “[…] the hadjis don’t know how the chemicals work so they freak the fuck out. But like I said, they’re not that big, so as long as you don’t tense up, it’s not painful” (Scranton 311).

11 “Strange hells” presents the dark side of the “impressionism of place”: “Places come into us lastingly; once having been in a particular place for any considerable time—or even briefly, if our experience there has been intense—we are forever marked by that place, which lingers in us indefinitely and in a thousand ways […]. [T]he presence of a place remains lodged in our body long after we have left it; this presence is held within the body in a virtual state, ready to be revived when the appropriate impression or sensation arises” (Casey 2001, 688).

12 As Gaston Bachelard would put it, the Pit ‘“clings’ to its inhabitant and becomes the cell of a body with its walls close together” (Bachelard 46).

13 This passage echoes Scarry’s definition of pain: “a pure physical experience, an immediate sensory rendering of ‘against,’ of something being against one, and of something one must be against. Even though it occurs within oneself, it is at once identified as ‘not oneself,’ ‘not me,’ as something so alien that it must be right now be gotten rid of” (Scarry 52).

14 Sontag notes that “[h]arrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock” and “haunt us” (Sontag 2003, 89). She adds, though, that pictures “are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can make us understand” (Sontag 2003, 89). This narrow judgement of the (supposed) limited power of images is mitigated in “Regarding the Torture of Others”: “[w]ords alter, words add, words subtract […] photographs have laid down the tracks of how important conflicts are judged and remembered. The Western memory museum is now mostly a visual one. Photographs have an insuperable power to determine what we recall of events, and it now seems probable that the defining association of people everywhere with the war that the United States launched pre-emptively in Iraq last year will be photographs of the torture of Iraqi prisoners by Americans in the most infamous of Saddam Hussein’s prisons, Abu Ghraib” (Sontag 2004, 25).

15 On the resemblance of motifs and subjects, see Stephen Eisenman (60-72).

16 Ethington 483.

17 To quote Butler: “[T]he frames through which we apprehend or, indeed, fail to apprehend the lives of others as lost or injured (lose-able or injurable) are politically saturated. They are themselves operations of power. They do not unilaterally decide the conditions of appearance but their aim is nevertheless to delimit the sphere of appearance itself. On the other hand, the problem is ontological, since the question at issue is: What is a life?” (Butler 1).

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Barbara Kowalczuk, « “Some Real War Shit. … I Fucking Held the Camera”: Re-implacing Iraq in Roy Scranton’s War Porn (2016) »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 27 | 2019, mis en ligne le 25 décembre 2019, consulté le 02 octobre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Barbara Kowalczuk

Bordeaux University (CLIMAS EA 4196)
Barbara Kowalczuk holds a PhD from Bordeaux Montaigne University (Tim O’Brien. L’Écriture de la hantise/Writing on What Haunts). She has published peer-reviewed articles in edited collections and journals such as War, Literature and the Arts (WLA), PsyArt and Sillages Critiques. Her research focuses on American literature and visual arts (19th-21st centuries). She explores moral injury, war trauma, war ethics and the anthropology of war violence, as well as the accountability of perpetrators.

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